Storytelling helps leaders navigate choppy waters of constant change

A collaboratively constructed and authentic company narrative engages, motivates and inspires colleagues and customers alike, says Alison Esse, co-founder and director of The Storytellers

The turbulent, traumatic and epochal events of last year forced every leader to begin a new chapter in their career. For the vast majority of those at the helm, presented with choppy waters in uncharted territory, 2020 precipitated seismic transformation, both personally and for their business.

The leaders who have best navigated the waves of change collaborated, connected and communicated with their people, displaying empathy and authenticity.

For millennia, sharing experiences through storytelling has been central to the human understanding of life’s workings and has guided the way for billions of people. In the post-coronavirus wash-up – a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment – storytelling has never been more critical for leaders to build organisational resilience in the face of constant change.

Indeed, a carefully constructed, authentic change narrative can be highly effective in engaging, motivating and inspiring colleagues, customers, investors and other stakeholders.

Unlike the binary response typically produced by sharing data, the telling of a story lights up several areas of the listener’s brain, releasing chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, which heighten feelings of empathy and a sense of involvement, as if we are participating in the story ourselves. This emotional response can help leaders build trust with their teams and enhance the positive sense of “being in this together”.

Harnessing such emotions to communicate a business’s strategy and vision enables the workforce to open up their minds to be receptive, feel empowered and understand the valuable part they can play in the journey.

Ultimately, a good business story is about shared ownership

You might have a winning strategy, but if you can’t articulate the proposed direction of travel, and therefore bring your people along, then it counts for nothing. It is now imperative for leaders to win hearts and minds, build trust, and craft meaning and purpose for their workforce, many of whom now work remotely.

Evolution of leadership

Winning hearts and minds is notoriously challenging, though. Expert storytelling makes the process significantly easier. The chaos wrought by coronavirus necessitated the acceleration of several trends, many of them catapulting both people and businesses into the digital era. Initially, almost everyone was shunted out of their comfort zone. But progressive and enlightened leaders, who were already embracing agile working and collaborative decision-making, were able to better cope with the speed of change.

Understandably, a collaborative approach is trickier with a dispersed workforce. However, a leader’s shift in mindset, democratising decisions and admitting “I don’t have all the answers”, all driven by a cohesive narrative in the business, will catalyse a thriving workplace culture.

Ultimately, a good business story is about shared ownership. The more engaged employees are from the outset, the more they will want to shape how the narrative lives and breathes within an organisation. They are more likely to want to drive that change and influence the outcome, and it will unleash an energy and passion across the business. A happier, motivated workforce equals increased productivity.

If people can’t empathise with the change demanded of them, and they can’t see the role they are going to play in that journey, they feel victims of change. A business story provides an opportunity for the workforce to feel heroic. Once the story’s framework has been established, all those little successes can, and should, be celebrated and enrich the narrative.

Unique opportunity to rethink your story

In 2021, inspirational leadership is a core requirement for high-performing businesses. Moreover, storytelling has become a recognised skill for leaders in organisations worldwide and every industry sector.

To attract and retain talent, and customers, leaders must be authentic, empowering, collaborative, involving, open to ideas and encouraging dialogue within their teams to solve complex problems and share best practice. They must be willing to change and go the extra mile to achieve key business objectives.

While storytelling has been an essential part of human development for thousands of years, the ways in which stories are told has multiplied. The Storytellers have enjoyed superb results, for example from their visual storytelling and in-person immersive events and innovative virtual sessions.

Whatever way the story is presented, the events of 2020 have provided a unique opportunity for businesses to rework or even completely rethink their story and refocus their purpose. Determining the narrative that will glue everything and everyone in the organisation together should be a top priority for all leaders to help navigate the choppy waters of constant change.

Science behind a story

The way in which a story is told has an immediate effect on the limbic side of the brain, the area that control emotions, memories and arousal. In business we tend to communicate in a way that lacks humanity, sharing data and abstract information through corporate jargon, which is often uninspiring, difficult to remember, dry and abstract.

When told, a story, however, lights up several areas of the brain. These areas control movement, language processing, imagination and colour. The empathy-inducing chemicals dopamine and oxytocin are released, and the listener is paying attention and therefore far more likely to remember what they’ve heard. Further, they are far more likely to be receptive to the call to action and be influenced by the outcome of endeavours of fellow humans.

Humans crave meaning to help us make sense of the world. This meaning is produced through language, human interaction and agreed understandings, connections between important events and circumstances that shape our perceptions.

Power of a story: case studies

The Storytellers, London-based storytelling and business transformation specialists operating globally, have helped more than 180 major organisations all over the world accelerate change and transformation through narrative.

Demand for story-driven change programmes has significantly increased during the last year and the impact on business performance has been profound. Here are two recent case studies:

Phoenix Group As chief executive of the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement business, Andy Briggs knew Phoenix Group needed to shift from being seen as mainly a closed life and pension funds consolidator to being recognised as a leading, purpose-driven, open business in the retirement and savings sector, helping people secure a lifetime of possibilities. The Storytellers co-created an overarching strategic narrative to articulate the new vision, and this has triggered a 20 per cent increase in employee advocacy and engagement for Phoenix Group. Briggs says The Storytellers’ culture change project is “one of the best pieces of work of its kind”.

ADP UK Jeff Phipps, managing director, was similarly glowing in his verdict of The Storytellers, who worked with him to build a simple, clear and compelling narrative that provided a meaningful context and rationale for the business strategy and how every employee could make a difference. One year on from the launch event, ADP reported a 11 per cent increase in employee engagement, while the organisation saw a 48 per cent increase in its net promoter score, reversing a declining trend.

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