Do your employees and colleagues share stories of individual and team successes as a matter of course? If not, your organization likely is falling far short of its potential greatness. Among other things, stories demonstrate clearly shared values as well as desired behaviors and results that are rewarded.
Several years ago, while attending a funeral service for a firefighter who had died in the line of duty, I overheard one firefighter say to another, “We don’t seem to tell stories about the great things we do except at funerals.” This comment caught my attention in part because I knew that these firefighters and their colleagues were frustrated because the public, politicians, and administrative decision-makers don’t know what they do. Yet their practice is to downplay their successes, brush off expressions of gratitude from those they help, and keep their stories to themselves. Instead of sharing their experiences, in effect they are story hoarders. So it’s no wonder that the public is uninformed.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be complex or describe superhuman feats. To the contrary: some of the most compelling and inspiring stories I’ve heard involve very simple acts that had tremendous results. Stories are a very powerful way of showing who you and/or your organization are, and what you stand for.
One of my favorite stories involves a female paramedic called to the scene of an incident at which her male colleagues were unable to help the patient, a homeless man who was belligerent and refused to allow them to treat him. She walked over to the man and asked him, “How can I help you today, sweetheart?” The man broke down in tears and said, “It’s been years since anyone called me that.” The paramedics then were able to treat the man. This simple act of kindness embodies the care and compassion that is characteristic of this agency. Yet I would be willing to bet that only a handful of people have heard it.
If storytelling is not an integral part of your organization’s culture, here are three compelling reasons why you might want to change it:
1. Sharing stories serves to socialize people, establish norms, and demonstrate the behaviors and results that the organization values.
As a new employee at FedEx in the late 1970s, I was told the story about a courier who was rewarded
for hiring a helicopter to deliver a package by 3 p.m. after an avalanche closed the road to the customer’s home. The lesson I took away: the company valued
risk-taking, and rewarded those who took its commitment to outstanding customer
2. Stories demonstrate in concrete ways the value that people provide day after day.
The story about the female paramedic is one of hundreds of stories I have heard during
the years that I have worked with clients in the fire service that demonstrate how, in
large ways and small, its members serve the public. Sharing those stories, especially
when times are tough, or you’re so caught up in the weeds that you can’t see the
larger picture, can help to re-establish perspective and remind you of why you do what
you do, whatever your occupation.
3. Stories help organizations and their employees define and celebrate who they are and what they stand for.
Human beings generally like to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Stories show us what makes an organization great, who it is when it’s at its best. If
you’ve forgotten, I invite you to think back to the time that you were hired by your
organization. What were your hopes and dreams for your future, and that of your new
employer? Tell yourself your story of what made the organization attractive to you, and
what your aspirations were. No doubt you will re-discover what it was that brought you
there in the first place.
In short, organizational success depends heavily on the stories its employees are willing to share with each other, and with the world. You can spend a lot of time telling new employees how important the organization’s values are, and what the behavioral expectations are. Or you can rely on true stories to convey the message in much more powerful, succinct ways.
When is the last time you shared one of your stories?
© 2012 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.