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Motivation from narrative: staff need stories

17th Dec 2007
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Some organisations have begun to use narrative as a way of getting staff to take their core business values to heart. But surely it can't be that simple? Matt Henkes investigates the story behind the technique.

By Matt Henkes, staff writer

Life would be easier for most businesses if staff could be made to buy into the ethos and direction of the organisation. Not just understand it, but really take the key values to heart to the extent that the very way they carry out their everyday work is affected.

You can bombard them with policies, mission statements and various other motivational garb, yet what they really need is something simpler that not only delivers your key message succinctly but is also instantly understandable and, most importantly, memorable.

Since primitive humans first had to communicate the danger of sabre-tooth tigers to their wayward young, children have learned the fundamental truths of life through the stories they hear. So it stands to reason that corporate principles might be delivered in a similar way. Business has an awful tendency to talk in jargon and management speak which is anything but inspirational, communicating its principles in bullet points and abstract chunks of information that are difficult to absorb and digest.

Why not communicate those principles in a way that the majority of people will be able to assimilate? For instance, you could represent you customer service ethic with the tale of an employee who has gone that extra mile to help a customer. It brings what you’re saying to life, putting the message in a human context that is easily digestible. People connect with stories better than with policies.

This isn’t a new idea; managers have been using narrative in business advertising for ages. It’s only in the last few years that a number of leading companies have realised the value to be had from using stories to motivate their staff.

Alison Esse, a director at Storytellers, a UK-based world leader in corporate narrative implementation, believes the technique can be applied to virtually any organisation of size. “The whole idea of celebrating progress and recognising the heroes of the organisation is a really big part of motivating, retaining and developing staff,” she says.

Keeping interest up

Momentum and enthusiasm around a new initiative can burn brightly for a time but, inevitably, it will quickly become old news. “One of the biggest problems that companies have is keeping the interest up,” adds Esse. “Staff remain interested for around two or three months but then they go back to what they were doing before, so this approach is a really great way to keep pushing those messages across the organisation in a much more meaningful and inspiring way than sending out 5,000 leaflets that say ‘we’ve got to do customer service better.'”

One of the companies which has used this technique very effectively is Parcelforce International, part of the Royal Mail Group. In 2005, having gone from losing around £200m a year, the firm finally managed to break even. However, Susan Jackson, the organisation's head of internal communications, knew that complacency could easily set in.

"There was some healthy scepticism that narrative was just a new gimmick. But we presented it to the staff as a management discipline, and that was the key." Susan Jackson, head of internal communications, Parcelforce International

“At the time we almost felt this sigh of relief come from the business because break even had been the goal for two or three years,” she says. “We’d finally got there but from a management team perspective, we needed to think about making people feel enthusiastic about moving forward.”

She felt the best approach was to have conversations with staff. When its back had been against the wall, the firm employed a command and control management approach. But Jackson knew they needed a softer approach for the future. “The thing that would take us from the break even to profitability was about talking to people – listening to them and helping them contribute their ideas to how we moved forward.”

Jackson was already aware of the power of narrative, having studied it as part of an Open University MBA, but says she was lucky she had an HR director on the executive team who was very supportive. Together they were able to convince the organisation leaders. “There was some healthy scepticism that it was just a new gimmick,” she says. “We presented it to them as a management discipline. That was the key.”

In order to get the ball rolling, it was important for the executive team to outline exactly what their plan was for the next two or three years. In Parcelforce's case, the strategy was broken down into four headings: improving service, growing profitable revenue, working smarter and developing skills and capabilities. Stories which represented these core values were harvested from around the company and sent to depots across the UK in easy-to-understand cartoon posters.

“In our environment, people are busy, they don’t have a great deal of time in the depot,” says Jackson. “They don’t want to hang around a lot, so we wanted something that could capture at least their attention and went for the graphic cartoon strip approach.”

Staff generated narrative

At an event to mark the launch of the project, Jackson says she was amazed at how easy it was to get people to come up with their own stories. It helped to reinforce the four values because they were able to attach activities they had already been doing to one of the elements. Jackson and her team used a number of stories they had generated at the launch to produce some more story posters that could go across the organisation to demonstrate what was already being done and, on the back of that, to challenge people to improve.

Now they could develop a conversation across depots, sharing best practice, learning experiences and challenging staff to come up with their own ideas about how they can do their job better. And when they did, they had created their own story which could then be fed back into the system. “It was a process that built its own momentum,” says Jackson.

"The narrative process gives people permission to have conversations without sounding like they’re blowing their own trumpet. It has allowed us to share praise and good practice in a really easy and economical way." Susan Jackson, head of internal communications, Parcelforce International

But enabling staff to take ownership of the business strategy was not the only benefit. The scheme gives people across all levels of the organisation an excuse to have a conversation. The MD can walk into any depot in the country and straight away talk about the stories generated at that site.

Jackson says that because the firm had been working to break even for so long, management had found it challenging to recognise and acknowledge when things had gone well. “Now we’ve got into the habit of telling people when they’ve done a great job or had a great idea,” she says. “That’s what the narrative process does. It gives people permission to have those conversations without sounding like they’re blowing their own trumpet. It has allowed us to share praise and good practice in a really easy and economical way.

“People are now willing to share what works well in a framework that isn’t that complicated and fits into existing channels and processes.”

Quick tips for motivational business narrative

• Humanise the strategy
• Make it easy to understand and relate to
• Involve everybody in the organisation
• Enable them to contribute their own stories of success and achievement
• Encourage practical ideas and discussion to increase engagement and productivity


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