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The Destructive Impact of Stress on Employee Performance

impact of stress on employee performance

This article originally appeared on the SimplyHired blog.

The No. 1 enemy of an employee’s success is stress.

Often the source of stress is change, yet change is unavoidable. If leaders were to consider this lever, they could modernize the notion of what an engaged employee looks like and achieve new heights of engagement and productivity in the workplace.

The main reason stress is destructive to organizations is because it creates instability, often at a time when the organization is most in need of consistency. For instance, when the business is under pressure to meet a deadline, optimal performance is required by each individual. However, this stressful situation might cause some employees to crack and some leaders to snap.

Hiring and Engagement Tools Ignore Change

The pressures of business demand that management be on the lookout for new ways to engage employees.

An influx of tools purport to aid management’s ability to recruit the right employees and engage them to maximize the organization’s productivity. The full spectrum of typical HR activities – from pre-and post-hiring tests and assessments, to recruitment campaigns that promote the essence and purpose of the organization – all have the same weakness: they fail to account for the role of change in the equation. Even with a multitude of tools, sustained and consistent engagement and productivity has proved elusive for most organizations.

The three common ways organizations miscalculate the impact of change are:

1. Recruit to the Culture

Employer branding, purpose-driven organizational design and brand ambassadors share a common goal: making an organization attractive to top talent. Each of these approaches recruit individuals to the company as if the organization, its leadership and the business environment are fixed.

These hiring methods that attract candidates to the culture might also lead to havoc by creating a self-perpetuating system that inadvertently reinforces negative attributes. I saw this with the rise and fall of a coworker. Mandy had moved up in the ranks of the small company and in a short amount of time she was put in charge of the meeting planning department. By all accounts she was exceptional at her job, but as natural attrition occurred on her team, she always hired a replacement who was exactly like her. In time her team was comprised entirely of people who possessed nearly identical ideas, habits and experiences. The department continued to serve the organization well until a new senior leader wanted to shift the strategic use of meetings and events. Years of having recruited to the culture left the team too weighted with a particular capability set. It was unable to adapt, and management wiped out the department rather than try to fix it.

2. Fail to Anticipate Stress

Personality tests and work-style assessments that attempt to pinpoint candidates’ strengths, attitudes and motivators determine if prospective employees are a good fit for the team, but they do not predict if the employee will be productive, happy and committed long-term. That’s because these approaches to achieving employee engagement identify the nature of people’s character and values, but what the business needs to know are the drivers that determine how employees will behave, even as pressure rises.

As soon as any aspect of the situation shifts, whether at work or at home, it has the universal effect of diminishing productivity. Stress at work such as a new boss, a merger, competitive pressures or a new strategic direction, as well as tensions from other sources – discord at home, health issues or strained relationships – all impact each employee’s ability to be productive and attentive to their work. 

3. Rely on Engagement Surveys Alone

It’s a perilous combination: offering employees the opportunity to give a thumbs-down to management decisions or the business environment without management having enough understanding or will to act on the information and fix the problem.

An over-reliance on engagement surveys could give management a feel-good activity that has the appearance of being responsive but actually just reveals the sources of employees’ stress. Even more disconcerting, this exercise in simply recognizing the state of engagement has the opposite effect when employees realize that the regular pulse-checks are disconnected from the organization’s health because “engagement” has been defined too broadly and there is no plan to act on the survey results.

The current focus on measuring engagement, particularly in real-time, plays an important role in diagnosing issues, but it does nothing to mediate the unavoidable discrepancies between what employees want and the business needs. Leadership might learn what to fix but not how. 

The Employee Engagement Revolution Starts with Recruiters

Paying attention to the impact of stress on individuals’ motivations, work styles and productivity habits would make it possible for the organization as a whole to weather change without compromising engagement.

This is a revolutionary way of re-imagining what engagement looks like.

Recruiters who acknowledge that business conditions are in constant flux and understand that engagement must remain at an optimal level might want to recruit for their culture, account for stress and constructively use engagement surveys, but there is no simple way to do that, according to Pam Teagarden, an engagement expert and the founder of Authentum.

Organizations are made of up individuals, so it stands to reason that thriving people constitute a thriving organization. Teagarden’s research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania has generated an assessment system that predicts how business goals can be achieved by employees who are under stress. Her research shows that it’s possible for employees to be engaged at work even if disengaged in other aspects of their lives.

The outcome of this research is BASIS (Business and Attitude Style Information System), which Teagarden says can model how pressure on people impacts the business. Armed with this information, individuals and the organization can identify a path to success regardless of stress.

In our rapid and endless state of change, organizations must withstand and even thrive during unprecedented pressures. If employees can adapt their productivity levels without sacrificing their engagement levels, the organization will have a stable foundation for achieving its goals. In this environment change may still be stressful, but employees and the organization can be ready for it.

Leading during change requires excellent communications skills. Download this free 47-page eBook Character Trumps Credibility to start building your story bank and increase your effectiveness.

Business Storytelling Training to Lead Change

engaging leader podcast

Podcast: Business Storytelling Training

I returned to Jesse Lahey’s show Engaging Leader, to continue our discussion about strategic storytelling. In our first discussion, we talked about how leaders can harness the power of storytelling to improve their ability to influence, inspire and engage.

In this training, we get more into the nuts and bolts of business storytelling.  During the 25-minute podcast interview, I share with listeners how four storytelling frameworks will improve your ability to lead change. We get into the specifics of the story types and their role in change.


Change the Way You Lead Change

The podcast content is designed to provide practical and actionable information. Anyone who needs to be persuasive in the workplace will find tips that they can use right away.

You can listen from the website, download the podcast to your computer, or download it in iTunes. All the options are on the Engaging Leader website.


An Rx for Influence: The Two Story Solution for Change Management

two pills

photo by Dean Hochman / BY CC

This article was first published on

The problem with a negative story

Being negative is an easy trap to fall into.

When trying to prove a point or change someone’s mind, the natural tendency is to use a story that has a negative point-of-view to warn against an outcome and perhaps shock the listener a little.

The problem with a negative story is that it is only a warning and it is only attention-grabbing. Using a stand-alone cautionary tale tells your audience how not to behave, but fails to fill the void with a better idea.

A powerful anecdote I recently heard could effectively be used in many settings. For instance, if you were coaching a young professional about how to handle questions regarding their level of expertise.

Sometimes the wrong explanation can hamper your ability to move ahead in your career. Anna visited a doctor to discuss an elective procedure. She asked the surgeon the very obvious question, “How many times have you done this operation?” The doctor’s response was, “Five.” With that answer, Anna resolved that she would not be his sixth.

Certainly every doctor – or any type of professional – needs to gain experience and practice, but there has to be a better answer to that question because no one wants to be the guinea pig.

This story is instructive, but only to a point. If the coaching ends here, many questions are left unanswered. Therefore, to truly change a mind, you also need to exemplify the desired behavior.

The perfect complement to a negative story

A second story that demonstrates the positive perspective is the perfect complement to the negative story.

A helpful secondary story could be:

A young surgeon was asked in clinic by a patient “How many times have you done this operation?”

She told the patient who was in need of a major surgery: “Never. I haven’t done this exact procedure before because every patient is different. I approach each surgery knowing that no two patients have the exact same anatomy, pre-existing conditions, or medical history. That being said, I’ve spent years training at some of the best medical institutions with world-renowned teachers and this has prepared me to take on any case, including yours.”

The patient responded favorably and was comfortable signing the consent forms because the answer was honest and it instilled confidence. That’s what you want to achieve when responding to a question about your capabilities so that lack of experience never hinder your career growth.

A prescription for success – the two story solution

For a young person preparing for a job interview, you can see how a revelation might occur after hearing these two stories. That’s because taken together, the negative example followed by a positive one is both a diagnosis of a problem and a prescription for success.

An example that serves as a warning certainly will catch the attention of your audience, but alone it probably isn’t enough to achieve your preferred result. Consider using the negative and positive story technique the next time you are leading change because influence isn’t authoritarian, nor is it restrictive. True influence is education with a dose of inspiration.


The Dotted Line : Eureka! How to Make Discoveries

It’s What Happens Between the Dots


The ancient Greek word for “I have found it” is an exclamation that commonly marks a moment of sudden insight.  Around 230 B.C., Archimedes reportedly shouted “Eureka!” while stepping into a bath and first realizing that water displacement could reveal the density of objects. The scholar was so energized by his discovery that he ran home without first getting dressed. 

Moments of unexpected discovery feel accidental, but they’re actually made possible by accumulating knowledge (dots) and then determining the surprising ways seemingly isolated pieces of information relate to each other.
Your ability to make these connections is how you create value. 
I played a role in a Eureka! moment a few weeks ago while presenting a business strategy workshop in Cincinnati. As soon as I finished speaking, I could see Paola, with her face lit up, making a beeline toward me. She was excited to share that just that morning her communications team had met to discuss ways to make her company’s strategy accessible to employees, but they had not yet come up with a plan. My presentation offered ideas for bringing strategy to life and she was inspired to pursue one that incorporates a video technique that Paola’s own husband has expertise using.
For Paola, the dots were in front of her, but it was during my presentation that she was able to connect them.
That’s the power of connection and I want to help you make them.
First, realize that more dots aren’t always the answer. A deeper dive that entails additional article searches, books, and references might make you smarter on a a new topic, but it won’t necessarily help you connect the information to what you already know. To do that, also try:
1. Revisiting familiar favorites. Re-read the sections you highlighted in your most treasured business books, scroll through the archives of your favorite blog, or flip through your idea repository or article files. Looking at old information in a new way is how many accidental discoveries like Velcro and Viagra were made.
2. Talking about it. 
Researchers, and personal experience, suggest that outlining your challenge and exploring your options aloud, whether to yourself or to a partner using the Talking Aloud Partner Problem Solving (TAPPS) method, will help you achieve clarity. Selecting someone who is a good devil’s advocate is an approach I used yesterday to explore how best to deal with a difficult business matter.
3. Being quiet. 
Even when you think you’re concentrating on the problem at hand, it’s inevitable that your mind is in fact doing a couple dozen other tasks. Stop all the thoughts, including your obsession with your current challenge, and instead find the space between your thoughts. You’ll be amazed at what you find there. Although silencing the mind is hard and it takes practice, it’s also life changing.

4. Doing something else.
Science has figured out why your best ideas often arrive when you’re in the shower or exercising. The magic formula for creativity is dopamine production + relaxation + distraction of the conscious mind so that the subconscious mind can take over. Therefore, taking time to listen to music or engage in whatever activity delivers these three benefits isn’t procrastination at all. 
Your next great idea is lurking in one of these places, waiting to be found. But just in case you’re tempted to look elsewhere, you are very unlikely to make profound connections while:

  • watching a reality TV show
  • scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed
  • staring at a blank sheet of paper
  • sitting around a conference room table
  • reviewing a list of best practices
  • talking to people who are just like you
  • failing to have a plan for making connections
Dots Seeking Connections
Change Leadership and Communications Resources
Communicate Better to Grow Your Influence
from Simply Hired
No matter where you sit in the corporate hierarchy, you can learn to be more influential.
Don’t wait to get into the c-suite to change minds, impact the business and leave a lasting impression. Be influential immediately.
What Good Leaders Can Learn from Howard Stern
from LinkedIn
The most controversial and successful media personality of our time has evolved into a critically acclaimed interviewer. Building trust and deepening relationships are two of Howard Stern’s surprising skills.
Just like Howard does with his A-list celebrity guests, making your employees comfortable enough to share sensitive information is a hallmark of an exceptional leader, one who strives to improve the team’s – and perhaps the the entire company’s – effectiveness.
Tips for Picking Effective Storytelling Training
from Anecdote
Now that companies and professionals understand the power of storytelling, it seems everyone is offering storytelling training.
Knowing you need a story and actually learning the techniques and frameworks that will help you find, share, and elicit stories are two different things. If you’re vetting business storytelling training programs for your leaders, make sure the program contains these eight components.

Do these dots connect to your current challenges? 
Let me know.
I’d love to hear about the connections you’re making.
Listen Up! 
I was Jesse Lahey’s guest on the Engaging Leader podcast this week to discuss how stories open people’s minds to the idea of change.
During the 20-minute interview, I tell a few stories, share the science of storytelling, and demonstrate that facts are forgettable while stories are memorable as I try to recall how many times the plastic water bottles we throw away every year wrap around the earth. (Hint: I can’t remember because statistical evidence alone isn’t effective.)
Listen or download here or on iTunes.
Improve Your Influence in 2015
Let’s Connect 
ring either Storytelling for Leaders or the new Storytelling for Sales to your team, company, or corporate training academy. The next public workshop is in Boston on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Book a speaker
on the topics of change communications, corporate culture, employee engagement, or business strategy.

Project Guidance

Request assistance
communicating and engaging stakeholders to make your next change project or new initiative a success.
Claim the one new spot I’ve opened for an executive who wants to learn communications and influence skills that will enhance their effectiveness in the boardroom, behind the podium, or across the desk. You’ll be led through a proven program that’s customized to your specific needs and current workplace challenges.

Happy Holidays

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, too

This year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree came from a few miles from my home.
Isn’t that an interesting connection?

For a holiday treat, I leave you with the touching story of how a wrong number, a sweet little boy, a gruff Army colonel whose heart softened, and a joke by some airmen began the
U.S. military’s annual tradition of tracking Santa on Christmas Eve. Enjoy!
Connected Strategy Group was founded by Amanda Marko, president and chief connection officer, to help leaders increase their influence through deeper connections that enhance the effectiveness of business strategy, change management, employee engagement, and corporate culture initiatives. Amanda recently became one of only a handful of people globally – and the first in the U.S. – to partner with Australia-based Anecdote to deliver their Storytelling for Leaders program. Storytelling complements her consulting work to help leaders better influence, engage, and inspire others.

Business Storytelling Essentials for Leading Change

Engaging Leadership Podcast about Storytelling for Business Leaders Who Lead Change

Jesse Lahey hosted me on his Engaging Leader podcast to discuss why storytelling works in business when change is afoot.



During this 30-minute exchange we cover business storytelling essentials for leading change, including:

  • the impact of change fatigue on change initiatives
  • the art and science of business storytelling
  • how to convince skeptical business leaders that storytelling is effective
  • how facts change minds versus how stories change minds
  • the role of facts in business storytelling
  • how to construct a business story
  • the power of story to transfer idea ownership
  • the role of empathy in changing minds


The episode is available for free and immediate download here and on iTunes.


The Dotted Line: Calling All Change Agents

The October 2014 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for leading change. Subscribe to receive future issues of The Dotted Line delivered to your inbox.



Be the Change By Telling the Story

The last Storytelling for Leaders public workshop of 2014 will be held on Monday, November 17 in Washington, D.C. at the Le Méridien Arlington. Get details and register or take your chances trying to win a seat at the training by heading over to Facebook.

If you can’t make it to D.C., bring Storytelling for Leaders to your team, company, or corporate training academy. 2015 dates are already being booked. Find out more.


Resources for Change Agents (Like You)

How to Make Yourself Memorable
from Business Insider

Whenever you meet someone new, you can be sure that they want to know two things about you. No, it’s not where you’re from and what you do for a living. Those superficial questions are actually trying to ascertain what you’re about and what you want.

Your employees also seek the same information from their leaders, especially during times of change. Until you provide answers, they are going to resist change because they doubt your sincerity, ability, and motive. Find a way to connect with everyone you meet by using these four steps for creating your own connection story that will improve your effectiveness as a leader.

The Cure for Micromanaging
from Simply Hired

Leading change is a stress-filled endeavor, so don’t make it worse by breathing down the necks of everyone on your team. Micromanaging won’t make you a better leader (unless being annoying is your goal). This cure for micromanaging results in the need for less direct oversight and fewer rules, while encouraging more engagement. It’s sort of like a magic pill, but it’s not bitter at all.

No One’s Favorite: Flavor of the Month Leadership
from LinkedIn

Humans are hardwired to seek consistency. That’s the reason we hate hypocrites and are justified in demanding some degree of certainty at work. Leaders violate that trust when they roll out a new initative or switch the strategy too often. As a result, employees revolt by refusing to participate, their reason being that “it’s just the next flavor of the month”. Put an end to this complaint by taking a hard look at your organization and identifying which of the five root causes apply to you.


 Executive Coaching
*  One Opening  *

One-on-one coaching works for busy executives who want to learn communications and influence skills that will enhance their effectiveness in the boardroom, behind the podium, or across the desk. You’ll be led through a proven program that’s customize to your specific needs and current workplace challenges.

Just last week a client in Atlanta used these skills to deliver a presentation to a skeptical executive team and he was elated to report that he ultimately won their support for his initiative.

I have opened only one new spot for an executive who is ready to improve his or her communications and leadership skills. Inquire today.


Upcoming Events

Storytelling for Leaders public workshop
in Washington, D.C.on Monday, November, 17.
Reserve your spot.

Make Your Strategy Stick: Storytelling Roles of Management and Communications in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Thursday, November 20. Sponsored by the International Association of Business Communicators. Sign up.

Little Stories that Pave the Way for Big Change podcast interview with Jesse Lahey of Engaging Leader to air in early 2015. Learn more.

Request a speaker on the topics of change communications,
corporate culture, employee engagement, or business strategy.


Connected Strategy Group was founded by Amanda Marko, president and chief connection officer, to help leaders increase their influence through deeper connections that enhance the effectiveness of business strategy, change management, employee engagement, and corporate culture initiatives. Amanda recently became one of only a handful of people globally – and the first in the U.S. – to partner with Australia-based Anecdote to deliver their Storytelling for Leaders program. Storytelling complements her consulting work to help leaders better influence, engage, and inspire others.


Strategic Storytelling Workshop for Corporate Executives Who Want Training in Using Stories to Improve Their Leadership



The last public Storytelling for Leaders workshop in the U.S. is on Monday, November 17. Learn more and register.

Additional public training sessions in strategic storytelling will be scheduled in 2015.

Go here for details about bringing oral business storytelling to your workplace, attending a public workshop, or receiving executive coaching in storytelling techniques.





No One’s Favorite: Flavor of the Month Leadership

photo by keane dasalla / BY CC

Understand the Source of Resistance

Good leaders aren’t hired to maintain the status quo. They are brought on to improve, expand, and advance their organization.

In reality, those are all different ways to say: lead change.

With change comes resistance. Leaders in-tune with their stakeholders will invariably be familiar with the objection that whatever new program, strategy, or plan you are rolling out is “just the next flavor the month.” The leaders might acknowledge that this sentiment will surface, but too often they proceed with the roll out and hope the employees will come around.

Don’t discount this criticism; try understanding it.

Ignoring the flavor-of-the-month complaints will delay your ability to successfully implement your plans and realize their benefits. When employees complain about flavor of the month leadership or initiatives, what they’re really crying out for is consistency and certainty.

Ice Cream: Delicious

When I go to my favorite ice cream shop, Graeter’s, I know they’re scooping up the best French Pot frozen treats in the world. If one day they were serving hamburgers and the next day they were selling screw drivers, I would not only leave with an aching sweet tooth, I would also be very unsettled because all I know that is true and just about the world would be shattered. (Yes, that’s an extreme reaction, but this is really good ice cream.)

With consistency comes a level of certainty that provides a framework for our worldview. Just like an ice cream parlor that puts screw drivers on the menu, inconsistent priorities, messages, and signals in the workplace make it disorganized, confusing, and frustrating for workers and management alike.

It shouldn’t be surprising that consistency has been identified by renowned psychologists as a primary driving force of human behavior.

In a series of experiments, individuals were observed going to great lengths to avoid inconsistencies in their words and actions, even being compelled to do something extraordinary and outside their own best interest just to appear and feel consistent. In these experiments, strangers who witnessed a theft on a public beach were unlikely to confront the thief; however, upon agreeing to watch someone’s belongings for a few minutes, the strangers became vigilantes who chased the perpetrator down the beach.

The need for consistency is a strong motivator indeed.

Flavor of the Month: Disgusting

Our desire for consistency motivates our workplace behaviors as well. Discrepancies between a leader’s words and deeds will cause significant confusion. Make no mistake: the actions will be held in higher regard and the misaligned messages will be ignored.

The real peril comes from the increased disdain for the leader who disrupts our overwhelming desire for reliability. Leaders “whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength,” explained Robert Cialdini in Influence: The Power of Persuasion .

That’s why we prefer the Bill Clintons to the Tiger Woods; better to be the same in public and private than to profess one standard and live by another.

Root Causes of the Criticism

To understand the flavor-of-the-month complaint, leaders need to take a hard look at their organization and determine the source of the discord. They will likely find one of five situations:

1. Misaligned actions
Calling someone a hypocrite is an extremely harsh judgment, but sometimes it’s warranted. The executive who asks employees to make sacrifices and accept a pay freeze to save a struggling company, yet doesn’t show restraint when it comes to black car service and private planes is an extreme example. More often, misaligned leadership actions come in the form of failing to follow through on promises.

Announcing a change initiative is akin to making a promise. The bargaining chip for the discomfort of the transition is that in the end, something will be better. Failure to properly and thoroughly execute the new program will undermine your promises and disengage your employees.

2. Misaligned culture
When the culture itself is counter to the initiative being undertaken, your people will cry foul, so fix the culture first. I worked with a global company that was aware of its tendency to make simple things complex. The company was full of engineers; therefore, they commonly created over-engineered solutions. Trying to introduce simplified tools to the employees and customers would have failed if the leadership hadn’t first addressed the complexity issue. As the culture transitioned, the entire organization became more nimble and receptive to change.

3. Misaligned communications
When leading change, everyone must be in lockstep in word and action.The key to aligning the change communications is to put in place a framework in the form of a Clarity Story.

It looks like this:
In past….
Then something happened….
That’s why we’re going to….
So all these good things can happen….

Once the organization’s communications framework for change is determined, leaders should personalize the message by inserting their own moments, examples, and facts to strengthen the case for change. Delivering the same message in different ways is not just acceptable, it’s preferred because then it’s authentic.

4. Failure to link change initiatives to the strategy
Strategy should provide the backbone for all change communications. In fact, it’s built into the Clarity Story framework described above. “That’s why we’re going to” is the place to reiterate your strategy.

During the most recent recession and ensuing recovery I worked for a multinational company where we consciously linked every announcement – whether it was a force reduction, an acquisition, or a policy change – to the strategy. This had the universal effect of reassuring employees and other stakeholders that those in charge had a plan and they are deliberately executing it. A sense of optimism, focus, and resolve was reinforced by this communications strategy and as a result, the words of the leaders motivated the actions of the employees, who were responsible for the company’s turnaround.

5. No strategy
A strategy grounds your change efforts, so it makes sense that an organization without a strategy is adrift and its leaders appear to be making it up as they go. In this case, the flavor-of-the-month criticism is wholly justified and leadership must first determine their strategy before attempting to introduce a new initiative.

Put Change on the Menu

Ending flavor-of-the-month leadership doesn’t mean freezing your change initiatives; it means acknowledging that a baseline of consistency and certainty will boost morale and comfort your stakeholders that there is a method to your madness.

When have you found yourself referring to an initiative at work as the latest “flavor of the month”?


Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. Fall workshops are being held in New York and DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

When Managing Change, Don’t Just Defer to Data

photo by MissyH / CC BY

Surprise With a Story
Long-serving employees of the European division of a global tech company were getting restless. They felt career opportunities were lacking and that outside hires were taking the best open positions. The career discontentment was leading to disengagement. Management wanted to reverse the trend.

The first response of the head of human resources was to inundate employees with facts. Lena directed her team to collect factoids like the percentage of openings that were filled with current employees versus outside hires, as well as a list of industry awards that recognized the employer as a top workplace.

Establishing that management was in the right was a smart step, but it wasn’t enough to change employees’ opinions.

The fuel for overhauling the perception came from the stories we collected. There was Carlos who was able to stay with the company when his wife’s promotion required the family to relocate from Spain to Portugal; Gabby, who made a lateral move into a different division to take on a new challenge; and Ella who stepped into a management role after her third promotion in two years. Sharing stories like these of co-workers and colleagues highlighted the opportunities available to all employees and shifted opinions.

The reason the campaign worked is that facts don’t change minds as well as stories.

Stories serve to open minds to new ideas. When people hear facts, they dig in their heels. Their resolve becomes stronger and their grip on their version of the situation grows firmer. This is the famous confirmation bias. It’s also the reason no one has over “won” an argument on Facebook or the comments section of a website.

To loosen a person’s grip on their current worldview, you have to catch them off guard. You have to surprise them.

Stories Soften the Heart
An unexpected fact – perhaps a shockingly high figure like the number of times plastic water bottles used last year would wrap around the earth – might get the audiences’ attention, but will it change their beliefs and behaviors? I defer to science, which says: no.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains a set of experiments that showed how psychology students learned new concepts. When students were told a surprising statistical fact, they might find it remarkable and memorable enough to share the fact with a friend, but this wasn’t the same as changing the way they looked at the world.

The test of true learning is whether your understanding of the world and the way you interact with it has been altered, not whether you can repeat a factoid. Kahneman summarizes the study results stating that even overwhelmingly compelling data points are incapable of changing long-held personal beliefs. “On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching [new ideas] because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story.”

People hold stories in their hearts. The reason they clasp too long to the old way of processing orders or replenishing inventory is because they have developed an emotional attachment to those methods that is explained by a story they tell themselves.

If you are going to take away someone’s old story, you have to give them a new one. Reason, even when it’s backed by infallible facts, doesn’t hold a place in the heart.

The Role of Facts
Logical, data-driven decision makers aren’t going to be comfortable with this idea. However, the serious-minded can rest assured that facts play an important role, even when a story is the vehicle for your communication.

Your story must be grounded in fact to be effective. In the early years of eBay, many people heard the anecdote that the founder, Pierre Omidyar, had started the site to help his fiancé add to her Pez dispenser collection. It was later revealed that this account was fabricated by the public relations department to generate buzz for the new company.

Storytelling is not permission to abandon facts. Instead, it’s a better method for delivering facts.

Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, authors of The Elements of Persuasion state, “Stories are facts wrapped in context and delivered with emotion.”

Facts alone don’t possess emotion. Facts just are facts. The emotion from facts comes from whatever feeling we assign to them – perhaps outrage or disgust.

However, as the experiments described in Thinking, Fast and Slow prove, those emotions that arise from facts are fleeting and therefore are not powerful enough to shift anyone’s worldview, nor are they capable of inspiring action.

Stories, on the other hand, are the total package of fact and emotion rolled into one. Stories are also memorable. They won’t be retold just once like a surprising fact; they will be shared and take on a life of their own.

How to Surprise with a Story
Instead of deferring to data when you need to change a mind, try surprising with a story. An anecdote or colorful example opens minds to your facts and helps to ease the way for the change you’re suggesting.

Five methods for using stories to introduce surprise into your change management initiatives are:

  • Tackle the anti-story
    For whatever change you’re trying to make, there will be counter arguments and competing stories. Identify and acknowledge them; don’t hide from them.If the prevailing story you’re trying to rebut is that your organization is bureaucratic, then recognize the slow responses and convoluted processes of the past. Ignoring the negative and only focusing on the positive will sink your initiative. However, startling the skeptics by making their argument before they have a chance will give you a substantial advantage.
  • Hit them with the one-two combo
    Demonstrating the the negative impact of failing to act is an obvious choice for communicating the need for change. When advising an executive who was reluctant to use storytelling in his communications, telling him about a time that one of his non-story communications wasn’t effective might get his attention, but it was not enough to change his mind. When I followed the failure story with a success story, the combination of the negative and positive examples was surprising enough to work – he started using stories.
  • Tell a story with a twist
    The story itself can contain a surprise. Tell a story that ends in an unexpected way and it will be memorable and emotional enough to stick with the audience and carry your point.
  • Make a connection
    We’re naturally skeptical of the messenger. Overcome this barrier by letting your audience know through a story that you are like them.The young new COO who arrived at a company in desperate need of a turnaround had an intimidating reputation of working for top-performing companies. The employees assumed his successes had been easy, but when he shared that in fact the companies he had worked for started off worse than theirs, the employees suddenly felt reassured that he understood what it took to transform an under-performing company. No longer were they working with an unapproachable superstar; now they had someone on their team who been where they were and could help them improve.
  • Trigger a story
    Doing something remarkable gets other people talking. Use this phenomenon to your advantage by signaling change without saying a word. A leader who wants to overhaul a lax corporate culture where meetings never start on time will trigger stories – and a change in behaviors – if she strictly abides by start times and bars late arrivals from entering the conference room.

Pull, Don’t Push
Stories are a pull strategy – they pull at the heart strings. Meanwhile, facts just push against the established belief system and don’t make a dent.

Anyone leading change needs an awareness of the best and worst of human nature. Because storytelling is deeply rooted in our DNA, embrace this truth rather than deny it. Incorporate story techniques into your change projects and your new ideas and processes will spread faster.

What stories have helped you pull change initiatives to completion?


Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. Fall workshops are being held in New York, Boston and DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

Workshop details:

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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