Stories: The 9 Hidden Powers of Employee Engagement

by David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

Stories: The 9 Hidden Powers of Employee Engagement

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. -  Muriel Rukeyser

For many people, stories are something we tell children or the plot of a good novel we read at the beach. Stories seem frivolous yet I believe stories play a significant role in employee engagement. Stories construct how we make sense of work and how we connect with others in the workplace. Our stories construct meaning and purpose, create emotions, and guide our actions. Stories are the plots and subplots of employee engagement.

Learn these nine story structures to influence employee engagement

1. We must be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves. Each employee creates stories about their work. If they get a promotion, they tell a story. If they work for a challenging boss, they tell a story. If they work on a dynamic team full of accomplishment and goodwill, they tell a story. What is the story you tell yourself about work? Does that story help or hinder you?

Jim Loehr, in The Power of Story, stated, “I believe that stories — again, not the ones people tell us but the ones we tell ourselves — determine nothing less than our personal and professional destinies.”

Ask yourself: What stories am I telling myself about work?

2. We create and share stories with a single word. Stories don’t have to be 300 pages or a mega budget movie. A story nugget can be as small as one word. If we say someone is lazy, there will be a back story to that label. Saying someone is lazy is a story not a fact. We must reach deeper into that word to find the actions that lead to our story about another employee. The authors of Crucial Conversations outline the power of the three one-word stories of victim, villain, and helpless.

In organizations struggling with employee engagement you often see multiple versions of these three stories. Employees see their leadership as villains and themselves as victims while leadership has a mirror flip of the story; as a result everyone feels helpless.

Ask yourself: How can I change my one word stories from a tale that entrenches disengagement into a word that embraces employee engagement?

3. Let’s transform our employees into working heroes. We are well served by knowing and understanding the dynamic of the heroic story made famous by Joseph Campbell. Using that structure employees are reluctant heroes, reticent about the call to engagement. They must pass through a number of challenges to discover full engagement while leadership acts more as a mentor to help the employee-heroes navigate through the challenges ahead.

A manager or leader is a mentor (a workplace Yoda, if you will) to help employees fight inertia and find stronger connections with work. To have a fuller understanding of the heroic structure and the role it can play in speeches and presentations I encourage you to read Nancy Duarte’s Resonate.

Ask yourself: How can I enable employees to be authentic heroes at work?

4. Organizations must construct a compelling strategic narrative. According to the Engage for Success movement, one of the four enablers of employee engagement is the organization’s strategic narrative or story. This is the story of the organization from origin and history to present day and future aspirations. A compelling strategic narrative offers employees meaning and purpose and a chance to join with something larger than their individual selves.

Ask yourself: What is our organization’s compelling strategic narrative? Is this a story with a major role for me?

5. Transform story telling into story doing. Ty Montagu wrote an intriguing book about an organization’s metastory, True Story. According to Montagu both individuals and organizations have metastories. Your metastory is told through action; it’s a story that you do rather than just a story that you say. It’s the day-to-day actions that make the organization’s strategic narrative not a story posted in an annual report or told by leadership to other employees. In 2014, we must move from stories being told to actions telling stories.

Ask yourself: When I look at the actions of all our employees what is the story that our collective actions tell? Are the action story and the strategic narrative one and the same or two different plot lines?

6. Stories are better when co-created together. I personally love the co-created story developed between employees and organizations. We collaborate and work together to create something greater than either of us would have made alone. To act upon this dynamic you need to balance advocacy and inquiry in the story creation process. The principles of improvisation are very helpful in organizations willing to leap into authentic dialogue and full co-creation with employees. Dan Pink, in his recent book To Sell is Human, declares the importance of improvisational skills to engage our organizations.

Ask yourself:  Are our channels of communication fully open to go beyond the mere expression of employee story to employee input in co-creating our organizational story?

7. Get sticky by changing numbers into sticky stories. Raw numbers can numb while numbers transformed into a story can come alive and add meaning and color to data. Stories and data offer an ideal fusion of soft and hard inputs into work. The next time you present numbers dig deeper and find the story that makes the numbers come alive. 

Ask yourself: Is each major number or metric in our organization backed up by a compelling and engaging story? If not, why not?

8. Trigger and collect stories by asking: “tell me about a time?” I love the invitation this phrase offers us. I was first aware of the phrase from the old behavioral descriptive interviewing process that asked candidates to move beyond qualities to tell stories about their experience. This trigger phrase can draw out stories about when you worked with a good team, you were juiced about a job, disengagement was transformed into engagement, etc.

Ask yourself: When was the last time you asked an employee to tell you about a time at work?

9. Good work is a love story but it may not be what you think. Bet you thought this was going to be an emotional and mushy declaration about work. You know what I’m talking about; the simplistic notion of doing what you love and everything will be great. I think it’s vital that we love our work but this love is not some mushy feeling; it’s an art.

The wonderful existential writer Erich Fromm in The Art of Love said that the art of love is based on three fundamentals. These fundamentals might surprise you: discipline, concentration, and patience. Discipline, concentration, and patience are three powerful pathways to go beyond engagement to the art of loving your work.

Ask yourself: How well is my labor of love expressed through discipline, concentration, and patience?

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. - Salman Rushdie

I trust you will see these nine story structures as invitations to see, experience, and act upon work and engagement in a richer and more rewarding way. Be mindful of the multiple stories going on in yourself and your organization and replace unhealthy disengagement stories with healthy engaging stories.

The End.

Your Turn: Which of these nine stories of employee engagement resonate with you the most?

5 Tactics to Boost Employee Engagement

Learn five ways that good performance management practices can improve employee engagement.


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5 Tactics to Boost Employee Engagement

Learn five ways that good performance management practices can improve employee engagement.


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