Embed a new way of thinking with stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 11, 2017
Filed in Business storytelling, Culture, Leadership Posts

As I have said before, if you want to change a work culture, you need to change the stories that are told about it. But I’ve never been a fan of the single-story approach to change. Personally, I can’t think of a time when just one amazing story transformed a company. (Some have even gone so far as to say that a single story is dangerous.) In actual fact, change happens when lots of people find and tell many stories that reinforce a new way of acting.

As you well know, we teach story skills in our training programs. But story skills only get you part of the way. You also need a story process. That is, for real change, leaders – in the broadest sense of the term – need a way to find and share stories systematically.

There is a range of good story processes that companies can adopt to embed stories. This can be done at the company-wide level, much like Ritz-Carlton has done to reinforce a culture of exemplary customer service. Or we can zoom right into a simple process for a single leader. That’s what I would like to do here.

A simple story process for embedding new behaviours

So imagine you want to play your part in a cultural shift you’re helping to make happen at work. Your company might want to encourage a high-performance culture, a high-safety culture, or perhaps a customer-centric culture. Whatever the desired behaviours and beliefs, it helps if concrete examples (stories) are used to show people what’s really needed and what they need to do. Hearing stories about how people are already living this new culture is also highly motivating, as influence psychologist Robert Cialdini showed us 20 years ago.

OK, here’s what you do. Let’s imagine you want to enhance your workplace safety culture.

Week 1

Find a story that illustrates the new behaviours you want to see (there is a whole chapter on story finding in my book Putting Stories to Work). This will require you to get out of your office and talk to your colleagues. Shock horror! 🙂

Ask questions that will get stories, such as: ‘When was the last time you saw someone make a difference to workplace safety around here?’ ‘When’ and ‘where’ questions are great for eliciting stories. (Here is an ebook we wrote on story-eliciting questions.) Then, when you hear a great story, ask the teller or the person it’s about if they are OK with you retelling it.

This process of talking to people and finding stories will have the secondary benefit of really connecting you to the business.

Week 2

Tell that story. Tell it in as many different places as you can. Before you start doing this, though, ensure you know what the point of the story is, as you will need to first share the point and then follow it with the story.

Also in week 2, find another story that illustrates workplace safety.

Week 3 …

Rinse and repeat.

Embed a new way of thinking

Committing to the process

This simple process will ensure you always have new stories to tell (no-one likes to hear the same story over and over again) while you are reinforcing workplace safety, or whatever culture change theme you are pursuing.

Other benefits of this approach include people getting the message that you are out and about in the company, and that you care about your colleagues enough to listen to their stories and retell them.

Like any good process, this one only works if it’s applied consistently and continuously. And you can’t just wish for this to happen. To increase your chances of success, you might want to tell your peers about your plan to find and retell stories each week, and commit publicly to doing this for, say, four weeks to begin with.

Then, as you see that people are really listening to what you’re saying, and even retelling your stories, you’ll be motivated to commit for another four weeks, then four months, and beyond.

To be an effective business storyteller requires practice. Learn more about our training programs here

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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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