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3 Ways Stories Drive Change

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

As cognitive psychologist and artificial intelligence theorist Roger Schank explains, “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” These tales can formulate context, amplify emotions, and galvanize action. If you have ever watched a documentary then immediately felt compelled to climb El Capitan, choose forks over knives, sail to Patagonia, or start your own biggest little farm, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.

While the path to improvement may be paved with systematically implemented tools such as GANTT charts and ADKAR models, people aren’t always so logical. Storytelling can be a powerful tool to support improvements and drive change in any organization.

Compelling narratives are at the heart of what drives human behavior because stories have a keen way of tapping into our underlying beliefs and attitudes. Narrative stories guide who we vote for, what products we buy, where we stand on controversial issues, and what causes we support. And narratives drive change.

Why Is Change So Hard?

Change refers to any event that causes a disruption to our normal operations. In fact, simply mentioning the word change can make some people feel anxious. Changes elicit feelings of uncertainty and loss of control. When people feel threatened or unsafe, they switch from using their rational brain to their emotional brain. While we are quick to label people unwilling to accept change as being resistant, it isn’t the change itself that people usually resist. It is the threat of losing something of value or the risk of not being able to adapt to a new way that causes people to balk at change.

Change initiatives often falter because they fail to motivate and engage people sufficiently to reach the goals. People need motivation and commitment to replace an existing perspective with another one. Often, when an organizational change goes wrong it is because it’s being treated purely as an implementation of a new process. A logical approach can be used to deal with the practical elements of the change, but it cannot be used to address the emotional side of the equation.


How Can Stories Help?

For a change initiative to take root, it must inform and inspire. Remember, we are never inspired by reason alone because we are not that logical. We are emotional creatures.

Stories are a community’s currency. They help to shape the identity of the group by defining its boundaries and underscoring its reputation. Stories also reveal the group’s culture, values, heroes, and enemies. By sharing our stories, we define who we are and what we stand for.

A good story, with its characters, suspense, plot twists, and triumph over odds, captures your imagination and makes you feel. It draws you in, places you at its center, connects to your emotions, and inserts its meaning into your memory. Stories facilitate a personal connection to the change process, which generates understanding and buy-in.


How Stories Drive Change

Stories develop a stronger sense of community and stronger teams. Stories build connections by helping us realize we all have similar issues in common. Stories help team members to look beyond job titles to see people with shared experiences, shared beliefs, and shared values. That switch in perspective can make it easier to ask for help and work through conflicts more easily.

Stories can help generate new ideas. Just listening to stories allows our creativity synapses to start connecting. But there’s also another piece to this. When change managers engage in this work, they will often ask a question that encourages employees to tell a story. Their next step is to actively listen for those moments where employees describe a challenge or obstacle, observe for changes in emotion or tone, and home in on those turning points. The information gained through this process can be used to prioritize which challenges to address first.

Storytelling can alleviate risk and encourage buy-in. Remember: The fear of the unknown kicks the emotional side of our brain into overdrive, but we can take measures to address this proactively. We cannot eliminate fear, uncertainty, or the prospect of change, but we can leverage these emotional stakes to a company’s advantage. For example, leaders can use stories to cast their employees as change agents rather than status quo defenders.

We use stories to help people visualize a change in action and the results that change drives—and boost excitement about those results. Stories invite people to bring their whole selves to work, and therefore, elicit more comprehensive perspectives and meaningful commitments. By creating personal connections for work aspirations, employees will feel more valued and drive the change you seek.

About the Author

Melissa Sims serves as the country lead for Change Management Institute, USA. She is also a founding member of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP). In addition, Melissa serves as a vice president for the thought leadership arm of Philadelphia’s Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Melissa is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Sociology and Systems Engineering. Melissa also holds a Master of Science in Human Resources, as well as an MBA. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Communications.

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Thanks for sharing. Very informative.
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