Storytelling in OD Communications

by | Mar 2, 2024 | I-O Psychology, Organizational Development, Workplace, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

Persuade and solidify commitment using stories of triumph and loss in organizational development.

My wife Lisa and I chatted this morning about various things on our minds. Lisa teaches music in middle school, and our conversation centered around motivation and our kids in the face of adversity. She told me a story of a pivotal point in her life related to our discussion.

As a child, Lisa joined the grammar school band at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Catholic School in Chicago, IL. She struggled to learn to play the flute in her first year and pretended to perform during her first concert. She felt devastated when her father congratulated her on a job well done, and she admitted, crying, that she had not performed most of the music (her little ring finger could not quite reach the keys required to sound a “D”).

When school reconvened, the music teacher gave the class “The Grandfather Clock” as a solo piece. She presented Lisa with another less difficult piece. Dishonored and ruffled by this gesture, little Lisa protested and said she could and would learn the piece of greater difficulty. She set her goal in mind and out loud, committed herself to a practice schedule, and worked hard to attain proficiency. She demonstrated tremendous grit and a growth mindset… concepts yet uncoined in the 80s. Her parents supported her artistic endeavors, and her father specifically worked with Lisa to attain the skills and abilities to play even those most challenging notes and phrases. In the end, she nailed the solo with a great degree of self-confidence… a moment that forged a path for Lisa to pursue a career in music and a life-long purpose to help raise the self-efficacy of others as a teacher and a team leader.

Why did I share this story? First, to prove to Lisa that, yes, I do indeed listen to her… ha!

Second, I wished to demonstrate the power of a story to illustrate two points:

  1. When we can set our own SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-constrained) and have a nurturing environment, we can attain great things with grit and a growth mindset.
  2. When we use stories to demonstrate how someone attained a vision or completed a quest, we create pathways to inspire others to undergo similar voyages to excellence.

I recently asked my mentor, Alan Landers, to provide an article on practical interventions one can use in organizational development. As I read Alan’s answer, I realized that much of OD practitioners’ work revolves around communication with stakeholders. This includes having an initial conversation, persuading a PIT (Planning and Implementation Team), communicating the plan, and empowering the client. Organizations can harness the power of storytelling to develop and articulate a clear vision for the intended outcomes of any change initiative or OD intervention.

Stories as a Path to Transformation

In the evolving landscape of organizational development (OD), workplaces might leverage storytelling as a powerful catalyst for change, growth, and connection. This ancient art form, when applied within the context of modern organizations, has the unique ability to bridge the temporal divide, linking the rich legacy of the past with the vibrant potential of the present and future (Kaye & Jacobson, 1999). Through the strategic integration of storytelling, organizations can unlock profound avenues for development and transformation by sharing a clearer vision and fostering communication through a style proven to move people throughout the ages.

Organizational storytelling does more than merely convey information; it creates a shared experience that can deeply resonate with employees, fostering a sense of belonging and purpose. When a storyteller can capture the audience’s imagination, people connect with the characters and the plot. This narrative approach to OD allows for the encapsulation of an organization’s culture, values, and vision in an engaging and relatable manner. By drawing on the universal principles of storytelling, organizations can effectively illustrate complex concepts, navigate through periods of change, and inspire collective action toward shared goals.

Craft Engaging Stories Based on Arcs

Organizational leadership can boost the effectiveness of storytelling in organizational contexts by choosing one of several available narrative arcs. Different kinds of stories — depicting a journey of overcoming obstacles, a transformational tale of growth, or a narrative of innovation and discovery — can captivate and motivate in unique ways. My colleague and mentor, Lisa Apolinski, co-wrote a book, Persuade with a Digital Content Story!, which highlighted various Hollywood story arcs and their characters to use to persuade people in marketing. Choosing the right kind of narrative in organizational messages and lessons can cater to an organization’s varied experiences and perspectives. Know your audience, find some common ground, and choose a story that resonates with those people.

Stories Based on Influential Narratives

Organizations further amplify the power of storytelling when they draw upon the narratives of influential figures and principles. Industrial-organizational psychologist and thought leader Adam Grant (2023) of the Wharton School uses stories of current and historical figures to demonstrate how they achieved greatness. Furthermore, stoicism writer Ryan Holiday illustrates various virtues via stories of stoics throughout time. These narratives, which explore themes of resilience, potential, and personal growth, offer valuable lessons that OD practitioners and transformational leaders can adapt and apply within organizational settings. By incorporating stories of notable achievements and challenges overcome, organizations can provide relatable examples that inspire and guide employees toward personal and collective growth.

Integrate the REAL Model

The NTL Handbook of Organizational Development and Change (Jones & Brazzel, 2014) from the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science recommends incorporating the REAL model (Reflection, Engagement, Action, Learning) into storytelling efforts. The structured framework of this model could maximize the impact of narratives within the OD process. It facilitates a comprehensive approach to storytelling, beginning with reflection on the organization’s history and stories, engaging employees through compelling narratives, inspiring action toward achieving organizational objectives, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation based on evolving stories and feedback. Subsequently, such a culture more readily accepts change, displays resilience, and moves organizations forward.

Put Stories to Use in Organizational Development

Storytelling, when skillfully integrated into organizational development strategies, transcends conventional methods of communication to become a profound force for engagement, understanding, and transformation. By leveraging storytelling, organizations can create a narrative-rich environment that connects employees to the organization’s legacy, inspires action toward shared goals, and fosters a culture of continuous learning and innovation. In doing so, storytelling becomes a foundational element of organizational development and a basis for a deep corporate culture.

To harness the full potential of storytelling in OD, organizations should begin by identifying and curating stories that resonate with their core values, mission, and strategic objectives. They should also get to know the people within the organization to tailor stories for their workers best. Change leaders can then integrate these stories into various organizational channels and initiatives, such as internal communications, training programs, leadership dialogues, and digital content, ensuring they align their message relevant to the organization’s goals and the audience.

References

Apolinski, L. & DeVries, H. (2020). Persuade with a Digital Content Story!: How Smart Business Leaders Gain a Marketing Competitive Edge. Indie Books International.

Grant, A. (2023). Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. Random House.

Jones, B. B. & Brazzel, M. (2014). The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change. Wiley.

Kaye, B. & Jacobson, B. (1999). True tales and tall tales: the power of organizational storytelling. Training & Development, 53(3). Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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