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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.

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