The power of stories: new ways to address cultural change

An article about the power of narratives and stories should start with a story. So please meet Sarah*.

Sarah recently started a new job with a new employer. She enjoyed the work and was performing well, but went home each day and cried, unbeknownst to her co-workers.

Although everyone had been very supportive helping Sarah get on her feet in her new job, what Sarah found so difficult were the little things. The everyday little things like people not saying hello in the hallway, the not being invited out for coffees, the not being asked to join what felt like a private club in the staffroom at lunchtime.

The leaders of this organisation were aware of cultural issues within the organisation. For a number of years, they had been using engagement surveys and they were genuinely working hard to address the culture priorities every time.

Yet some themes continued to recur in each survey. For the leadership team, it felt that no matter what they did, things didn’t change.
What shifted everything in this organisation was the use of ‘anecdote circles’, conducted as part of a ‘let’s make sense of our culture’ project built around narrative techniques. Anecdotes provided a window to the real experiences of this organisation’s people. During the sensemaking day ‘gallery walk’, the leadership team individually read Sarah’s story and dozens of others from her colleagues. They read these stories told in the real voices of their people, the personal and often very emotional experiences of their staff at work.

By the end of the gallery walk, several participants including the CEO had tears in their eyes. They were deeply moved as the penny dropped and it all started to make sense. For the first time, they had a real understanding of what was shaping their culture and what they wanted to shift. For this leadership team, narrative techniques were the key to identifying the barriers and beginning the essential culture change they had been seeking.


Stories and narrative techniques in the context of organisational cultural change

Stories and narrative techniques present powerful ways of gaining a deep understanding of complex issues within an organisation. The approach involves group work which is both structured and guided, in order to uncover, hear and respond to organisational issues, challenges or learnings.

Narrative techniques should be seen as a diagnostic approach, a tool that provides deep insight and often also a means to develop ownership of change within a leadership team. The capturing of stories is not a solution or outcome in itself. And while the approach can be misinterpreted as soft, in fact, the techniques can be extremely powerful for those truly committed to a deep understanding.

As part of PeopleScape’s use of narrative techniques, anecdotes are collected from real people within a business and their own voice and words are used to make ‘sense’ of the real issues and experiences within the organisation – the best and the worst.

While related to corporate storytelling and strategic business narrative techniques, our use of narrative techniques is not the same and should not be confused.

Corporate storytelling generally refers to using stories to persuade or pitch your business offer effectively; whereas PeopleScape consultants use stories to facilitate a deeper understanding of complex issues within an organisation, generally in the context of culture change.

Typically, in the context of culture change, a narrative project may include:

  1. A series of cross-functional ‘anecdote circles’ to elicit the experiences of individuals across the organisation. Often this will relate to an element of culture within the organisation.
  2. Identification of themes and patterns. Our ‘sensemaking’ stage facilitates the extended leadership team as they work to create meaning and to understand the anecdotes and responses.
  3. Encouragement to step back from a solution focus. Preconceptions are challenged and the process facilitates participants to seek a true and deeper understanding.
  4. Development of engagement and ownership of the findings. The leadership team debates and agrees on commitments for change.
  5. Commitment to own the outcomes and to a shared leadership vision including a more powerful approach to meaningful areas of change.

Our PeopleScape experience demonstrates that for teams and organisations facing significant change challenges, using narrative techniques in an expertly facilitated way produces a higher success rate and substantially greater levels of ownership from within a business. And though it may be challenging, participants in both story capture and ‘sensemaking’ describe the experience as feeling authentic, engaging and as building trust in the organisation and commitment to change.


What makes stories and narratives effective in culture change?

Research indicates that oxytocin synthesis occurs when people experience well-structured and character-centred stories. The release of oxytocin enhances empathy, trust, motivates cooperation, willingness to help others and strengthens prosocial behaviour. (Palgi & Klein, 2017)

Zak found that stories told in the first person elicit an emotional response and build trust, engagement and connection. (Zak, 2006; 2007).

Stories can change our attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and our view on issues. (Zak 2014).

Stories help to create resonances in memory. This therefore, enhances the ability for stories to be recalled and used more frequently.

These academic research findings are reflected in our PeopleScape experience with narrative techniques. We find them to be a particularly effective tool to use to build leadership buy-in and commitment to cultural change.

“Stories revolve around what matters to people,” wrote author Stephen Denning. “They are human-centred in their essence and we are in consequence naturally drawn to them…. Stories, unlike logic, are not stopped dead by difficulty or contradiction. Stories thrive on conflict, on clashes of differing wills, on difficulties, on inconsistencies, on the very fault lines of society. We know instinctively that it is in these very fault lines that the keys to the living future lie.”


Using stories in a change management: The Surf Coast Shire Council experience

In October 2016, the leadership team at Victoria’s Surf Coast Shire Council received their employee engagement survey results. Employee focus groups indicated a positive, engaged workforce, and focus groups had been highly successful in quickly generating what seemed to be promising solutions to identified issues.

Yet the survey results still indicated some specific themes relating to leadership which didn’t make sense. The leadership team felt there was a disconnect with focus group insights, and they had a genuine desire to understand what was going on in their organisation.

Using narrative techniques and an approach facilitated by PeopleScape Principal Consultant Fiona McAllister, the leadership team were able to tap into employee experience. “The team needed to shift from a solutions-based approach to one which allowed time to make sense of what was coming through in the employee engagement results,” commented Fiona.

For Leanne Perryman, People & Culture Manager at Surf Coast Shire, narrative techniques were ‘gold’. “We were able to understand our employee’s experience on a whole different level, which leads to rich conversations across the organisation,” reflected Leanne. “Our employee anecdotes gave our leadership team a new perspective and new language.”

Leanne continued, “We found, for example, that people did not feel they were being valued. They felt they had skills and experience but they weren’t being given opportunities. The anecdotes helped us see we needed to do the simple things much more consistently. We were too caught up in being busy, whereas staff just want you to say hi to them.”

“We see the anecdotes and the outcomes of our narrative techniques program as part of our journey to be better leaders, to be more authentic and to build better trust across the organisation. 18 months on we are still referring to the anecdotes. They help us stay focused on why we are doing what we’re doing.”


When narrative techniques add the most value

Narrative techniques offer a way to gain deep insights and to truly hear the voices of your people. They offer strong return where there are ongoing issues that just don’t seem to shift or where a leadership team feel they have tried all the traditional approaches and still cannot put their finger on what is truly going on.

This approach is highly relevant where there is a need for leadership teams to own their culture and their own role within the culture. Stories are effective in fostering authentic leadership. This may relate to an organisation’s existing culture or it may be in relation to the culture they wish to develop.

The techniques are not always used to understand what’s not working. They are highly valuable for organisations working to move from good to great. With one of our health sector clients in Victoria for example, there was a strong business vision and a clear shared view of where the leadership team wanted the business to be, yet they needed support to get there. In this instance, the narrative techniques approach provided understanding in terms of the detail, colour and granularity.

These qualitative insights are generally difficult to obtain using a more traditional approach such as an online organisational culture survey.

“Relying purely on culture and engagement surveys means risking missed opportunities to truly understand, engage and to transform the organisation,” commented PeopleScape Principal Consultant Fiona McAllister. “Narrative techniques provide a means to respond to culture with the heart as well as the head, thereby opening up so much more potential for understanding and change.”


How stories become tangible business outcomes

The power of using real, personal experiences in a deeply engaging facilitated process creates unique insights and understanding, engendering strong commitment to change.

Our experience with a range of clients has affirmed that these approaches are deeply engaging, often exciting and lead to sustained transformation.

If your organisation is focussing on culture change, the PeopleScape approach to narrative techniques could make all the difference.


To learn more about narrative techniques, register for our upcoming Melbourne event on Wednesday 23rd May, 2018