A Story About Stories

I’m going to tell you a story about stories and how to use them as an effective talent management resource.

Last July, John Maddox and I finished a book about predictive analytics for human resources. I’ve written 13 books on metrics and analytics, but since I am addicted to writing I thought I would take a shot at a novel.

When you write a business book, it is about models, processes, facts and examples from the real world. Conversely, when you write a novel, you sit down in front of the keyboard, open your veins and start typing. It is freeing because it is all fantasy. You can write anything you want so long as you have sympathetic characters and a plot that holds together. The fact that it is not bound by reality is the point.

Stories engage the reader’s imagination. Elwood P. Dowd, played by Jimmy Stewart, in the movie “Harvey” had the following conversation about his 6-foot, 3.5-inch rabbit friend:

Doctor: “Mr. Dowd, you have to face reality.”

Dowd: “Doctor, I’ve tried reality and I don’t much care for it.”

The point is, there is no power as powerful as the imagination. It can take you on a magical trip or drive you to the brink of despair. It can also be self-motivating. We have talked for decades about motivation and have addressed it from the outside.

But stories also have great power to internalize a message. The reason stories are compelling is they require the listener to use his or her imagination. A good example of this is television vs. radio. With TV everything is presented to us. We don’t need to engage ourselves in the story. I believe that is why so many people watch trash — because they don’t want to think. Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”

One way that I used stories when I was on your side of the desk was to have my staff tell their stories. Here’s how it works. A week ahead of time you tell everyone that next Friday we are going to quit work at 3 p.m. and tell stories. The stories will be examples of their work experiences before they came to work here. The idea is to get employees to tell their colleagues what happened, who was involved — position, not name — how it played out, and how they felt about it when it was over. The risk is low because people can disclose only what they feel comfortable with.

It is best to start with the group skeptics. These are the people who are so cool that they can’t get involved with the problems we mortals have. They prefer to throw stones at us from the safety of the sidelines rather than get their hands dirty. You know the type. Often they are quite intelligent but have very underdeveloped social skills. By having a skeptic lead off, you force him or her to give some thought to engaging the audience. A skeptic’s pride will make him or her put energy into this.

As you go about the room listening to the stories, everyone becomes engaged. The stories are, by definition, true and come from real-life experiences to which we can relate. The tales are of pain, joy, anger or amusement, and most important, they are from the heart. People may gladly open themselves up to opportunities like this. For many, it is the only time and place where they can safely unburden themselves. Leave a couple of minutes after each story for questions or comments.

You might be surprised by how often someone will empathize and say, “A similar thing happened to me, and I will never forget it either.” It’s called bonding. Everyone in the room is likely imagining how the situation looked and felt for their colleague, and at the end you summarize what was learned about positive and negative ways to work within a group.

We often talk about engagement, yet too often people engage processes, not their imaginations to determine how we might work better together. Isn’t that what management is all about?