The Campfire

Why Organizational Storytelling is Essential for Your Business

There’s often a tendency to focus on the quantitative over the qualitative in business. Easily measured data points such as sales, profits, or other metrics dominate internal communications and goal setting.

But as with anything else, when it comes to understanding and leading an organization, numbers are only part of the story. People make up organizations: people and their hopes, dreams, relationships, and skills. And sometimes, the only way to understand people is with a tricky tool called narrative.

Taking up the banner of storytelling doesn’t mean venturing into the realm of the abstract or unprovable, however. There’s concrete science behind skillful storytelling’s effect on people and organizations. For example, well-told stories lead to the release of oxytocin, a hormone responsible for fostering trust, closeness, and empathy. Similarly, stories can reduce stress hormones in our bodies, helping us relax and withstand pain. Finally, the anticipation and excitement of stories cause our brains to release dopamine, a pleasure chemical that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Take one of the world’s most inspiring storytellers as an example. World-renowned business leader and motivational coach Tony Robbins never attended college. Instead, he left home at age 17 and built a career on his uncanny ability to inspire. Robbins has relied on his ability to craft, shift, and alter narratives from the start. Moreover, Robbins understands how different stories can intersect and help (or hinder) one another. He targets individuals by empowering them to change their own internal stories. However, he also creates overarching, collective stories that bring his audiences together.

The success of Robbins’s storytelling often relies on his openness. He doesn’t hesitate to share powerful stories from his own life and youth with his audience. His heart-wrenching stories of grief, loss, and triumph pump audiences full of dopamine and oxytocin to draw minds in and lower the heart’s walls. It’s a skill that Robbins has leveraged into countless successful business ventures, from his media empire to his involvement with several successful sports teams. In short, Robbins knows how to take an organization and build a story that every stakeholder can invest in.

What is Organizational Storytelling

The simple way of defining organizational storytelling is as ‘the use of narrative to help groups work towards a common goal.’ Sounds easy, right? However, as anyone who’s led an organization can tell you, the reality is often more complex than that.

Stories exist at many levels. There’s the individual (what we tell ourselves), the interpersonal (what we tell others), and the organizational (the overarching stories of the group). At each level of an organization, these stories interact in multitudinous ways. Sometimes, it’s productive, sometimes less so. However, a good leader needs to understand the narratives in play at every level of their organization. He or she must speak to, leverage, and shape those stories.

In 2005, the French academics Nicole Giroux and Lisette Marroquin published a review of the available research on storytelling within organizations entitled “L’approche narrative des organisations.” In their paper, Giroux and Marroquin identify five different ways researchers typically understand the power of storytelling at an organizational level:

  • The Functionalist Perspective: Storytelling as a management tool focused on effective top-down communication.
  • The Interpretive Perspective: Storytelling as a means of understanding an organization’s true values, culture, and operations.
  • The Process Perspective: Storytelling as an organizing process, particularly in organizational change or transition.
  • The Critical Perspective: Storytelling gone wrong, especially stories used to abuse or disempower.
  • The Postmodern Perspective: Storytelling as a fragmented mish-mash of the different voices and stories that ultimately make up an organization.

Each category has its merits for the business leader. Attention to the narratives people provide can give you powerful insight into your organization. Similarly, it’s important to recognize or root out stories harming stakeholders.

Ultimately, however, the two most valuable ways of thinking about organizational storytelling for business leaders are the functional perspective and the process perspective. Paying close attention to the storytelling employed in your top-down communications and at critical moments of transition can make or break your business.

On the flip side, good storytelling can keep communications clear, unified, and inspiring for every member of your team.

What Are the Benefits of Organizational Storytelling?

Good organizational storytelling has clear, proven benefits. First, as mentioned above, stories help build and strengthen the bonds crucial to an organization. Remember, narratives release oxytocin, which is critical for fostering feelings of warmth and trust between team members.

Perhaps you’re a first-time manager just stepping up to lead your first team. You need to quickly build a sense of group cohesion, and establish yourself as a capable, trustworthy leader. Stories are a great way to start. Try building trust with your team through sharing a relevant personal story that allows them to get to know you. Let yourself be appropriately vulnerable. People tend to empathize with the struggles of others; sharing the challenges you’ve had to overcome in the form of a story will help your team feel closer and more comfortable, improving overall cohesion.

A second benefit of stories is that they can help relieve stress, pain, and fear in tense moments. Let’s say your organization is going through a vital leadership transition; good storytelling can help stakeholders feel relaxed, connected, and more inclined to face down short-term pain for long-term gain

Perhaps, on the other hand, your team has just closed a quarter with record-breaking sales. You need a story that draws on that success and prepares everyone to work hard to surpass themselves in the future. Accessing your listener’s reward-centers with a dopamine-inducing, blood-pumping story is an excellent way to prime the pump and help your team resist the urge to rest on their laurels.

In the end, good organizational storytelling brings people together, helps them work harder, and creates more successful businesses. Now those are perks that are hard to pass up.

How Can You Employ Organizational Storytelling?

Applying organizational storytelling is ultimately about skill. Tony Robbins is one example. But another, somewhat more surprising storyteller is Bruce Springsteen. Nicknamed “The Boss,” Springsteen is a master at bringing people together. And he does it by giving people concrete, powerful stories they can relate to.

Think of Springsteen’s fanbase as an organization. As different as they may be, his fans are unified by the shared identity, values, and culture the stories in Springsteen’s songs have given them. When the Boss gets up to perform on stage, the audience comes together to chant every word. Springsteen’s personal, powerful stories of love, loss, and hardship draw people together and create a sense of community that the CEOs of many Fortune 500 companies would kill for.

Luckily, you don’t need Bruce Springsteen’s innate musical talent to become a great organizational storyteller. You just need the right tools to draw your audience in, build a sense of community, and communicate your main points. For example, next time you need to inform your employees of a company-wide change in policy, consider using a well-told anecdote to accompany and explain your memo. Or perhaps you’re a manager unveiling a new initiative to your team; why not build in a story to your announcement to help get them on board?

When it comes to deploying narrative within an organization, the possibilities are endless. The only prerequisites are skill, practice, and imagination.

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