Engaging employees through the power of story

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Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions
Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

As we eagerly await 2017 Super Bowl commercials, I am reminded of one of my favorite holiday TV commercials, which ran the past year. It was a two-minute Apple commercial, called “Frankie's Holiday.” 

As you can see, a lonely Frankenstein-like monster sits home alone winding a tiny music box that plays, “There's no place like home for the holidays” while recording the song on his iPhone (because it's an Apple commercial). Frankie then makes the long walk down from his isolated home in the mountains to the town center where people have gathered to celebrate. At first, people are aghast and fearful as he walks into the crowd. They shout, “Go home!” But when he starts singing along with the recorded music on his phone, a little girl smiles and starts singing along with him. Then the whole crowd joins in… “When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, for the holidays you can't beat home sweet home.” The commercial ends with the message, “Open your heart to everyone.”

I admit, as many times as I saw this commercial, it tugged at my heartstrings every time. My eyes would well up and I'd have to reach for a tissue to dab my tears.

A two-minute story. A tugging of the heart. An emotional connection. Stories are incredibly powerful.

What does this have to do with employee engagement? True engagement is spurred through an employee's emotional connection with your organization. Therefore, storytelling, especially when done purposefully, can align, inspire and infuse your workplace with an energy that creates unifying thoughts and actions. Stories resonate and connect to people at a deeper level by reaching their senses and feelings.

There are so many ways you can promote engagement through story. Here are a few ideas:

Stories that increase connection

Telling your own personal stories often speak to familiar situations that people can relate to. And they help listeners connect with you as a human being. An executive director who recently opened a new assisted living community explained, “When I share stories about myself, my family, my hopes and dreams, I'm no longer seen as a distant, detached manager, but rather a real, relatable person. I create time and space for my new team to get to know each other through our stories.  It helps break down barriers that would otherwise prevent us from working in partnership with each other.”

Stories that generate compassion

Recent brain research confirms that empathy and compassion can be learned, and that stories can be a powerful way to build these feelings. If you tell a story in just the right way, by hooking the listener's attention and gaining their empathy, a story can actually change a person's brain chemistry by releasing neurotransmitters that have the power to affect our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Even the simplest narrative can produce an emotional response.

It might be a compelling story about the origins of your organization and the selfless beliefs that motivated the founders to establish your organization. Or perhaps conveying your organization's values, not by reciting a list of them, but by telling positive, inspiring stories about how real people have brought those values to life through their care and compassion to a resident, family member or co-worker. Stories not only capture people's attention, they embed an understanding of behavioral norms by sharing what your values look and feel like in action.

Stories that create credibility

Several years ago, when leading the learning and development function at the Nordstrom corporate office in Seattle, my colleagues and I created a future leader program for the Information Technology group. As part of this program we assembled a panel of the IT leadership team (CIO and his direct reports), and asked each panel member to share their path to becoming a leader. 

These high level leaders shared their stories -- the high points and the low points of their career -- emphasizing the lessons they learned through challenges, setbacks and blunders. Their honesty made them vulnerable, but also credible. Through their stories, these leaders became very real and genuine to this audience of future leaders who listened intently. Staff were inspired by these stories as they experienced a new appreciation for their leaders and the rocky roads they traveled to earn their stripes.

Stories that communicate culture

Your organization's culture is built on stories. New employees are especially influenced by stories because this is, in large part, how they come to understand how to fit into their work environment. Without awareness, they take in the tales and anecdotes that their colleagues share and formulate a picture of how to behave. Proactively sharing positive stories about your organization with new employees can be a very effective way to socialize new people to your desired culture.

Zappos, the online shoe store, creates a culture book each year that is a collection of employee stories about what the Zappos culture means to them. The Zappos Culture Book is characterized as being similar to a yearbook in that it captures a snapshot of the past year through everyone's eyes: employees, customers and partners.  The annual culture book is distributed to employees, prospective employees, business partners and even some customers, as a means to sustain their culture.

The moral of this story…

Consider using story as a powerful way to create and sustain a culture of engagement!

“Storytellers, by the very act of telling, communicate a radical learning that changes lives and the world: telling stories is a universally accessible means through which people make meaning.” - Chris Cavanaugh

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.

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