Tall Stories or Powerful Parables: Driving High Performance through Story Telling

I read a fascinating article this week, which reinforced one of my key beliefs in effective management; that as a leader it is imperative that you are also a story teller, an effective perpetrator of stories of success (and failure) that others use to learn.

Gino’s “The Unexpected Influence of Stories Told at Work” touches on exactly this point, connecting the long studied power of contagious behaviour in the workplace with the pervasive stories leaders cascade through their teams and beyond to reinforce core company values. Just like an analogy, these stories serve to illustrate principles or instructive lessons in the commercial world in exactly the same way spiritual parables instruct the many. Or as Gino points out, in the same way reading fiction can change the behaviour of the reader who relates to the protagonist through an act called “emotion-taking”.

Telling stories to impart wisdom and values is clearly a successful and cost-effective way of boosting performance. But how is it best to you use this to your advantage?

Think back to the stories you were told as an aspiring leader
At an early stage in my career, I remember voraciously soaking up – and passing on – stories of mystery company protagonists fearlessly upholding work values or even violating them, and the results thereof. For me, it was always these stories I thought back to when trying to make a judgement call, guiding my values and behaviour by their very existence. Likewise, those practical stories of how a superhuman team member saved the day, perhaps in relation to a common difficulty we all faced, were what I referred back to when faced with exactly that problem, more so than any guides “formal” training provided.

It’s important to recognise that these stories don’t have to be organisation specific, and they don’t have to be about you. Wider principles can be shared across industries and professions and often the most effective stories will come from your early training – what was it you were told then, either when training as an Accountant, or Manager, or even Director, that has stayed with you to this day? Even sharing stories about famous business leaders and anecdotes about the senior leaders you’ve worked with before will serve the same purpose: illustrating solutions to difficult problems through one of the most engaging communication styles we have – narrative.

Speak candidly about your own successes (and failures)
This is something some of us do naturally, and others struggle with. Telling stories about yourself, in either 1-2-1 or groups situations is a great way to not only reinforce key values or processes, or build skills and capabilities, but also an excellent way to engage and create authentic connections with your team. Additionally, everybody appreciates a touch of humility in leadership, and often sharing a situation from your career history in which you may have worked through difficulties or overcome similar challenges, will improve employee engagement – and return better results from difficult conversations about performance.

As a last note, it’s interesting that Gino points out that it is the positive and forward-focused stories that have the biggest impact. Stories that depict protagonists violating company values tend to resonate less than the stories that end in success and upwards progression. So next time you’re trying to make a point clear to your team, or mentor one of your staff through a career challenge, try focusing on positive story telling – an underrated but effective way to communicate complex knowledge about company values and ways to overcome work-based challenges.

Read more: Gino, F., “The Unexpected Influence of Stories Told at Work”, HBR

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