I’ve just finished a great book by Gary Klein called ‘Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights’. It contains a great story about some work he did alongside a company called Anecdote who specialise in business storytelling.

Anecdote were working with a client in Singapore. They started by collecting about a hundred stories that employees felt were examples of good and bad leadership. Then at a workshop, employees were asked to select the story that they felt was most significant in terms of employee engagement.

The story they chose came from an employee who said that whenever she went into her manager’s office, his attention was almost totally focused on his computer screen. However, once he saw she had entered his office, he stopped what he was doing and came over to the table in the middle of the room. He would then give her his absolute attention. The employee said she really appreciated this behaviour, that it made her feel valued and she had noticed that none of the other managers in the company did it.

A year later the team from Anecdote returned to collect a new set of stories and this time they were told dozens of stories about how when they walked into their managers’ offices, the managers now stopped working at their computer and moved to their tables to engage their colleagues in a proper conversation.

How is it that a simple story can have this dramatic effect on behaviour?

1. The power of stories is often in the implicit meaning not the explicit content of what’s being said

The story the employee told about her manager didn’t describe a groundbreaking new idea or revolutionary management practice. Instead, it’s impact was in its implicit message: that simple, small gestures can have significant emotional meaning and value. 

Storytelling of this type allows you to subtly invite people to change. People are much more receptive to this approach than to someone they perceive as preaching or telling them how to behave. Giving people the space to draw their own conclusions preserves their sense of autonomy and gives them a feeling of volition about whether to change. This in turn makes it much more likely they will act on their insights and sustain the resulting behaviour changes.

2. Stories foster empathy

They encourage us to see the world through other people’s eyes and to use their experiences as a ‘simulator’ for speculating how we would respond and react in the same circumstances. Perhaps most critically of all, stories encourage us to feel what the other person feels and this emotional resonance is the spur we need to change our perspective and behaviour.

3. Stories give people a tangible and concrete example to copy

Too often businesses communicate general rules and then expect their employees to translate them into practical changes. As a general rule, people are surprisingly poor at applying general rules to themselves (it’s an example of an irrational bias). For example, if you ask a group of people to rate their driving ability on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is the worst driver in the world, 5 is average and 10 the best – the group mean will typically be higher than 5. Or in the words of Arsene Wenger “everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife”.

If a company tells its managers they must “demonstrate care for their team members”, the managers may be in complete and honest agreement that it is something they should do, but that doesn’t mean they will grasp the implications for their own behaviour.

Few (if any) of them will make the connection that this directive now means they need to stop looking at their computer when someone walks into their room.

Our minds are actually predisposed to working in the other direction: we like to create general rules from our particular experiences (even when these general rules aren’t justified by the evidence!). It’s therefore far easier for a manager to start with a concrete example of something they can copy and for them to develop an archetype of similar behaviours that would demonstrate care for employees.  

4. Sharing stories creates social norms

We have a natural propensity to try and use stories or gossip to moderate group behaviour. Often the implicit message in stories of this type is “this is what you need to do to fit in around here”. When groups come together to agree that a particular story best encapsulates the values and norms of their group, they send a very clear message about what they expect and this makes it easier for group members to harmonise their behaviour.