Can Storytelling Shape Organizational Behavior?

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At Go Narrative, we talk a lot about storytelling in the context of customer communications. After all, storytelling is the foundation of any good marketing campaign – if you want someone to buy from you, you tell them a story that helps them visualize how much better their life will be with your product or service.

External storytelling is undoubtedly important, but there's a hidden, untapped opportunity to apply storytelling internally to influence productive, collaborative behaviors within your organization.

A customer story is all about a transformative journey, told through the lens of the 3Ds: Desire, Difficulty, and Denouement. You can use this same story structure when communicating and working within and across departments.

Let's consider a website redesign project. Instead of writing a checklist of to-dos, you can reframe the project as a narrative. There's a desire: What does the company hope to achieve with the redesign? There's a difficulty: What was it about the old website, or organization constraints against change that is standing in the way? And of course, there's a denouement, or conclusion: How will your marketing communications team transform those elements and create a new site that will reach the organization's goals?

Whether you're a product manager or a senior vice president, you have the ability to shape the betterment of your organization through story. Below, we explore how to make that happen by applying the same story framework you'd use for your customers, to your internal stakeholders.

How stories shape an organization

An organization is made up of stories. They're the stories people tell around water coolers; the stories your customers tell to their colleagues; the stories we tell at a dinner party when we talk about where we work.

These stories are the fabric of a company's reality – whatever people talk about defines the company. If you're telling someone a negative story about your company's work environment, you've instantly created an impression with them about what it's like to work there – and to that person, that "toxic culture" you've presented becomes the reality, even if it was only based on an isolated incident.

We can't change this reality without changing the stories people tell about the organization. Therefore, you must practice the art of storymaking by putting story at the center of how you solve problems.

The 'humble leader' as a company's storymaker

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The responsibility of any company is to meet customers on their journey and contribute to the betterment of their lives with the product or service it provides. Everyone within the company plays a supporting role in your customers' lives – they're the ones who shape the stories told to and by customers. As a leader (no matter your title), you should focus on setting the example of internal storymaking and storytelling, so that your team can learn from and emulate this behavior with your customers. 

The concept of the "humble leader," or servant-leader, stems from the idea that you should lead from within the organization, not above it. Top-down leadership in which authority relies on a title or position is never as effective as leaders who support and motivate their team as "one of them," modeling the behavior they wish to see from their people. To paraphrase John C. Maxwell, a great leader knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

One of the most important things you can do as a humble leader is have in-depth conversations with your team about the problems they're facing, and how you might be able to help. London Business School professor Dan Cable explains this nicely in a Harvard Business Review article:

"Rather than telling employees how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better. [The] effects of this approach can be powerful … Employees who do the actual work of your organization often know better than you how to do a great job. Respecting their ideas, and encouraging them to try new approaches to improve work, encourages employees to bring more of themselves to work."

When you support your team in their efforts to improve at their jobs, what you're really doing is shaping their stories of betterment – just like they will do in turn for your customers. Remember, if it's good enough for the customer, it's good enough for you.

Aligning organizational goals with an internal narrative

In big organizations with diverse stakeholders, achieving buy-in can be challenging. Everyone has an agenda or a goal that they're pushing, and in big corporations, those goals aren't necessarily aligned.

Consider all the work that goes into a product launch, and all the different goals of each department involved:

  • The product marketing team has to define product messaging.

  • The marcom team has to create campaign content.

  • The PR team has to build a press release work their press relationships.

When you get down to it, all of these tasks are in service of the product launch, but depending on their department and role, people's individual goals are very different. If there's a disconnect between those individual goals on one team versus another, it often results in a breakdown in communication where nobody understands how they're supposed to collaborate and how things fit together.

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This is where storytelling comes in. By aligning organizational goals with an internal narrative, you can bring everyone together and keep them focused on the bigger picture: your shared goal of serving the customer.

To do this, you must immerse yourself in the stories that are happening within and around your organization. Number five on Stephen Covey's famous "seven habits" list is, "seek first to understand, then to be understood." If you want a stakeholder team to understand your goals and priorities as a leader, you must first understand theirs.

There are three different angles you need to understand and incorporate into this "big picture" story to successfully collaborate within an organization:

  1. The story of the customer. At the end of the day, your customer is everybody's "boss" at your company. All internal goals should ultimately empower the team to deliver what the customer needs.

  2. The story of yourself. Understanding yourself and your role as a leader is just as important as understanding your customers and your team members.

  3. The story of your stakeholders. These are the people who make things happen for your customers. Each stakeholder has their own unique perspective, strengths, and struggles in doing their jobs.

  4. All three of these stories need to be explored and integrated into the larger narrative of your organization. Crafting this narrative begins with a clear story framework.

Building your internal story framework

Step 1: Your customer's story

If you've been following the Go Narrative blog, you've probably seen us discuss the use of story frameworks as it relates to marketing content. These frameworks, which are built upon the 3Ds we mentioned earlier, layout the "hero" or protagonist of the story (typically your customer), what they're trying to achieve, what's standing in their way, and how they overcome that obstacle to reach their desired state.

You can see a visual representation and example of our basic story framework in this blog post, but to recap, your framework should lay out three distinct "acts" of your customer's story:

  1. The beginning / context: Sets the stage for the narrative. This section describes the story's hero, the things they desire, and the transformation they'll go through by the end of the story.

  2. The middle / action: Presents the "villain" of the story, or the issue your hero is facing. This is also where you introduce the guide in solving their problem, as well as the steps they need to take to achieve their desired transformation.

  3. The end / results: The final act sets up the stakes for the hero (what happens if they don't go through their transformation?) and how they ultimately moved forward to achieve their desires.

Step 2: Your story

Once you've done this for your customers, you can apply this structure internally to yourself and your stakeholders. When you're planning out how to communicate your goals and priorities to your team, you can create a story framework that positions you as the protagonist and answer the following questions:

  • What are you trying to achieve?

  • What are the roadblocks? Is there a particular team/process/person standing in your way?

  • Who is the "guide" for solving this problem? Which internal stakeholders do you need to engage/rely on? Are there any external or third-party guides who can contribute to this?

  • What meetings and conversations do you need to have, and what resources do you need to pull in to help you achieve your goals?

It's important to note that this initial exercise is just for you – you don't need to share this document you’re your team (and in fact, you probably shouldn't if you're calling out people who are in the way of your goals!). Ultimately, these questions are designed to help you understand where you fit into the organization's overall picture. It's about setting yourself up with the right roadmap to have these conversations with your internal stakeholders, identifying the outcomes you're driving, and defining what your transformation ending looks like.

Step 3: Your stakeholders' stories

Your third and final step is to apply a story framework to your internal stakeholders. This should focus on individual priorities, roadblocks, and solutions. Most importantly, you'll want to focus on what's at stake for each person, and how it ties back to their mission within the organization. Depending on your organizational structure, you may need to create multiple storyboards for different departmental stakeholders.

To build these frameworks, you'll want to initiate a collaborative process with each stakeholder. Speak with them about their goals and their challenges. Rely on your "tribal" organizational knowledge and your knowledge from working with them to understand what are they trying to achieve and where that aligns with both your customers' story and your own.

The resulting frameworks are intended to share with managers and other stakeholders – although you may wish to anonymize some sensitive details and "protect the innocent" by making the protagonist a fictional aggregate of your real stakeholders. You will use your story framework as a map that allows you to clearly see and design a new future for the organization in which you, the leader, are the guide for each of your stakeholders as they live out their own individual stories and work to achieve their goals.

The bigger picture: The role of story in our everyday lives

To fully appreciate the power and importance of story, let's go back to where it all began.

Humankind has always used stories to make sense of the world. These stories help us predict what will happen so we can improve our chances of surviving and thriving. In prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities, the seasoned hunter sat around a campfire with younger ones, transferring critical knowledge – the tools for survival – in the form of a story.

Consider how Lisa Cron describes this in her book, Wired for Story (2012):

"Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving. Hey bud, don't eat those shiny red berries unless you wanna croak like the Neanderthal next door; here's what happened…"

Cron also notes that stories allow us to simulate intense (and potentially dangerous) situations without having to live through them. This, she says, was a matter of life and death in the Stone Age: "If you waited for experience to teach you that the rustling in the bushes was actually a lion looking for lunch, you'd end up as the main course."

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Of course, storytelling has evolved since the hunter-gatherer days, but at its core, it is still the act of imparting critical knowledge that needs to be remembered. In a big organization, stories can help you effectively communicate why doing things a certain way (or not doing certain things) is going to help someone better survive or thrive within the company.

This, ultimately, is what human beings care about: "What's in it for me?" Somebody's not going to work on your project if they don't see how it benefits them. That's why story – specifically, leveraging story to change the knowledge, understanding, and culture of a group – is so powerful for organizations. It helps your team see past their seemingly conflicting priorities and understand how to work together to achieve goals for the betterment of themselves and the company.

So, if you're ready to start changing your organization's behavior and culture, do the due diligence to construct and then tell the right stories. Through storymaking, you're able to shape how an organization acts. You're able to shape your colleagues' lives – their stories – for the better, which thus enables them to make your customers' lives better.

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Our secret sauce is storytelling for business growth and transformation. We can help you cut through the noise and improve your reputation. We love helping business leaders understand, use and apply storytelling in business via writing, presentations, video, strategy and actionable plans. Get attention. Be heard. Sell more.

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