Changing minds with stories

 cognitive doissonance

'Stories are vital to those who want to win at change.'

Stories are vital to those who want to win at change. The Native American (or, according to some, Platonic) proverb, "Those who tell the stories rule the world" resonates in some businesses. But not all alas. Great stories build relationships and make people care. In business as in life, those two things are not only important but essential.

Employees have an emotional side that must be engaged by leaders looking to inspire new behaviours that go together with any change process where head-to-heart and words-to-action are vital. Often, change is marked and communicated by facts alone and that causes fear, misunderstanding and anger. Emotional engagement bridges the gap between understanding what leaders want their people to do and the people actually doing it. Stories that engage the emotions instead of the intellect do a better job of creating buy-in among the people who carry responsibility for delivering the change. Or, as leadership expert Simon Sinek says, stories give people their ‘why’.

'Emotional responses to any change are a normal reaction to the real and perceived disruption that accompanies the process.'

Emotional responses to any change are a normal reaction to the real and perceived disruption that accompanies the process. Successful change leaders know that understanding and addressing the mixed emotions that employees will experience can help those employees feel motivated and committed. Or, if badly managed, the reverse. There are vital ingredients: understanding the need for change (often omitted), the process by which the change will be implemented (often clumsy), the timescale (often too short or too long), the individual’s role, including yours (often unclear) and what the end result will look like (often no different).

'It's been well established in psychological research that a distressing mental state arises when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions - something called cognitive dissonance.'

 

It's been well established in psychological research that a distressing mental state arises when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions - something called cognitive dissonance. It simply isn’t enough to tell employees that they will have to do things differently. Anyone leading a major change program must take the time to think through the story of organisational change including what makes the change worth undertaking - or necessary. Explaining that story brilliantly well to all of the people involved in making change happen is key - obviously. Not least so that individual contributions begin to make sense to those individuals.

In any change process, it’s the emotional element that is the most transformational and at the core, because it’s hard to get right, hard to visualise and hard to amend. Getting it right at the outset is, therefore, a must and will save time, effort and anguish.

Emotions are psychological and biological responses that affect our minds, bodies and motivation. Emotions colour our perception of events or ‘facts’ and influence how we make sense of the world around us. If people assess the consequences of even small change as beneficial, then positive emotions result. If the consequences are perceived as potentially harmful, negativity is the result and people’s focus narrows. Yet, some organisations (truly) believe that expressing emotions should be actively discouraged – and even censored.

'Managers who are most successful in making change happen to pay attention to the psychological well-being of employees and their families.'

Managers who are most successful in making change happen to pay attention to the psychological well-being of employees and their families. Allowing people to share stories of how they feel, and how they plan to effect change - and their feelings - will help them develop a sense of control over the changes they will have to make. Among other things, this will deliver relief, improved morale and trust.

We have to accept that capable people will experience a mix of confusion, anxiety and doubt about change, as well as enthusiasm for it. It’s a mistake to try and talk people out of their emotions. One can’t. People need to be able to say goodbye to the past and welcome the new future. That needs structure. People need to be able to turn anxiety into curiosity. They need to be able to ‘see’ possibilities, aspirations and hope. Anticipating and identifying real and potential barriers pre-change enables people to engage in early problem-solving that could avert costly mistakes. Storytelling is key here. It’s the vehicle for sharing ideas (and people’s feelings) and that builds commitment to both interim goals and the longer-term vision.

course dates

Any business will want to avoid the mental paralysis shown by some people when they’re first confronted with change. Any business will want to avoid denial (‘they’re kidding’ or ‘it’ll never happen’ or ‘It’s OK. I’m safe’). Any business will want to avoid anger or depression. Through the sharing of stories from the top down, an organisation’s people will explore the realities of change and begin to think about what the future will look like. Individuals will find that they’re not alone. They will more readily accept change when they have confidence in the objectives and how the outcome might look.

'It allows for meaning and meaning is what often dissipates fear.'

How the outcome might look is what frightens people most. Bad things do happen. People do lose jobs and people do have to move desks. But, being able to minimise pain by using storytelling allows for context. It allows for meaning and meaning is what often dissipates fear. Stories about ourselves and whatever the change is, contains heroes and villains who help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges either overcome or not - and suffering we have endured. Sharing stories helps us understand the role of our actions in the unfolding drama of whatever change is about to occur - and helps us to believe that it is worthwhile for us to play our part.

course dates

If you found the article useful and would like to share it on social media, please select one of the social media buttons below. Our thanks to Simon Maier for this article.