· Features

Behaviour change: It’s all in the story

Navigating the people aspects of change continues to be regarded as a pressing challenge

When asked to describe their organisation’s climate leaders often use the words changing, uncertain and challenging. Navigating change, and particularly the people aspects of change, continues to be highlighted as what UK leaders and managers regard as their most pressing challenge, according to Roffey Park’s Management Agenda 2016.

So how can UK leaders hope to continue to manage this uncertainty and inevitable further change?

Our research suggests that the predominant experience of change is still top-down and imposed rather than co-created, shared and flexible. We know that linear approaches to change don’t work and what’s needed is a breed of leader capable of inspiring and motivating others. We argue that leaders could benefit a great deal from learning the art of storytelling. So how can stories help illuminate the reasons why change is required, or help individuals to see themselves as part of the change process? Can stories actually help people to understand what’s in it for them?

How can storytelling help in times of change?

Advocates of storytelling suggest four reasons why stories are such an effective method of communication:

  • They hold our attention – we hear the message: we tend to listen very receptively to stories. When we hear a story with a good beginning we are keen to hear how it ends, and a well told story can hold our attention in a way that facts may not.
  • They are simple to understand – we ‘get’ the message: a concrete example, or story, can help to aid understanding. Stories can provide context, allowing people to relate to them more easily.
  • They are memorable – we remember the message: information presented in the style of a story is better remembered. It is also remembered more accurately and for longer.
  • They are persuasive – we act on the message: stories are a powerful means of influencing because they are able to elicit an emotional response. Moved this way, we are more likely to connect with the message.

The emotional connection

Research suggests that stories are most persuasive where the listener connects them with their own experience. A communication that connects with one’s own ideas, experiences and emotions takes on a more personal perspective, ultimately making it more memorable and resonant.

Through stimulating the imagination and emotions, stories can help people overcome fear and resistance to change. By demonstrating what has happened to similar people in similar circumstances, stories can lessen what may feel threatening and inspire confidence in the face of change. People can also be encouraged to articulate their own stories as a way of visualising change in a positive light.

What makes a good storyteller?

The impact of a story is largely dependent on the skills of the storyteller, who needs to be adept at not only selecting the story and its composition, but also in choosing the language of the communication within the context of the audience. A leader aiming to align and inspire a workforce must genuinely believe in and live up to their story, or they risk inspiring little more than cynicism, mistrust and ultimately disengagement.

We also know that people are more likely to follow leaders they trust and believe in, and who appear ‘genuine’, so trust is critical. Many leaders will use quite personal stories about themselves in order to engender trust and they also understand the value of revealing some of their own vulnerability, which can, paradoxically, raise their credibility among employees.

Whatever post-Brexit Britain has in store, organisations are likely to be facing unprecedented changes. Storytelling offers a way of communicating messages that are alive, personal and relevant, helping people to really connect with a message and influencing behaviour through appealing to feelings and emotions.

While there is ample evidence to demonstrate the power of stories in changing behaviour, our research has identified gaps in the capability of leaders to articulate stories that engage and inspire others. The business world is full of fads and while leaders may pay attention to these fads in search of competitive advantage, it could be that one of the most effective tools at their disposal is one that is as old as time.

So, in thinking about how you use stories in your organisation, particularly in this post-referendum world, here are some questions you might consider:

  • Do people ‘sit up’ and listen when you are making important communications?
  • How could you facilitate the sharing of stories to reinforce key messages?
  • Are you confident that the organisation can achieve the change? Do you set out the context, the need for change and your vision of the outcome in a way to convince employees of your reasoning and share in your excitement?

Carol Hatcher is a research assistant at Roffey Park Institute