How telling stories can help your business grow

Story-telling is probably not a technique that immediately springs to mind when it comes to managing a growing SME.  But it was the ability to capture compelling stories that helped propel Fittleworth Medical to success in the recent People Management awards.

The business (a home delivery company for wound care products) scooped the award for SME HR initiative of the year, a category sponsored by Cezanne HR .  Their entry impressed the judges because it demonstrated an innovative approach to defining the culture and values of the business following a spate of rapid growth.

‘The Fittleworth Way’, which was developed with input from all staff, informs the way staff go about their jobs on a day-to-day basis.  What is perhaps unusual, is that it was story-telling that was key to developing a culture that is now firmly embedded in the company.

Staff were asked to share stories about where their colleagues had gone the extra mile, taken pride in their work or shown compassion for customers.  The resulting tales were captured in a book which is given to all employees to help emphasis the values and behaviours the business holds dear to and illustrate the ‘way we do things around here’.

The concept of leadership through story-telling has been around in larger organisations for a while.  But Fittleworth’s experience shows that it’s a technique that can be put to good use in a small business too.  It’s a great way for an SME owner to communicate their vision in a way that excites staff, for example, or to engage people in new concepts or ideas.

It’s an idea that’s definitely gaining traction.  I’ve recently contributed to a CIPD ‘hack’ on ‘story-telling for HR’ which purports that organisations are missing a trick by not making more use of this highly effective influencing technique.  The debate has attracted much interest in the HR community and may result in the development of some practical tools and resources to help managers develop their story-telling skills.

It may sound a bit soft and fluffy but it works – primarily because telling a compelling story allows you to communicate with people on an emotional as well as rational revel.  Research from Ohio State University has shown that people’s beliefs can be swayed more effectively through story-telling than through logical argument.

So how could you use story-telling to improve communication and engagement in your business?  Why not give it a try in one of these three common scenarios that are ever-present in a growing SME:

  1.  Creating the right culture:  Getting everyone to buy into the values and demonstrate the behaviours you’d like to see in your business can be a difficult task.  The typical approach is for the senior management team to lock themselves away in the boardroom, emerging a few days later with a list of values that gets circulated to all and proudly pinned up in reception.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t explicitly tell employees what they need to do differently on Monday morning.  Telling stories that celebrate the small but significant things people do every day to delight customers and support colleagues is a much more effective way of driving the behaviours you want to encourage.  It’s not about moralising to staff and telling them how they should and shouldn’t behave – but about providing a clear illustration of how you’d like them to go about their work on a daily basis.
  2. Driving through change:  Story-telling can also help to support change initiatives – particularly those that are unpopular or require people to move out of their comfort zones.  “Asking people to stop doing the things they know and love doing things they don’t know much about amounts to asking them to accept new identities.  The usual result? Scepticism.  Hostility.  Sitting on the fence.  Anything but enthusiastic implementation,” says story-telling guru Stephen Denning in his book ‘The Leaders’ Guide to Storytelling’.  Telling stories, however, can get people out of a negative cycle by helping them see alternative approaches.  Try recounting tales about how a similar change programme was implemented successfully in a different sector or business and the benefits it had for all.  Use stories to illustrate the implications of sticking with the status quo – but make sure you end on a positive note so people can see what a brighter future will look like.
  3. Encouraging collaboration:  Technology that enables people to work together effectively across departments or geographical boundaries has been around for some time now.  But just because the technology is in place, doesn’t mean people will enthusiastically use it.  Story-telling is a great way to encourage collaboration and stimulate innovation in your business.  Encourage teams to tell their own stories of the achievements they have made through collaboration in other jobs or companies.  Use real examples of how sharing knowledge has helped your business move forward – even if only in small ways.  Providing an internal social portal, such as the one that comes as an integral part of Cezanne OnDemand’s HR software solution, gives people a shared space where they can talk about new ideas, share information and support each other.  It helps create team spirit and also stops people reinventing the wheel or making the same mistakes over again.

In a future blog, we’ll share some practical techniques for putting compelling business stories together.  In the meantime, let us know how you have used stories in your business and what advice you’d give to others.

 

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