Blog · Aug 2, 2017

Leading Change Through Storytelling

Jon Harding is a Senior Performance Consultant for Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? He has over 20 years’ experience as a business coach, team coach and facilitator. Jon has successfully worked with clients to improve leadership and team dynamics to create a high performance environment.

What’s in a story?

The story of Ben’s crew – the Men’s Rowing Eight – winning Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, is a compelling one. It captures the imagination pointing to what individuals and teams can achieve with adherence to a shared goal and some key principles.

By contrast, one very wet Saturday afternoon aged 16 I went out of my way to share a thought with Jeff, our goal kicker. It was the last game of the rugby season. We’d just scored a try; the conversion would give us victory and a 100% record for the season. I recall the cold rain dripping off my hair onto my face. I can still see Jeff’s look of surprise as I approached him as he commenced his ritual of teeing the ball up for the kick. The regrettable thought transferred to the following words, ‘don’t muck this one up’. He had missed the previous two more difficult kicks. His shoulders dropped he looked aggrieved but he continued. Ball set up, he commenced his run up, as he struck the ball his non kicking foot slipped from under him and the ball barely made the posts. That was the moment I realised that what I had said could have had an impact, for good or bad.

That was the beginning of my life long interest in stories and the psychology of performance…


Storytelling backed up by…

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall 

The book explains how we use stories to order information and make sense of the world. We are addicted to them. Gottschall points out that ‘Storytelling is fundamental to the human search for meaning’. We find stories engrossing and engaging. They provide us with information and emotion in a format that we can remember and re-tell. They teach, guide and inform us.

The Leaders Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning

Denning points out that key stories get ‘picked up’ and retold in organisations. These stories give us clues about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. They shape how we should feel if we are to fit in, they build belief in what can be achieved and they become reference points for decision making. In short, storytelling is the key mechanism through which organisational cultures are created. Stories are the ‘language’ of organisations.


The power of storytelling

Time for a recent story from the world of work. The leadership team of a large company that provides outsourced services had a reputation for focusing too heavily on cost control. A commonly shared narrative amongst the mid-level leaders was the amount of paperwork and permissions required to appoint new people, despite high turnover and increasing client complaints. Many felt dis-empowered.

The HR and Internal Communications team launched a campaign endorsed by the board – the programme encouraged employee empowerment and cost a small fortune. This point was repeatedly made by the leadership team at kick-off events – ‘Just look at how much we are investing in you’, was an often repeated mantra.

One day in a far-flung corner of a client organisation, Jane – a junior employee, put a claim in for one bottle of cold water. Jane had been working long days during a period of hot weather with a challenging client. Through the magic of organisational processes, a week later that claim for bottled water came to the attention of the finance director of this multi-million pound company. His attention had been alerted to this particular cost by a peer. The FD ran a quick calculation that showed that if every employee was claiming for bottled water every day for a year, then that would cost the business £5.2m.

Lifted by this fiscal insight the financial director wrote an email to all employees banning the purchase of bottled water on client sites. In doing so, he undid 6 months of slow progress on empowerment. His email caused a fire storm of counter emails. It became the only topic of discussion amongst all employees for months at the ‘water cooler’. The story is so embedded that it now carries the moniker ‘Watergate’. The belief in the Board as ‘penny pinchers’ was reinforced and the level of trust in them fell, as did the employees commitment to the organisation.


What do we learn?

Highly effective leaders are aware that they are ‘dealers’ in stories. They select the stories that are of service to the organisation’s mission and then they tell them and tell them well so that everyone else tells them. In doing so, they positively shape performance (mindset, habits and behaviours) and results follow. By contrast, the ineffective leader pays little attention to the following critical but self-evident fact. Organisations are social systems. The leaders are at the centre of that social system. The stories the leader tells have a disproportionate impact on the performance and the results achieved.

So, if you are the leader select the stories that serve and propel you towards your mission – your Crazy goal – and then tell those stories again and again, and tell them well.


If you would like to take the first step towards changing the culture in your organisation, take a look at our Performance Programmes on 020 3870 7088 or pick up a copy of Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

Go Back to Insights