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How to double productivity by sharing stories of purpose

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 25, 2013
Filed in Anecdotes

Business decision making

Back in 2008 Wharton School professor, Adam Grant (author of one of my favourite books, Give and Take), conducted a fascinating experiment that highlighted how important it is to be reminded of your purpose.

He was working with a call centre that raised funds for a university. He divided the call centre into three groups. Group 1 were reminded (using two stories) of the benefits of the job; how working there could benefit their own lives. Group 2 were reminded (also with two stories) of the impact their fund-raising was having on benefactors; how their work benefited the lives of others. Group 3 was the control, they received no intervention.

A month after the intervention the study found that people in Groups 1 and 3 showed no change in the number of donations or the amount of donation raised. Group 2, however, more than doubled the average number of donations (9 to 23) and the donation size ($1,288 to $3,130).

It’s easy to get bogged down in the doing and forget our purpose. And as you can see from Grant’s research significant productivity improvements can come just by reminding people why they are doing what they are doing.

It’s worth noting that these benefits come from sharing stories rather than merely passing on a point of view or a set of facts as dot points. The stories help people feel the impact they’re making.

Grant stopped after a month. In organisations we need to continue the process and embed the story sharing into day-to-day activities.

For example Apple stores embed customer service know-how by sharing a story of exceptional service every morning in their pre-opening staff huddle. It’s done in a subtle way without even mentioning stories explicitly. On the previous day they run a random net promoter score survey of customers. Any employee who gets a 10 out of 10 is recognised in the huddle with the simple request to describe what happened to get the 10. A story is naturally told. Everyone gets a concrete example of what it takes to get a 10 and also sees how much it is valued by management and their peers.

One-off storytelling has impact for sure. But systemic, repeated storytelling changes behaviour and creates deep capabilities.

Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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