You might have guessed the answer—it depends on both the situation and what you’d like to accomplish. For example, when you start a new job as a manager, you need to tell your team a story that dismantles any mistrust and uncertainty. If you’re trying to motivate your team because they’ve lost enthusiasm for their work, you need a story that reminds them of their purpose.
Below are three types of stories that every leader should master.
1. Stories we tell ourselves
Every day, we assemble bits and pieces of information based on what we observe around us, and then we tell ourselves stories based on those observations. Over time, they turn into long-developed beliefs.
Positive stories can be a powerful tool. When you admire a colleague for their discipline and punctuality, you might be inspired to make positive habit changes yourself. The problem comes when you tell yourselves negative stories. For instance, if I feel that I don’t measure up to others’ expectations, the stories I create will reinforce this self-assessment. Rather than thinking about the things that I’ve accomplished, I only remember my failures, mistakes, and others’ expressions of disappointment in me. This can be the start of a vicious cycle where negative perceptions determine the stories I tell myself, which in turn play out in full color to reinforce these perceptions.
The stories we tell ourselves have an impact on our behavior and our engagement with others. That’s why it’s crucial for leaders to examine their dominant narrative. They need to make sure that the stories they tell themselves are adding value and inspire positive actions.
2. Stories we tell others about ourselves
The stories you tell about yourself tend to set the tone for how a relationship will unfold. If you’re a new boss meeting the members of your team for the first time, you know they’ll wonder about your leadership style and how you’ll treat them. It’s important to acknowledge this and share a personal story or two that shows you empathize with how they’re feeling. Perhaps you can share how you felt when you met your boss for the first time.
Mention the lessons you’ve learned in managing others, and make sure to highlight any mistakes that have allowed you to grow. Share examples of how you’ve navigated new cultures in the past and what you’re hoping to learn in this next stage with their help.
Remember, people are trying to get to know you—they’re not looking for the contents of your LinkedIn profile. They do, however, want to know the real you to determine whether you’re trustworthy and whether associating with you will bring them positive or negative value. That’s why recruiters and hiring managers no longer have qualms about digging into your social media profiles and online musings to evaluate our reputation and our judgment.
Speaking of judgments, a faulty one can result in some awkward moments if not lasting reputational harm. If you are unsure of how your stories might land, I suggest running them by people you trust.
3. Stories we tell our teams or organizations
Successful leaders need to be able to articulate their vision, to both internal and external audiences. They also need to be able to use storytelling to communicate organizational values.
Whatever the management goal, there are storytelling strategies that can help further it. Say that you wanted to acknowledge the “unsung heroes” in your team and get others to value the not-so-glamorous but essential tasks that these individuals perform day in and day out. One way to do this would be to use every opportunity—in one-on-ones, in meetings, and in group e-mails—to share stories of how these individuals’ work impacts the company as a whole.
Similarly, if you want people to speak up more in meetings and challenge each other, share a story of how a lone dissenting voice was able to change your mind about a decision you’d made. Tell them that this wouldn’t have happened if the person hadn’t felt comfortable challenging you. If you want to increase collaboration among teams, share a story about two teams who decided to join forces and whose combined creativity and brainpower led to significant breakthroughs for the organization. If you want to promote courage and risk-taking, highlight stories of risk-taking colleagues—and include their failures. The key is to make the point that learning from mistakes is just another way forward.
As you can see in the three types of stories above, there’s a simple formula for telling stories. Decide which values you want to promote and which behaviors you want to encourage, make those traits the themes of your stories, and include characters who demonstrate the desired characteristics. Remember, humans are hardwired to listen to stories. You’ll have much more luck persuading your listeners this way than by spouting a long list of cold, hard facts.
Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.