The Village Family Service Center

Once Upon a Time: How Stories Make the Workplace More Engaging

Date: 
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
A woman looks up from her typewriter

By John E. Trombley, MMgt
The Village Business Institute

Much has been written about the power of storytelling and how important it is in passing on morals, values, ethics, knowledge, and experience. At work, we tell stories about our own experiences and those of others to help us share the vision, to explain the company’s mission, educate new employees about corporate culture, and so much more.

Stories are much easier to remember than a list of rules, processes and guidelines that make up the typical employee handbook, because they somehow tap into a different part of our brain. The part of the brain that is securely connected to our emotions is most strongly activated through stories.

Stories help us to remember lessons others have learned, as well as to provide context for overarching concepts and give meaning to why we do what we do. Stories have a way of making the complex simple and digestible.

The gifted storyteller has an ability to create a vivid moving picture in the listener’s mind in such a way as to captivate and motivate them. It is an interactive process between the two. The more interactive and engaging the process, the more the listener is engulfed in the story, and the greater the impact and the likelihood that the listener will adopt, learn, and adapt as a result.

Stories are both entertaining and instructional. They are incredibly important to ensuring the health and longevity of an organization because they connect people to what is important and inspire people to want to emulate those who have gone before them.

Stories and storytelling are all around us and have been part of the human experience from the very beginning of language. But it is not likely that you or I will work for a company or organization where we have the luxury of spending the day sitting around telling stories. So the question is, how can we tap into the power of storytelling in a practical way? How can we incorporate storytelling at work productively?

It seems reasonable that storytelling should be an important part of the onboarding experience because it is through stories that we enculturate new employees and help them to make sense and create meaning out of the things we do and why we do them.

Storytelling shouldn’t end there, however. It’s easy to get lost in the grinding, mind-numbing routine of many jobs. Routine isn’t bad, of course. As humans we prefer some semblance of stability; a sense of sureness that comes with the familiar pacing of work. Even if our work is unpredictable, we look for similarity of process and pattern. I believe that’s true for people who enjoy a lot of variety in their jobs. Storytelling not only brings a bit of excitement to the routine and mundane, but it can also draw us back to focus on the important things we all need to do to be successful in our particular workplaces.

Incorporating storytelling in team-meeting agendas and strategy sessions is a good way for people to remain connected and engaged. Telling stories of recent victories and challenges alike comes naturally enough, but making room for storytelling in structured meetings may not always be seen as helpful or appropriate. Yet I would argue that beginning a meeting with a good story or two about how an associate faced a challenge – and what they learned about themselves, the client, and the company in the process – can be rich food for thought that could lead to great discoveries and opportunities down the road.

Try it. You just might like it.


John Trombley, business and consulting manager, The Village Business InstituteJohn Trombley is The Village Business Institute’s Consulting & Training Manager and also serves as an Organization Development Consultant and Trainer. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a Master of Management degree from the University of Mary, Fargo where he serves as an adjunct faculty member. He is a motivational speaker with over 18 years of experience in providing training programs and consulting services in a wide variety of organization development scenarios. John is registered with the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota as a Qualified Neutral mediator under ADR Rule 114, and is also certified in Internal Investigations by the Council on Education in Management.

Previously, John served as a Command Pilot, Squadron Commander and senior staff officer in the USAF and Air National Guard, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel with over 6,200 flying hours.

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