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How to Use Storytelling to Drive Change Management

3 minutes, 12 seconds read

Kaizen provides a systematic framework for driving ongoing improvement in an organization. While the path to improvement may be paved with systematically implemented tools, people aren’t always so logical. As venture capitalist Aaron White puts it, “The world operates on story first, and logic second.”

What White means is that people’s brains are wired to respond to stories. Stories can create context, charge emotions and inspire action. As a result, storytelling can be a powerful tool to support improvements and drive change in any organization. Consider the following three benefits of storytelling:

1. Stories develop stronger teams

Cathy Dolan-Schweitzer uses storytelling to drive improvements in construction project outcomes. She has found in the process that she can build stronger teams among contractors and end-users. As she explains, “When you tell a story, you get the whole picture. You understand the emotions, the characters. The way that people move their bodies all tells you what really is happening. When that happens, people are encouraged to participate as a team. It’s how you can establish a trusting and safe atmosphere to help people share their own wisdom and experience.”

Stories build connections among listeners. It helps team members to look beyond job titles to see people with shared experiences. That switch in perspective can make it easier to ask for help and work through conflicts more easily.

2. Stories can help generate new ideas

Many Kaizen programs encourage frontline workers to come up with the ideas that will drive productivity improvements. But coming up with effective ideas isn’t always simple.

Change managers can help this process by asking a question that encourages the employee to tell a story. The next step is to actively listen for those moments where employees describe a challenge or obstacle; observe for changes in emotion or tone; and focus on turning points in the story. The emotional reactions can help prioritize which challenges to address. The information gained through this process can be used as the basis for more specific data-driven changes.

3. Storytelling can alleviate risk and encourage buy-in

Resistance to change is normal. Change is hard. The fear of the unknown leads to stress and anxiety—even if the current situation is itself painful. This resistance an innate response but knowing this means change managers can take steps to prepare to address this resistance.

It’s important to lay the groundwork for change early on. As change manager Torben Rick puts it, it’s not truly possible to eliminate fear, uncertainty or the prospect of change. But storytelling can help change managers leverage these emotional stakes to a company’s advantage. For example, leaders can use stories to “cast” their organizations as change agents rather than status quo defenders.

These stories also help people to visualize a change in action and the results that change drives—and get excited about those results.

Tips to tell your story

So what exactly makes a good story?

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak identifies several critical aspects to make a story effective:

  1. The story must capture and hold the audience’s attention. This must happen quickly, often within 15 seconds or less.
  2. The story has to show conflict. In doing so, it transports the audience into the character’s role and begins to build empathy.
  3. The story must offer a resolution. This helps give the story meaning.

A survey from people management platform Beaconforce found that good stories excite employees through four elements:

  1. Transparency.
  2. A sense of belonging (we’re in this together).
  3. Positive emotions.
  4. Authenticity.

Through these connections, change managers can strengthen their partnerships with employees in embracing ongoing improvement.

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