Stories have a lot of power — the power to inspire, delight, provoke, and even change people.
Last year, North Americans spent more than $11B at the movies, showing how deeply people enjoy stories that entertain and enlighten them. Movies show how powerful stories can change people — and they have the potential to change organizations too. That’s why storytelling is an indispensable tool for any organization going through a change management process.
Change is always difficult, but strong storytelling can make it easier. Here’s how your company can use storytelling in times of change.
The Psychology of Stories and Change Management
Something profound happens when we hear a story. It activates parts of our brain that do not activate when just listening to a straightforward presentation. In fact, recent research suggests that stories change our brain chemistry — which in turn can change our behaviors.
For instance, telling a compelling story about someone overcoming a difficult illness is more effective at getting them to donate to a charity than presenting them with the facts about the illness. This is why so many charity appeals rely on touching personal stories. And this is why stories should be part of your organization’s change management process.
Change management can be difficult to implement. Sudden and unexpected change at your organization may alienate your employees and build resistance, while fixating on the outcomes of change alone can cause you to overlook staff needs, fueling uncertainty at the workplace.
Communication is an immensely important part of changing an organization. Transparency into business processes and decisions informs employees about why change is necessary, as well as what to do and expect during the period of change and beyond. With their proven potency, stories might just be the best way of communicating this key information.
So how do you turn your organization’s change process into a compelling story? It starts with a problem.
What’s the Problem?
Keep this in mind: every compelling story has a problem.
If there’s no problem, there’s no story. Think of every movie you’ve ever seen: someone had a problem, whether it was Luke Skywalker trying to defeat the Empire in Star Wars, or Marlin trying to find his son in Finding Nemo.
The problem is what hooks us. Will Luke be able to make the shot and destroy the Death Star? Will Anna be able to find and reconcile with Elsa?
These problems fit into bigger philosophical problems. Luke’s journey is about the larger struggle of good versus evil, and Frozen’s central problem turns out to be whether Elsa can accept herself and how she’s different, a challenge many people face in their lives.
In corporate marketing, brand stories speak to the problems people face and provide solutions for overcoming those problems. For example, a brand selling running shoes solves consumers’ problem of needing shoes, as well as the broader philosophical problem of wanting to become fitter.
Your organization is changing for a reason — because of a problem. To craft a compelling story that will resonate with your employees and change their behavior, your story has to address this problem.
How to Tell Your Organization’s Stories
So, in practical terms, how can your organization tell stories that will support your change management process?
Be Authentic in Admitting the Problem
It’s hard to be authentic, but it’s worthwhile. Effective communication requires the person communicating to be credible, trustworthy, and genuine, and good stories require a relatable problem.
Identifying a problem is the building block of a good story, and also critical to fixing the problem in your organization. Your employees will be able to tell if your CEO is holding back on the reasons for a particular organizational change, and it will make them nervous. Organizational change is less unsettling for staff if they know their leaders are being honest with them.
Tell Stories That Motivate Employees
While your executive team may be primarily motivated by creating value for the company and its shareholders, research shows that managers and employees are also motivated to do their work because of the impact it has on society, on the customer, on their working team, and on themselves personally.
If the story you’re telling is a story of creating more value for shareholders or better serving customers, you’re missing important motivators. Be sure to tell stories that address the wide range of motivation.
Engage Employees in Coming Up With the Story
It is incredibly powerful to engage your entire organization in a storytelling process that has them identify what needs to change and come up with a vision for how to make it happen. As people create, tell, and retell their versions of the stories, they will internalize the change, and make a successful change part of their personal story.
Tell the Story Loudly and Often
After your company has crafted its stories, it needs to tell them loudly and often. When it comes to change management, it’s not possible to over-communicate. Your change management team should work with your marketing department to develop an internal communications plan for disseminating your stories as widely as possible.
For instance, your organizational change might be a significant restructuring so that your company is more agile in responding to external circumstances. One of your stories could be about how employees across business units, who had not previously worked together, quickly created a new product to meet a new customer demand.
This story should be communicated at staff meetings, through the company intranet, or in a company-wide newsletter or email, with different angles to address the different motivations for change. For example:
- A video with two employees talking about how working cross-functionally enriched the team (motivation: impact on working team)
- A case study showing how customers enjoy using the product (motivation: impact on the customer)
- Statistics or facts highlighting the features of the product that make it environmentally-friendly (motivation: impact on society)
When your company takes the time to tell great, authentic stories that address employee motivations, behavioral change won’t be far behind your organizational change.