Every night I sit with my kids and read them a story. Storytelling has to be one of my favourite parts of parenting - a real privilege.
It's peaceful, focuses their attention and they listen to me (for once!)
But storytelling isn't just for kids.
Storytelling can connect employees to their work at a different level. Instead of executing tasks to fulfil their job they can operate at a higher purpose.
A great example of this occurred in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA. He noticed a cleaner carrying a broom.
He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said
"Hi, I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?"
to which the cleaner replied...
"Well, Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon."
Connecting employee purpose to company purpose increases engagement, loyalty, productivity and happiness.
There's a deeper motivation (and satisfaction) in employee work. It starts with connection.
So, why should leaders understand the art of storytelling?
Well, first leaders need to consider their true purpose. Is their purpose to generate $XXXM of revenue, increase profit by XX%, cut costs by X% and increase productivity by a factor of XX?
I would argue that those are targets that the business owns. I believe leaders need to ensure the business is operationally sound by supporting their employee community by developing them, challenging them and listening to them.
There is a great story in this HBR article about a supervisor at Shake Shack (a restaurant chain) and how she delivered feedback to one of her team members who spent more time on his phone than cleaning tables.
Instead of delivering a reprimand, laying on a guilt trip or disciplining him she told a story.
“Hey Bert, twenty minutes ago a young mother left her two-year-old daughter on one of these chairs while she went to the order window to buy their food. When she walked away, her daughter began sweeping her hand back and forth over the table that was smeared with ketchup from one of our previous guests. Then she began licking it off her hand.”
I think that's enough to make anyone cringe but it delivered the message in a way that made the employee realise the error of his ways.
So, what's the moral of the story?
Stories can be just as powerful at kid bedtimes and during work time.
Leaders can maintain a lively sense of connection, as the Shake Shack manager did, through storytelling. It needn’t be an elaborate ritual involving an audience gathered for a relaxed evening. It isn’t. Most storytelling is brief. It involves using concrete examples that reframe a moment by personifying human consequences. People’s feelings about their work are only partly about the work itself. They are equally, if not more so, about how they frame their work.