I will always remember the story that my grandfather has told me to describe the moment he met my grandmother. Love at first sight he describes it to be: the initial spark, the butterflies in his stomach, and the immediate feeling that she must be the one. His choice of words expressed passion and dedication to see my grandmother once more. His facial expressions revealed his love and appreciation for this moment. His soft tone communicated the purity of his feelings and the joy it brought into his life. He painted a lovely image of what this moment meant to him, and it’s these pictures that linger on my mind whenever I’m asked to describe a beautiful love story. Stories leave a special mark in our hearts; they impact us in subtle ways, connecting us to our surroundings and reminding us of what’s valued in life.
Nowadays, organisations are viewed as “living systems:” open structures made up of people, centred around the idea of growth and change being key components in organisational life. Recognizing this human, alive element of organisations helps to remind us that businesses are dynamic, responsive to their environment and the forces acting within it. Businesses are living in a time where increased competition, uncertainty, and change are more common than ever. With such changes constantly occurring, it is crucial to assure that employees remain motivated and satisfied at work. As a result, an effective leader is required to be able to manoeuvre in such social and economic circumstances.
How can leaders be effective? One strategy of interest is this idea of storytelling. For as long we can remember, stories have been used to pass a long wisdom and knowledge. Before the technology era, we relied on stories to understand and make sense of the world we live in. Stories were used as a method to keep generations of people in touch with their ancestors and cultural roots. Bed-time stories, fables, and fairy tales are among the many forms of stories used historically and even today to shed light on the important lessons of life. By transporting listeners to a different world, life messages were clarified, taught, and simplified. What makes these stories so special, you might ask? It’s the power of human connection that enchants listeners. Stories touch upon emotions in ways that data or statements could never elicit.
Leaders are best portrayed as “managers of meaning,” since they are the individuals that enable the vision and value system at work. They are best able to set a pathway for their employees with clear expectations to effectively direct the company. By using stories, leaders can further define the company’s vision and principles, which are then passed along the organisation timelessly, creating a collective business identity and enforcing a common language for all employees to use. Leaders are also seen as role-models at work; managers who role-model and use storytelling will create tremendous positive differences for their organisation.
The use of language is primal for storytellers. At the essence, humans are social animals looking to belong and to connect with their surroundings. A leader who shares personal stories by touching upon their own vulnerabilities, failures, and successes to teach, inspire and collectively empower employees will evoke a deeper connection with their followers, prompting employees to further embody the lessons and pass them along, engraining the values that the leader has introduced. It is specifically this element of human emotions that sets stories apart from anything else, and it’s exactly this usage that will set leaders apart from anyone else. Barack Obama, an exceptional storyteller, makes use of this human component when he ran for president. His ability to move crowds by sharing his personal stories of triumph and failures helped him relate to the millions of Americans who have faced daily hardships yet pushes to inspire them towards a better future. Human relatedness goes a long way for leaders.
Organisations have mastered the art of PowerPoints and research proposals. Leaders are encouraged to delegate work, favour statistics and facts, and present such findings as their form of validity and authority. However, this approach leads them to neglect the beauty and simplicity of storytelling. A simple craft that can be trained and learnt by anyone yet can captivate the minds of listeners in magnificent ways. The easiness of this method allows leaders to clarify messages in fun, creative ways, touching upon the souls of the audience in a fundamental relatable, human manner. This connection between leaders and listeners fosters respect and admiration around the leader, solidifying the grounds for managers to encourage new action plans and behaviours.
Leaders can use storytelling to facilitate organisational learning: an essential attribute for business productivity. Stories can be seen as “social maps and scripts” that teach employees how things are accomplished at work. Stories communicate what the organisation stands for, who they are, and how they operate. It’s a powerful way of passing on the culture to keep employees and newcomers informed on what’s expected from them. Leaders who establish organisational stories will create a culture of consistent desired behaviour, encouraging the necessary actions towards business goals.
Research has also demonstrated the power of storytelling in times of crisis and change. As uncertainty and competition increase, decision-making becomes more difficult. The use of stories is essential to help craft meaning through change, while managing employees’ emotions by grounding them in their collective identity and increasing their organisational commitment. Bringing human emotions at this crucial time will help stabilize the organisation in times of change, while also encouraging collective sensemaking. Being able to relate to past events, make sense of successes and failures, and bring them forth to present situations can instil organisational stability, paving the way for enhanced resilience in harsh times. It creates this temporal sequence for employees, clarifying important lessons and encouraging problem-solving in the future.
It’s interesting to see how an everyday social phenomenon such as storytelling can have such a substantial impact for leadership and organisational effectiveness. Leaders are dealing with human beings at the end of the day. Every employee has their own complex background of feelings and behaviours. Recognizing the power of emotions and using stories as a method to move crowds is essential for success. It’s a simple element that we use in our everyday lives yet holds such great value. Fostering collective identity and sensemaking as well as increasing employee’s organisational commitment have been illustrated by many researchers to stem from a leader’s ability to touch upon human emotions, making it the gateway to organisational success.
To all leaders of organisations, we encourage you to be self-compassionate and to take a moment to reflect on your own personal stories and narratives. How can what you’ve faced in life resonate with the employees at your organisation? How can you frame these stories to capture a certain life lesson or message? Dig into your vulnerabilities and take some time to reflect on your past life events. Use these strengths to connect with your surroundings. Authenticity is deeply appreciated, as it comes from your own heart. Share your stories and watch the reactions of your audience, as your narratives become everlasting in your organisation.
Written by: Layan Abu Aysha