Storytelling Your Team Into Good Behaviors

It was the height of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Working at a bank “too big to fail” we finally accepted TARP federal money and expenses had to be slashed.  The ax was falling on jobs everywhere and all of us were nervous. A look at performance through a measurement system, that was frankly easy to game, held a large determining factor for who stayed and who went.  I watched in shock as some banker friends, who had worked for the bank for years consistently doing the right thing for the client and the bank, were dismissed.  Among those retained were employees all of us knew were just better at “playing the game.”


Not unique to my employer was the same decision making at other financial institutions.  With no one hiring, these friends were left to deplete their life savings, some losing their homes, and one even lost all hope.


This was a shaping time for me and began stirring in my heart the need to measure behaviors, as well as performance, when it came to evaluating an employee.  There had to be a better way to reward adherence to core values, in turn creating sustainability and a competitive advantage over the long term.


And then I read the book, Performance Culture, and knew immediately that the simple, yet profound use of the Performance Values Matrix could have saved so many of my friends’ jobs, and was the answer to prevent disasters like this from happening again.


The author of Performance Culture, Dallas Romanowski, is now my business partner and co-founder.  Along with our team, we are helping organizations across the globe achieve the performance they want in a healthy, core-values focused way.


That’s my story.  What’s yours?


I began with a story because stories inspire us, challenge us, and motivate us.  Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have known this for years and the best of them cause us to act – and even think – in a different way.


We know from neuroscience that the brain produces and releases certain chemicals – hormones – that are the driving force for much of what we do.  This research fascinates me as I have observed for years the scientifically backed reasons for behavior in daily interactions between leader, manager, and employee.  These observations formed our coaching process we now use in organizations everywhere.  Our Coach the Coach series aims to train managers and leaders how to recognize these same behaviors and coach to them.


These hormones – oxytocin being a major player – help motivate people towards cooperation.  Team chemistry and cooperative behaviors are necessary for productive and effective work, though many HR professionals and company leaders tell us this is one of their biggest challenges.


In Paul Zak’s research[1] he explains how storytelling can indeed cause the release of oxytocin and drive behaviors.  So why wouldn’t we tell stories of desired behaviors as regularly as possible in our companies and organizations?


In the Harvard Business Review Article “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool”[2], Harrison Monarth states, “Two studies from the health care industry show its (storytelling’s) power: Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that medical students’ attitudes about dementia patients, who are perceived as difficult to treat, improved substantially after students participated in storytelling exercises that made them more sympathetic to their patients’ conditions. And a University of Massachusetts Medical School study found that a storytelling approach has also been effective in convincing populations at risk for hypertension to change their behavior and reduce their blood pressure.”


And think about all the leaders throughout history who inspired revolutionary change because they told a story.  Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that he shared as often as he could.  Jesus Christ spoke primarily in parables (stories) in order to incite change and duplicate desired behaviors.  Aesop taught us that slow and steady wins the race.


So what can we do with this knowledge, and how can we start to use storytelling in our organizations in order to drive good behaviors?


Start with telling stories at the beginning of your team meetings about how your organization made a difference in someone’s life.  Allow employees to share examples through 360 Degree Feedback of how fellow workers demonstrate the core values of the company and then celebrate these stories.


And repeat.  Don’t let this be a rare occurrence, do it as often as you can, letting it seep into and eventually becoming part of your culture.  What will result is a painted picture organizationally of what it looks like to work at your company, what is celebrated and rewarded – and on the flip side – what will not be tolerated.


Here’s to a great story and a happy ending.


[1] by Paul J. Zak is the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies


[2]  by Harrison Monarth