Data, numbers, graphs and percentages only go so far in engaging with employees and customers. Organizational storytelling fills in the gaps and actually connects with people. It provides the emotional context for why the organization does what it does.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, has “a mental pantry of stories at his ready” to explain his company and business philosophies, according to Chief Executive magazine.
“It’s possible for a leader to have a grand vision, but it’s not possible to turn that vision into reality unless countless others adopt it as their own and work tirelessly in concert to achieve it,” Chief Executive’s Bill Baker writes.
Inspiring others requires good storytelling. You can watch Hsieh in this video clip telling a story of extraordinary customer service at Zappos.
He could have just rolled out a bunch of numbers — customer satisfaction ratings, employee satisfaction figures — instead, he gives a moving example of a Zappos service rep sending flowers to a customer whose husband had just died.
Support your stories with data when necessary, of course. Data is an essential resource. But six months from now, what people will remember most clearly is the story, not the data.
“When just about every fact on the planet is but one mouse click away, stories take on new importance in every business enterprise. From leadership to team building to branding to knowledge management, narrative has become a powerful — and essential — tool,” Daniel Pink writes in his New York Times bestseller, “A Whole New Mind.”
Tell the Story of Your Company with Employees as the Heroes
Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (and inspiration for employee engagement!), used to keep a slip of paper with a quote on it in his pocket:
There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.
What qualifies as a story? According to Globoforce, academics use two definitions.
The first is a story feature, which communicates some form of causal resolution of a problem. You can find examples of this in newspaper features, country songs and in literature from novels to children’s books.
The other form of storytelling is structural-affect. In these stories, the teller adds meaning and significance. You’ll find this style of story in parables, advertising and self-help books.
“Great recognition uses storytelling in both of these ways,” Globoforce’s Darcy Jacobson writes. Here are three key factors of organizational storytelling to consider when crafting employee recognition:
Have a narrative. “Thanks for all you do” is not recognition, as Jacobson points out. It is a platitude. Draw in employees with suspense and drama. Present the problem they helped solve and help them “relive their success.”
“This will help them recall (and replicate) the effort they expended,” Jacobson writes, and ultimately “help others to emulate their effort.”
Have a moral to your story. This is the emotional heart of recognition. Once you’ve explained the problem, reaction and resolution, you need to communicate why it matters. Jacobson suggests asking these questions:
- What was the impact of that behavior that made it so meaningful?
- What were the results?
- How do they connect to your organizational goals and values?
Let’s go back to the story the Zappos CEO tells.
In Hsieh’s story, a customer ordered a pair of special shoes for her husband. But the day the shoes arrived in the mail, her husband died in a car accident. When the customer called to return the shoes, the Zappos service rep facilitated the return and, as a kind gesture of condolence, sent flowers to woman.
That’s the story, in a nutshell. But then, Hsieh goes on to tell what happened next. The woman thanked Zappos at her husband’s funeral, in front of 30 to 40 families and friends. All of those people are now inspired to be Zappos’ customers for life. And it all goes back to a single service rep who had the power to act on an impulse of kindness.
A tragic and sad transaction became an opportunity for connection. Hsieh could have just said, “Zappos empowers its employees to do good.” That’s vague. But in hearing this story, we now understand exactly what he means.
Make your employees the hero of the story. Tanveer Naseer, leadership coach and author, writes on his blog, “When it comes to storytelling, it’s easy for us to imagine ourselves being the heroes of our organization’s story thanks to our leadership role. And yet, the simple truth is that as leaders, we serve as the mentor to the real heroes of our organization’s story — our employees.”
Consider this example of recognition storytelling from Globoforce:
“Jenny, thank you for staying late yesterday to put together a slide deck for our client presentation. It was filled with impressive statistics based on their business model. Because of your hard work and thoughtful analysis, the meeting went off like a dream. The client was very impressed with your thorough understanding of their business and so was I! This is a fantastic start for our future relationship with them. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to quality!”
Who’s the hero here? Jenny! This is a great example of how a leader can turn an opportunity for appreciation into a mini-story with the employee as the star. No doubt Jenny heard it and not only felt accomplished but was eager to do it all again for the next client.
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“In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day — or to celebrate each special day.” – Rasheed Ogunlaru, coach and author
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