Using progress stories to build hope

We ran a free webinar on Response Stories on the 27th of May. To access the recording, click here

Mark Schenk recently introduced us to the response story, which helps leaders set out where their organisation is headed and why it’s going there. It provides clarity and calm in times of turmoil.

All your top leaders should be telling the same response story; not verbatim but recognisably similar.

But it’s not the only story pattern they should be sharing. When your employees are uncertain, even anxious, they need hope. And hope springs from examples of where things are heading in the right direction. In the direction shared in the response story.

I’m advocating that leaders tell progress stories.

Progress Stories

It’s hard to get a clear insight into what a large group of employees is thinking and feeling, especially over time. But that’s what Harvard professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer were able to do when they conducted a lengthy investigation into the inner work life—the thoughts and feelings we have about our work and colleagues that set our mood and level of engagement.1 They investigated 238 people in 26 project teams across seven companies. Each day the researchers emailed a short survey to the employees that asked them to rate their mood and feelings. The employees were also asked to ‘briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind’, which they were encouraged to do by sharing a short anecdote. Over a couple of months, the researchers collected nearly 12,000 anecdotes, and, in them, they discovered what they called ‘the progress principle’.

We all know from our own experiences that each day we’re boosted by a complex set of small wins, recognition, respect, connections with our group, and improvement in our skills. We also have setbacks, and these negative events often overwhelm the positive ones. Yet, of all the influences on our daily outlook and inner work life, Amabile and Kramer found that the most significant was making progress in meaningful work. When managers are asked what things they might do to engage and motivate their employees, highlighting the progress being made rarely gets a mention. But this can make a significant difference to a team’s productivity.

One of your jobs as a leader should be to find and share these stories of progress, to make apparent what largely remains invisible to most of your people. Just talking to employees about this will give them the strong sense that you care about what they do. It will also help you keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your area.

Finding Progress Stories

To get these progress stories, you can give each individual in your team the daily task of briefly describing one event that helped them to make progress that day. You can then share them in team meetings. Progress stories will give you a far greater insight into the health of your team and your project than the standard around-the-table project update.

At Anecdote, we use Basecamp to manage our projects, and we run a rolling sequence of six-week sprints to get our work done. Basecamp enables us to set up automatic check-ins. Each Friday at 2:00 pm we ask everyone, “Briefly describe one event from this week that stands out in your mind.” Like Amabile and Kramer, we are sharing progress stories and, in turn, building hope.

Again, you can click here to access the recording of our Response Story webinar. 

Part of this blog post is an excerpt from Callahan, Shawn. 2016. Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling(Pepperberg Press: Melbourne, Australia).

1Amabile, Teresa, and Steven Kramer. 2011. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press: Boston).

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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