Storytelling: A Natural Remedy for Burnout from Organizational Change

leadership storytelling
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Imagine this: your CEO made the vision for change as clear as they could. Wall Street was dictating their next move. The company’s historical industry-leading technology was the foundation for the current transformation. Everyone was going to be impacted by all of the downstream changes. The CEO thought it should be exciting for everyone to be on the ground floor, driving the organization’s value by 40% in the next three years. Did it matter if everyone worked with new tools and processes to engage customers, partners, and internal business functions? They were thinking, “Isn’t that what it takes to achieve the goal?” They had done their best job as a leader, clarifying the business imperatives. Yet, as they stepped away from the mic, they could see and feel people were already emotionally hemorrhaging from all the unknowns and anticipated changes.

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Have You Seen This Happen Before?

Sound familiar? Imagine if the CEO and all of the leadership had a way of inciting broad, deep, and varied support for the change. What would it look like if change was driven through a peer-to-peer network of engaged change agents?

Like it or not, change has become synonymous with the contemporary perils of organizational life. While change is hardly a new phenomenon, the rate and cadence of change have become faster and more unpredictable. Periods of rest and stabilization between change spurts have become shorter. What makes matters worse is that the prevalence of social change is creating debilitating ripples of stress for many people across all dimensions of their lives.

What Can You Do to Increase Support as a Leader?

Let’s look at an often overlooked or misapplied capability for organizational change work: Storytelling. Developing personal and organizational story-based communication skills helps people navigate change.

Storytelling is fundamental to how people communicate, learn, and think. It empowers people in the throes of change to cope. Stories help people find meaning and use meaning to individually and collectively create templates to guide their actions.

Three Focuses for Organizational Change

There are three major focus areas of organizational change:

1. Engagement

How are you branding your change initiative? What activities are being used to bring people into your change agent network? How are you creating and structuring, governance, and decision-making both now and in the future for all things related to the change? (This includes governance opportunities for data/business processes ownership and accountability, decision making (we recommend decision making skills training), and sequencing and prioritization of future changes).

Use Storytelling to:

  • Create working metaphors that encapsulate the spirit and value of the change being introduced.
  • Architect memorable experiences that offer people an opportunity to taste and see the value of the change in dialogue with others. Give people opportunities to reflect on their experiences with each other and imagine its implications for their futures.
  • Bring forward the experiences of people who are being impacted on a daily basis by the changes underway. Use stories as critical inputs into governance processes and activities.

2. Communication

What needs to be communicated? Who needs to know what and when? How often do you need to communicate? What channels and media will be used to communicate?

Use Storytelling to:

  • Infuse communications with rich “word pictures” (If a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth a thousand pictures.)
  • Build connections with your stakeholders by demonstrating empathy. Use stories to show you have listened and are willing and able to stand in people’s shoes as they go through a change event.
  • Express emotions in a safe way that gives people permission to acknowledge their fears, hopes, frustrations, and dreams.

Storytelling in Change Communication

Communication perpetuates a myth of striving for the Holy Grail of clarity. We are enamored with the illusion and importance of exactitude. Our messages must be precise and leave little room for interpretation. Anything less is a failure of communication, especially in business settings where tolerance for ambiguity is paid lip service but pushed beneath the surface.

Be suspicious of good communication practices when working with stories. Does that sound preposterous? It may seem counter-intuitive, but there are different communication, learning, and thinking rules operating with story-based communications. Just as Newtonian physics accounts for how we interact with physical matter and quantum mechanical laws predict phenomena on the sub-atomic level, good communication practices operate differently between traditional and storied-based ones.

Here are some other counter-intuitive thoughts about how storytelling works in change communication.

3. Training & Enablement

What do people learn to be successful in adopting the change? How will you support people through the change process? How will you measure changes in behavior and adoption?

Use Storytelling to:

  • Bring realism and specificity to training scenarios that are customized to the roles and day-to-day emerging realities for attendees.
  • Activate peer-to-peer informal social learning to strengthen learning throughout the change journey.
  • Augment data-driven change metrics with qualitative storied examples to enrich decision-making and increase executive awareness of the change’s impact.

Storytelling marries up well with the classic Prosci’s ADKAR model for organizational change:

Headshot of Terrence Gargiulo
Terrence Gargiulo

Terrence Gargiulo is the former Chief Storyteller of Accenture. He is the author of eight books, several of which have been translated into Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. For his creative use of narrative, INC Magazine awarded Terrence their Marketing Master Award. His work as an internationally recognized organizational development consultant earned him the 2008 HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress for his groundbreaking research on story-based communication skills. He was the recipient of Training Industry Magazine’s 2018 award for best article of the year.

Connect with Terrence on LinkedIn.

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