As humans, stories are rooted deep in our lives. It all began in childhood, when we learned about right and wrong and heroes and villains from Mother Goose and the fairytales. Then, every year from grade school to graduation, we dedicated hours of time in English class reading all kinds of stories. We read about the not-so-simple relationship of a Pip and Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations” (would that book ever end?). We heard the coming-of-age story of “Catcher in the Rye” (did you ever kind of wish you could meet Holden?). We even had teachers dress up and tell stories of smuggling cocaine to teach you the difference between the imperfect and predicate in Spanish (No, really. That happened. Thanks, Dr. Malin!).
Then, as we moved into the professional world, something changed. Somewhere between the emails and meetings, we lost sight of how stories can impact our lives. Remember, stories are engrained in us; as humans, our brains are wired to respond to them. As adults, however, our focus turned to work and to things like setting a goal, achieving a goal and moving on. There’s not a lot of focus on engaging with a project. We either ignore the request because we don’t find something useful or we spend very little time truly understanding why we are doing the things we are doing.
No one is more guilty of this behavior than the human resources (HR) department. In most organizations, HR is known as the programs and processes it executes (think year-end reviews, compliance, succession planning and onboarding). What HR lacks in sex appeal, it make ups for in significance. The programs that HR manages keep organizations protected, running and, most importantly, growing. At the end of the day, all the work HR does is to help employees thrive and grow, so, as HR professionals, we ask ourselves this question: How do we get our employees to engage and participate in programs meant to help them?
Let’s go back to where we started: stories. Stories have been there our whole lives, so why not bring them into the workplace?
Pause for a moment. Think of the most powerful storyteller of the modern day. Who did you think of? Our guess is you went to a powerful presenter like Steve Jobs. Good choice — he was a strong presenter and found ways to generate intrigue and suspense in a way that brought his audience on an emotional journey.
But, what if we said that there’s a whole industry that tells the most engaging stories, with the most interesting characters, on a weekly basis, and whose fan base is 11 million people worldwide? That’s right — we’re talking about World Wrestling Entertainment organization (the WWE). Professional wrestlers, the characters of the WWE story, have proven for years the importance of storytelling.
What can HR professionals learn about telling a story from this unique group that can not only connect to an audience but adjust in real time based on their reaction? How can we use the qualities of WWE storytelling to better influence our leaders, teams and employees? In the words of Hulk Hogan, “Let me tell you something, brother …”
The WWE Knows How to Set the Stage
The WWE combines the best elements of theater and professional sports. Audiences are not only entertained but transported into a completely different world. There’s something about the combination of lights, the crowd, the athleticism and the words that makes a wrestling arena come to life. And, wrestlers are intentional in creating this multidimensional world, full of colors, sights and sounds that make the fans feel as if they are part of the story.
While we try so hard in HR to put our audience (our employees) first, can you think of the last time you told your employees a story? HR should design experiences and opportunities that connect employees to their resources and to the organization in a way that makes them see, hear and feel the program. Have you created a visual story that catches their attention? Have you created a space where your employees can physically interact or engage? Are you choosing words that not only excite but explain? The more that HR professionals can think about the total experience our employees have, and intentionally design those experiences, the more like professional wrestlers we’ll be. (Multimillion-dollar contracts not included.)
Professional Wrestlers Aren’t Afraid of Change
In fact, the most prolific wrestlers embrace it. Consider Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?) He started his career as a “babyface” (aka a “good guy”), but no matter how hard he tried, the audience didn’t buy it. One night, the crowd booed. And booed. And booed. But, instead of giving up and sticking to the script, The Rock did something different: He used the energy to reengage the audience in a new story. He embraced the boos and become one the “hottest heels” (aka “bad guys”) in professional wrestling. He taunted the crowd, and he used the heat to build his character. Then, he built his fan base.
While HR has the best of intentions when it comes to our programs, what can we learn from our employees when they tell us it’s not working? If HR professionals can learn to be more agile, we can react to our employees’ needs more quickly and creatively than we would if we stuck to the plan.
Wrestling has reinforced what we already know: Storytelling is everything. In HR, everything we do is to engage, influence, teach or inspire our employees. We should be telling and listening to stories, because, at the end of the day, storytelling is about the exchange of ideas and about growth. That’s why it’s so important to embed storytelling in our organizational cultures and in our HR programs. We shouldn’t be afraid to be a little dramatic or bring a little bit of flair to our work.
As wrestling manager and retired wrestler Ric Flair said, “If you don’t like it, learn to love it.”
Want more on this topic? Register for TICE 2020 to come to Coleman and Maggie’s session.