Leaders must use the power of storytelling to supercharge change management
20 Nov 2023
How can leaders motivate teams and create psychological safety throughout disruptive journeys? Storytelling is a profoundly effective yet underutilized tool. When change narratives resonate emotionally, they can rapidly shift mindsets and ignite action.
“Stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone,” calculates Dr Jennifer Aaker, behavioral scientist and General Atlantic Professor and Coulter Family Fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Why?
Storytelling is rooted deep in human psychology and community. Before the written word, oral histories preserved wisdom. Myths bound tribes together through shared meaning. Today, neuroscience shows our brains are uniquely adapted to process and recall information when structured as stories.
Narratives also allow us to rehearse responses to future scenarios. As eminent American writer and journalist Joan Didion, who died in 2021, wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories thus create order from chaos during turbulent change. Here are some tips for leaders on creating and telling stories that better resonate with others – most importantly, their colleagues.
Ultimately, the best change stories incorporate elements speaking to diverse motivations.
For initiatives involving complex new systems or processes, storytelling provides that vital bridge between the abstract and the tangible. Rather than discussing capabilities academically, stories can simulate how technologies will integrate into roles. This replaces anxiety over the unknown with possibility.
Simple structure – maximum impact
Just as crucially, stories must follow a tight narrative arc. The three-act structure used universally in plays and films also applies powerfully to leadership storytelling.
The simple three-part structure runs as follows: act 1 is the setup, or introduction; act 2 sees the stakes get higher, and shows the confrontation; and, finally, there is the resolution, coming through the crisis.
The beginning introduces characters and poses a dilemma, arousing curiosity. The middle describes mounting tensions and probing uncomfortable truths. The final element resolves the conflict, imparting hope.
A powerful opening is key, to forge the contract with the person or people to whom you are sharing the story. It is about crafting and sharing something, so asking a question, or provoking emotion, will make the audience want to sit up and learn more to find the answer. Although science tells us the audience will probably have an attention span no longer than 10 mins, it’s the first 30 seconds that can set you up for successful storytelling.
While the opening lines will help establish immediate rapport with the audience, the closing is just as important – if you have sustained attention. Here is where messages are crystallized. People are looking for clarity, so don’t leave core questions unanswered, unlike some Hollywood movies.
Paint a vivid vision – change the main character
Leadership storytelling is particularly vital for communicating the “why” behind the change. An inspiring and exciting vision of the future provides purpose during upheaval. Keep in mind that the audience must be able to determine the answer to the question “what’s in it for me”.
For example, a bank undertaking a digital transformation could share success stories from early-adopting branches. These tales would spotlight how employees could deliver excellent customer service using new tools. The brave actions of protagonists in stories can encourage teams to display similar courage.
Alternatively, leaders might illustrate how falling behind on technology has impacted legacy competitors. These sobering histories can create productive urgency without undue fear-mongering. That element of jeopardy is crucial. Portraying an alternative reality if things stay the same is powerful.
Striking details and real-world events add authenticity and emotional punch. Stories told in the present tense feel more immediate, too, yet they should be told differently depending on the audience. One change story is not enough for people in different roles with different motivations. Personalize the story for your audience. Think about what you want them to think, feel, and do off the back of the story.
Moreover, change stories resonate most when ordinary workers become the protagonists. Their actions, reactions, and growth reveal how transformation impacts roles.
Vivid details like facial expressions, conversations, and obstacles overcome also make tales memorable and human. Leaders should spotlight unexpected heroes who exceed expectations, inspiring peers. If they are the main characters, more people will relate to the story.
Reinforce cultural values
Storytelling also enables leaders to bring core values to life, and this links back to the “why?”. Purpose-led organizations find this part straightforward. Accounts of employees going the extra mile for each other or customers translate abstract mission statements into lived experiences. However, it has to be authentic, as people will always sniff out BS.
When change necessitates difficult decisions that may seem to undermine values, appropriate context-setting helps preserve trust. Explaining in human terms how choices serve the greater good prevents misunderstandings.
Finally, storytelling forges bonds between leaders and employees. Vulnerable, honest accounts of past change journeys – warts and all – dismantle “us versus them” barriers. Relatable, fallible humans replace remote figures.
This emphasis on transparency and trust inspires staff to share their own change experiences and concerns. A collective narrative emerges, with space for multiple perspectives, creating psychological safety.
Ignite engagement through narrative
Storytelling enables leadership to connect with minds and hearts, not just convey information. Masterful change storytelling guides teams in reconciling the past, orienting themselves in the present chaos, and taking purposeful action toward the future. It’s also worth remembering Simon Sinek’s golden circle, where the “why” is in the center.
Against today’s proliferation of messages, facts, and data points competing for attention, the resonance of narrative cuts through noise. Stories speak to our shared humanity. Leveraging this timeless leadership tool will prove more valuable as accelerating change intensifies “information overload”.
The brands customers love all excel at storytelling, crafting mythology around their products. So, too, must organizations in the throes of transformation co-author compelling change stories alongside their people. When managed skillfully, disruptive change journeys can transform into uplifting shared experiences.