Gaining employee buy-in and adoption remains a significant roadblock in teams and organizations. It’s no easy task to undertake a new initiative, whether rolling out an operational process or implementing new technology. Even small shifts may fail to take root due to an allegiance to the status quo and “how it’s always been done” — an attitude that can create a pervasive resistance to change across a team or an organization.

Leaders seeking to drive a change in employee mindsets and organizational results often make a critical error: They ask or tell employees to act differently, often by compelling or coercing them to comply. In doing so, they ignore a fundamental facet of human behavior, as described in Roger Connors and Tom Smith’s book “Change the Culture, Change the Game”: Behavior is informed by beliefs.

Anyone can command people to act a certain way and could find some success in the short term. For sustainable change to occur, however, leaders must do more than demand different behavior. They have to shift mindsets.

The Art of Storytelling for Leaders

Develop your leaders’ capacity to overcome resistance to change and drive employee engagement and buy-in by harnessing the powerful tool of storytelling. Beliefs or mindsets can limit our thinking, forcing us to see the world a certain way. They are often what impede a leader’s efforts to get people to think and act differently. Stories invite people to suspend their beliefs — about the world, about what is possible, and about themselves. Here is where the magic happens. It’s when a person suspends his or her beliefs that real change can occur.

Leaders who tell stories also communicate a compelling vision around desired beliefs, behaviors and results. If they want to see a behavior demonstrated more often, sharing stories about people who exhibit the desired behavior provides a clear example. It also provides evidence that these behaviors are already taking place, encouraging others to adopt the new behaviors as well.

In essence, storytelling helps leaders change the way their teams think, which is a critical step in shifting the way employees act.

Storytelling at Work

A young girl was visiting the Disneyland theme park with her mother when she threw her Belle doll in the air, and it landed in a fenced-off construction zone. Recognizing the girl’s distress, several employees from security, merchandising and guest services worked together to retrieve the doll.

They discovered the doll in terrible condition. Its clothes had been ripped, and it was covered in mud. Even worse, they found out it was a discontinued model. They sent the doll to the costume design department to be spruced up. When the family returned to their hotel room at the end of the day, they were greeted with the newly outfitted doll and an invitation for tea with the “real” Belle.

For years, Disney has shared this story across the organization as an example of employee behavior that supports Disney’s culture of delighting and creating happiness for each guest. That Disney embraces storytelling as a leadership and culture tool should come as no surprise; Walt Disney was a master storyteller. His legacy and the thriving company culture he left behind sprang from his vision, leadership and storytelling abilities — and the beliefs that became cultural cornerstones thanks to this cohesive narrative.

Within the company, Disney told stories that mobilized employees around his vision. This storytelling practice has fostered a guest-centric corporate culture imbued with creativity and innovation that has led to sustained success. He empowered employees to use their own stories to connect to the customer experience, making way for stories like the girl and her Belle doll to live on and work their magic in the organization.

Teaching Storytelling to Leaders

For stories to have the ultimate impact, it is critical that training and development leaders work with organizational leaders to develop their strategic storytelling skills. Teach leaders three fundamentals of storytelling to create alignment around desired behaviors, reinforce critical beliefs and drive your organizational culture forward.

1. Choose the right story, and make the connection.

Great stories have a beginning, middle and end, but for leaders to create a vision for their team, there’s more. Not all stories are created equal, and some stories can create change that works against an organization. Therefore, it’s critical for leaders to be intentional about the stories they tell.

Choose stories that clearly demonstrate and reinforce desired behaviors while linking back to organizational priorities and desired results. For example, if a desired result is to foster a culture of creative problem-solvers, look for examples within the organization, such as an employee who confidently voiced his or her opinion and drove the team toward an innovative solution.

It’s also important to deeply engage employees with compelling stories that invite people to suspend their beliefs long enough to disrupt the status quo and create positive movement.

2. Be brief, and aim to go viral.

All it takes to deliver a powerful story is 45 seconds. Storytellers who drone on risk losing an audience’s attention. After observing and testing this technique for almost 30 years, it is clear that a short, memorable story has a better chance of being retold by employees across an organization.

Keeping a story to 45 seconds is especially important considering evidence of declining attention spans; a recent Microsoft study suggests that humans may have attention spans as brief as eight seconds. This time limit should also be welcome news for busy leaders in your organization; anyone can spare 45 seconds.

Have leaders practice this storytelling technique, building from a punchy hook that captures attention and investment from the get-go. Within 45 seconds, the audience should comprehend the story, feel comfortable repeating the story and be clear on the point of the story. If the storyteller accomplishes these three Cs, the story has a better chance of being shared and working its magic across the organization.

3. Conclude with a clear connection that reinforces the desired behavior.

Once a story invites an audience to suspend any beliefs that were getting in the way, create real movement by concluding with a simple phrase that reinforces the desired behavior. You might say, “That’s what innovation looks like to me,” or “That’s what good communication looks like to me.”

Using the term “looks like” instead of “feels like” communicates that the desired behavior is already occurring in the organization. It encourages employees to observe and take note of similar instances in their day-to-day work.

The Lasting Impact of Storytelling

Effective storytelling helps leaders create a unified vision around desired beliefs and actions, driving adoption and buy-in for the results that matter most to your organization. Stories break through impediments to change; shape new, learning mindsets; and inspire employees to adopt new behaviors that drive desired results.

Develop a leader’s ability to deliver effective stories that emphasize clarity and brevity. Once leaders have perfected their storytelling delivery, encourage them to share stories as often as they can. The more stories shared through the organization, the more effectively they reinforce behaviors critical to organizational success.

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