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How to Uncover the Secrets Your Employees Hold

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

Open Your Ears and Mind

Your employees are keeping something from you. They voice it to each other at the lunch table, they articulate it in the form of inside jokes, and they express it over beers with friends and family.

In all of these instances, employees are sharing stories about your culture, leadership, and operating practices, and you’re not hearing them. And even when you hear them, sometimes you’re not listening.

When a couple of finance managers from a small-town water treatment company traded stories about the difficulties they had working with their bureaucratic IT department, they thought they were speaking to each other in confidence. However, the next booth contained three members of the IT support staff who were so appalled at what they heard that they immediately reported the complaints to their managers. Instead of investigating the legitimacy of the claims contained in the stories, the IT department head chose a response that was defensive in nature and punitive in action. For months, the finance department was essentially persona non grata to IT.

Managers who want an engaged workforce, effective leadership, and optimized processes should start at the source. It’s likely that the answers you seek are in front of you if you’d only open your ears and your mind to stories.

Stories Hold the Truth

Human beings have always revealed their greatest fears and biggest triumphs through stories. Cautionary tales kept our ancestors from death-by-wooly-mammoth, while the modern day equivalent is urban legends that prevent death-by-tanning-bed. Meanwhile, parables and fables taught us values and morals during childhood, forming our character and sticking with us through adulthood.

We all love a good story, but somewhere along the way we grew up and dismissed them as child’s play, embellished versions of reality, or oversimplifications of the truth. As adults, we find it acceptable to look for the secrets hidden in our data; and, in the process, we let data drown out the stories.

As serious professionals, we stopped looking for the truths in stories, but this goes against our nature. Stories have divulged the truth of every civilization or culture for all ages and through all times. They can do the same within your business culture.

For a moment, forget the surveys, engagement studies, and other forms of data. If you want to know what’s really happening within your company, pay attention to the stories being told.

It’s a Fact: The Public Likes Stories

Do you know who likes stories? The public. The public revels in stories. Their appetite is insatiable for gory, private, and embarrassing details. They love a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of powerful people and organizations.

In the worst case, a leader who dismisses the stories being told within her organization could find herself on the front page of the newspaper, like in these recent headline-grabbing instances:

  • A culture of indifference and ineptitude was revealed when a former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer wrote a book that disclosed incidents of theft, passenger harassment, and irregular attention to security details.
  • The tweets by an ex-employee of GitHub about the company’s alpha-male culture resulted in the CEO’s resignation.
  • The legacy of CYA (cover your a#*) at General Motors caused dozens of deaths and injuries before finally being exposed during Congressional hearings.

There’s a reason stories like these capture the public’s attention: they are vivid examples of the good or bad aspects of the situation.

The emotional impact of statistics is fleeting – if present at all – while stories contain enough specificity and imagery to produce a lasting emotional response that reappears every time the story is retold. And because stories are easier to remember than numbers, they are also repeated more often.

Stories Trump Facts

Smart leaders don’t favor facts over stories. They listen to both. Yet the common first response in business is to start with the facts.

The truth is, neither facts nor stories are perfect. Data can be manipulated. Statistics can be skewed. Stories can be exaggerated.

Where stories come out ahead is their ability to evoke emotions, which in turn motivates a response and prompts action. Meanwhile, dry, boring, stand-alone data struggles to change minds.

When an Australian Air Force general sought to revolutionize his command, he implemented Lean Six Sigma methodology. The desired cost savings and efficiency achievements were followed by a noticeable decline in personnel retention rates.

To understand the reason for the sudden increase in military retirements in this division, the command conducted employee focus groups and surveys. The results of both provided the statistical proof that service members were being driven out of service by the burdens and stress of the aggressive new operating philosophy.

Despite the facts, the general remained steadfastly committed to his pet project, instead blaming the mid-level officers for incompletely communicating the program. But where the facts failed to be persuasive, two stories changed his mind.

The first was from a chief warrant officer with 30 years of service who said she would “kill her grandchild first” before allowing him to join the Air Force. Then there was the mid-career officer who complained of having to dig ditches on a new base to use as latrines because paperwork had delayed the delivery of bathroom facilities.

It was these two pieces of empirical data that finally gave the general pause to reconsider – and slow down – the aggressive implementation of his extreme efficiency measures.

Listen Up

If you’re ready to acquire a better understanding of your culture and believe that employees’ secrets are revealed by stories, you need to learn the skill of story-listening.

Set the right tone
Employees have kept their stories from you for a reason. Start by establishing a zone of trust. You could do this by promising confidentiality, protection, anonymity, or acceptance. Those are good thoughts, but they are all abstractions that take on different meanings for each individual. Instead, you should demonstrate those promises by sharing your own story. Because stories beget other stories, starting with one yourself will automatically set the tone and will help others recall their own stories to share.

Select the right time
Perhaps the story sharing takes place at a designated time weekly or monthly, or it could be daily. Employees of Apple start each shift with a team huddle. An associate who demonstrated exceptional customer service in their last shift is asked to explain what happened. Starting each shift this way is inspirational for the team members and it serves to carry them through the next shift.

Choose the right place
It’s proven that our memories are improved when we return to the scene of the occurrence. Walk into your aunt’s house for the first time in years and a flood of long-forgotten childhood memories undoubtedly will return.

photo by Tim Pierce / CC BY

Use this trick of the mind to your advantage. Your field representatives who rarely come into the office might have a difficult time recalling their stories inside a bland conference room. A colleague of mine was working with production line workers and found their stories were blocked until he conducted the interviews on the shop floor rather than in the manager’s meeting room.

Ask the right questions
Story-eliciting questions help your employees move from opinions to facts and from generalities to specific examples. If you ask, “Are you providing the best customer service possible?” the response you are likely to get is something like, “Yes, most of the time.”

However, if you say, “Tell me about a recent encounter with another department where you could have done a better job,” a story will follow. If it doesn’t, then ask follow-up questions that help take the person to a specific moment. Follow-up questions could include: “When was a time this week someone expressed dissatisfaction with the recruiting department?” or “What policy or action often precipitates complaints?” or “What type of situation is most likely to be difficult?” The more specific you are in your line of questioning, the sooner you will jar a specific memory that prompts a story.

Practice, Practice

Story-listening is a new skill, so allow time to practice. The good news is that sharing stories is as informative as it is fun.

The stories your organization tells are available to any leader who wants to listen. What have you learned by listening to stories?



Story-listening, along with storytelling and story triggering are effective change management tools that can be taught to leaders. Learn more.

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