Storytelling, a vital tool to turn Managers into Leaders

Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Iana Avramova (Bulgaria).

David has been working for his Corporation for 12 years now. He started when he was in his last year of University as a junior developer, growing to a senior developer, a team leader and a business development manager. Ending up with a team of more than 80 people working in the R&D department on a new series of electronic circuit for hearing implants. Each quarter for the last 15 months his Team was over performing in deadlines and productivity. Even when stagnation came, the budget for R&D was cut in half, David’s team stayed motivated and kept on pursuing their quarterly goals. Every time, when David was asked to help colleagues or to explain how he does it — nothing significant came out. They all went to the same trainings, followed the same procedures and rules.

Months later, the Corporation hired a Company of Executive Coaches to work with their Management. While they were conducting interviews with the Team, the mystery of David’s success was revealed. Once in a while he would spot a colleague who looks distracted. This colleague would more often take a break, go to smoke, check his phone, his watch, the Social Media. This was a sign for David that the colleague is disconnected from his work. It is not a surprise — each experienced Manager would notice these signs that will inevitably lead to reduced performance. The difference is in the reaction that follows. David would not remind the colleague of his duties, neither would sanction him or threaten him. He would do something different — he would tell a story.

One time it would be a story about the little boy he met at one of the Corporation’s Centers. A small boy, only 2 years old, who lost his hearing due to an infection. He would tell it affectionately like the kid was in the room. He would point out how scared and confused the boy was and how this hearing problem would affect the kid’s future. But most of all, David would stress on the fact how working in the Corporation, gives the tools and the mission to change the future not only for this boy but for many more kids. He would use different stories, stories that reflect the general mission of the Corporation they worked for but at the same time stories that are very particular and the listener gets emotionally engaged with them.

The key about storytelling is that it is the most powerful tool to influence people. It helps uniting a goal (high performance of an employee) with an emotion (the satisfaction for the employee). It triggers the centre of our limbic brain, which carries a higher power over the human behaviour because it is responsible for our emotions. If we have a basic look at our brain, it has actually 3 functions: the so-called reptilian brain (the one we have had since the human exists, where instincts are triggered). Then is the limbic brain, which is responsible for our emotions. On top of it is the youngest ‘brain’ we have called the neocortex — the one that helps us reason and analyse. In modern society, often of the 3 brains do not work together in regard to reactions and behaviour. There is a hierarchy in which we follow their orders and signals. For us, it is important to understand that the limbic (the emotional) brain has a higher power over the neocortex brain (the analytical, thinking brain). It is most probably because the reptilian and limbic brain together has helped humanity survive — the run or fight instinct and the fear or anger emotions based on which many years our ancestor has based their behaviour, decisions and actions. How often have you heard or read about somebody who is for example afraid of the dark? And the person does realise the stupidity of that fear, but just cannot help it. This is because the understanding is in the logical brain (neocortex), trying to reason with emotions (the limbic brain). No matter what the person will read or tell themselves, no matter that ‘dinosaurs’ do not exist, the fear in the emotional brains has been triggered and that’s it. The neocortex is less powerful than the emotional brain — end of the story.

How does storytelling use the above facts — it is as simple as that — long before humans could write or draw, stories have been told each evening around the fire transmitting information and experience learned during the day. The length of the stories does not matter but the lesson that each story carries is brief, imperative and clear (i.e. if you play with fire, you will get burned). It is the lesson that carries the power and the essence. The lesson is stored as a behavioural program in our logical brain. And the story itself, as a carrier of the lesson, contains of elements, descriptions and events that have a strong impact on humans’ emotions. These emotions facilitate the understanding, reworking and imprinting of the lesson learned in the surpluses of the brain for the coming generations. Stories have been told to us since we have been small children and they are genetically encoded in our brain. So, telling stories triggers the ancient behavioural centres in the emotional brain. Centres that as we said have a higher power over reasoning. Logically, explaining people the reason and facts of why they are coming to work and what their mission is will not trigger an emotional response. It will stay will the logical brain (the neocortex). The result is that the person will stay disconnected from his work and his motivation will fluctuate depending on many external factors such as financial background, perception of the work, other work options, family status, status quo, additional benefits, emotional moods and many other harder to control factors. It is true that in the Western cultures, we do have a variety of tools to control these external factors, but it is overwhelming, expensive and the result in not always in a direct correlation with the investment.

How does storytelling motivate the employees is also very basic to understand. The way people perceive and feel about their work is not entirely based on the work routine itself. It is only partly about the work, but equally or more it is about how they perceive what they are doing. When a person has a high paid, well respected position, but perceives the work as mindless, then he disconnects with the work and the productivity and motivation will decrease. When a person has a simple, ‘not important’ job, but perceives it as adding value to the big picture — this gives a purpose and direction and surely the motivation and productivity will increase. So, the point here is that if a Manager can alter a person’s perception about the work, the feelings towards it will also change. And storytelling is the right tool.

At the end, storytelling seems to be the new ‘pill’. We all just learn storytelling and we will fix all the bad things in the World. I do not think so and no, I do not believe it is a panacea for everything that can overcome one Corporation during its life cycle. But the above text explains why does storytelling work. I do believe that if more Managers are trained to tell stories, they will turn into Leaders lighting the motivational sparks in their Teams. Storytelling together with all other instruments a Manager possesses can help build human centred, value oriented structures that will function most of the time in symbiosis. There is nothing to lose and mastering storytelling itself opens new horizons and brings joy and satisfaction by triggering ancient emotional centres for the storyteller and the listener.

Note: Please see Bibliography here

About Iana Avramova

Founder and Author at Transformika Coaching Cards — Coaching Made Easy. Iana created from scratch a set of 32 Coaching cards + 60 coaching mantras (positive affirmations). Each card has a number of questions and represents a mini coaching session. There are different challenges in professional and personal aspect (i.e. problem solving, relationship issues, time management, career choice, health issues and many more).

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