The Value of Storytelling in Organizational Change

Storytelling is a valuable tool in your change communication toolkit

Recently on a rainy weekend I treated myself to a novel. I read Diane Morris’s latest book Cousin AnneAlmost instantaneously I was transported back to 19th century England and immersed in the life of Anne deBourgh. As I joined Anne in her quest to meet the expectations of being a woman at that time with her desire to do more than was expected, I forgot all about the bad weather outside my window.

That’s the power of a good story—to transport you someplace you’ve never been. It lets you experience something as if you are actually there. Leaders throughout history have long known the power of stories to inspire, motivate and move people to achieve things they never believed they were capable of achieving.

Today in the name of efficiency, leaders are overlooking conversation and thus story telling as an important and useful method of communication. In a world of email, text messaging and other instant communication tools the emphasis is on just getting the information out there, and less on the way people learn and make sense of the information they do receive. This is a big mistake.

Conversation is the most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit–for growth, leadership, and definitely for change. It’s also one of the most undervalued and as a result under used. Story telling is a key component of conversation.

In business, there is a tendency to think of storytelling as frivolous, or wasting time. Yet, stories are the basis of everything we do. What your organization accomplishes, or doesn’t accomplish is grounded in the stories that are told. Whether it’s the story of how you pulled a failing area out of the fire to recapture your market share, how the new CEO is shaping the organization, or what your employees’ really believe about the company values—stories are shaping and reshaping your business everyday.

It’s easy to think when making a decision based on numbers and hard data there is no place for storytelling. The reality is, that it’s the story that allows us to remember and make the data meaningful. Annette Simmons, author of the Story Factor, states, “Stories are how our brain codes what’s important. Nothing is meaningful or relevant, but for the stories we tell ourselves about it.”

The stories you, your managers, and employees tell influence the success of your change efforts

Several years ago while I was renewing my car insurance a customer service clerk shared his story about an ongoing organizational change. As I listened to him tell his story three thoughts went through my mind. My first thought was empathy for the clerk’s frustration and stress he was feeling. He believed the change was unnecessary, added no value to me as a customer, and that it was being implemented badly. My second thought was the basis for clerk’s story. I wondered what information the clerk had received, or not received that resulted in his story. Finally I thought about the difference between the clerk’s story and the leaders who had initiated the change. I wondered, would they tell the same story? I suspected they would not.

The entire experience also reinforced the importance of giving employees the time and opportunity to internalize what is happening. Through the internalization process they move beyond just simply being informed of the organization’s decision to make a change, knowledge of its implementation, and the training schedule—they recreate the story so that it makes sense and becomes their own. When leaders give employees the time and opportunity for this internalization they can tap into a natural process and set their initiative up for success.

Storytelling is a necessary part of the internalization process. Through the story we create about the change we make both an intellectual and emotional connection with the information. The emotional element is necessary for change. Change is an emotional experience based in logic. Through our conversations we create the stories that allow us to interpret, shape or reshape and make sense of our situation [1].    

Ironically leaders who don’t allocate their employees the time or opportunity to create and re-create the story of the change don’t avoid the storytelling. The process occurs naturally. Unfortunately, like my experience with the customer service clerk, the story may not be one that supports the change effort, or aligns with the leader’s story of change.

A powerful story can also build commitment and maintain momentum, even after the leader who initiated the change has left the organization. Researchers looking at the power of storytelling recount the CEO of a large college who created a process of story telling that engaged senior management and other employees in a network that would see change and enable the vision to be realized. Through this process of story telling people created, told and retold their own versions of the stories. This allowed the employees to internalize the change. The stories enabled the change to continue and the vision to be realized even after the CEO had left the organization. Through the process of storytelling the vision had transformed from the CEO’s vision to being the vision of everyone in the organization.[2]

Stories are also a useful diagnostic tool, and play a key role in decision-making. When you actively listen to the stories being told throughout your organization you can gain a deeper understanding of a situation. You also gain insight into what is influencing, shaping and guiding the behaviours and activities of your employees. I will often ask leaders, “What’s the buzz you are hearing about the changes you are implementing?”

Your organization has a grapevine, and the way you communicate will determine whether your grapevine supports or inhibits your change efforts. Storytelling can help you build a healthy grapevine. Stephen Denning writes you can’t control the stories that are being told but you can ensure that your story is out there, and that it offers a reasonable, believable, and trusted alternative to the rumours and inaccuracies of the grapevine. When people ask me, “How do I deal with the naysayers during change?” My response is have more conversation, with more people, and more often. Ensure people know your story, can share their story, and together create the story of the changes your organization needs to make.

Storytelling is not a silver bullet

Storytelling has a useful and important role in your organizational change efforts, but it’s not a silver bullet. On its own it will not carry a change initiative to new steady state.

It’s also both simple and complex at the same time. At the simplest level a story is an example that is relevant to the audience, true, evokes a clear image and taps into the emotional context of the situation. However, using it well in your organization takes effort. It requires more than simply throwing a few examples into a power point presentation, and it’s not just about telling one story and you’re done. Using story telling requires planning, commitment and courage. You need to be willing to engage emotionally and intellectually in the conversations that create stories and move with them as they evolve.

Sometimes storytelling gets misconstrued as spin. Leaders will ask me, “How do I spin this so it’s…?”  Story telling doesn’t mean spin. Spinning a situation never works. For storytelling to enable successful and sustainable change the stories must be true, realistic, relevant to the situation, and told by respected and trusted people.

Building stories into your change leadership

It can initially seem a little daunting if you have never used storytelling as part of your communication efforts. Here are three actions that can help you integrate stories into your communication efforts.

  1. Actively listen (without judgment) to the conversations employees and leaders are having about change in your organization, including its history with change. What are the stories within these conversations? What keeps them alive? Do the employees tell different stories about your change initiatives than the leaders? Why?
  2. Stop relying on passive communication like email to carry your message. Switch to active communication. Conversation is the most natural form of active communication. When we engage with people through conversation we naturally use stories.
  3. Create the time and opportunity for people to participate in the change conversations. Help them frame and reframe to create the stories that will allow them to internalize, and make the change meaningful to them.

What is your organizational change story?

 [1] Turner, DM (2015). Launch Lead Live: The executive’s guide to preventing resistance and succeeding with organizational change

[2] Macaulay, D., Yue, A., & Thurlow, A. (2010). Ghosts in the hallways: Unseen actors and organizational change Journal of Change Management, 10(4), 335-346.

This article has been previously published on Dr. Turner’s website, and is reprinted with permission.

© 2016, Dr. Dawn-Marie Turner. All rights reserved.

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