Guest Column | December 3, 2020

Did You Hear The One About? Using Stories To Build Trust And Purpose

By Andrew Brown and Elizabeth Williams

What's Your Story?

How many stories have you told today? Chances are, you’ve told more than a few. From talking about your weekend to sharing a video conference fail, most executives tell stories all day long, and for good reason.

In this article, we’ll take a look at why stories matter more than ever for business leaders and how they work to build trust, along with some key things your organization can be doing now to find and preserve stories from the pandemic.

Bolt Cutters And Trust

One day Bill Hewlett went to get some parts from a stockroom, only to find the cabinet locked. He called the security guard and asked him to bring up a bolt cutter. Hewlett snapped the lock off the cabinet and taped a note to the door saying, “Never lock this room again”. One simple act that illustrates the famed HP Way tenet:

“We have trust and respect for individuals. We approach each situation with the belief that people want to do a good job and will do so, given the proper tools and support. We attract highly capable, diverse, innovative people and recognize their efforts and contributions to the company. HP people contribute enthusiastically and share in the success that they make possible.” [1]

This story takes about 30 seconds to tell but it signals an enormous amount about HP’s culture, leadership, and values. It’s more memorable than a poster or a slide or even the excerpt above from David Packard’s book. Plus, it’s a lot more interesting than a policy forbidding the locking of cupboards.

All organizations have stories, even startups. In fact, for most startups, they are the story. The most basic kind of organizational story is the origin story. Why did Richard Branson start an airline? Why did Tony Hsieh give up pizza to sell shoes? How did Airbnb's Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbla turn a binder full of credit cards into a $30-billion category killer?

Organizations also tell stories about successes, failures, employees, customers, and achievements. Even the day-to-day rumors and gossip that swirl throughout the workplace is a form of storytelling.

In the unusual conditions of a pandemic, however, we see new types of stories emerging. Businesses are talking about how they are helping, surviving, adapting, reinventing, caring, and even thriving. When the pandemic ends, we’ll be seeing stories about emerging, recovering, and creating.

Wired For Stories

Before we dive into putting stories to work, let’s look at why they are such a powerful tool for executives.

Human beings have been telling each other stories since we invented language about 100,000 years ago. Long before the first cave painters showed up 27,000 years ago, we were learning from stories passed down in an oral tradition that continues to this day in many cultures.

We use stories to teach children about values such as sharing and respect; to warn them about danger and to entertain and engage them. Most parents will tell you there is at least one book or video their kids want to hear or see repeatedly. As tedious as that is for the grown-ups, repeating stories is how humans acquire, synthesize, and recall new information.

Great Chemistry

Admit it, your kids aren’t the only ones who can consume the same stories multiple times. Many of us re-watch the same shows or reach for a familiar book. The reason for this is we’re looking not for information so much as for a feeling.

Stories trigger neurochemical reactions. For example, when we hear a story with suspense or a surprise, our brain releases dopamine, which is great for motivation, focus, and energy. When we hear stories that involve vulnerability or empathy, we get a nice hit of oxytocin, which makes us feel generous, trusting, and gives us a sense of belonging.

Funny stories release feel-good endorphins that fuel creativity, increase focus, and enhance retention, which is a great antidote over other workplace neurochemicals such as stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline.

Trust-Building Machines

As a leader, one of your most important roles is to make sense of the world for your employees. It’s not enough to give meaning to events and trends; you also need to articulate it in a way that your stakeholders can understand and share easily.

By tapping into the innate human preference for stories, you can increase understanding and build trust in you as a leader and in your organization. For example, if you watch the Tony Hsieh video mentioned earlier, you’ll notice right away that he’s very nervous, but you also will see that he’s very transparent about his setbacks, and his passion for his business shines through loud and clear.

At FedEx, they tell a story from the company’s early days when their promise to deliver almost anywhere overnight was their key differentiator. One stormy winter night in the Midwest, a FedEx driver arrived at the pickup box to find it encased in ice. When his key broke off in the lock, he headed to a nearby auto shop and borrowed a torch. After cutting the box free from its base, he threw it in his truck and drove the whole thing to the airport depot, where the team was able to extract the packages and send them on their way.

Stories like these don’t just build the teller’s credibility; they create trust in the organization. They also work to signal to others how we want to be perceived. In FedEx’s case, it’s as a company that will do what it takes to keep its promises.

In pandemic times, it’s more about how companies respond to a crisis. One story currently making the rounds is what Sprinklr CEO and Founder, Ragy Thomas told employees early in the pandemic:

“We have one, integrated life. Your children are a part of it. Your dog is a part of it. Your friends are a part of it. I want you to give yourself permission to be you. If you need to take care of your child, do it. If you need to walk your dog, do it. Give yourself permission to take the artificial boundary of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. away.”[2]

In addition to adding enormous credibility to the company’s claims about its culture and management, this story also will help the company attract and retain talent for years to come.

Your COVID Chronicles

As we head into the final weeks of 2020, there are faint points of hope now emerging that we may slowly start getting back to something resembling normal. Now is the time to start collecting your organization’s stories. There are six kinds of stories you should be looking for.

  1. Employee stories: How did your organization help employees learn to work differently? Did you offer support for some of the mental challenges that accompanies remote work? Did you help those caring for sick or vulnerable family members?
  2. Community stories: Did your company help with donations? Did executives donate their salaries to fight COVID-19? Did you re-tool to meet new community needs?
  3. Customer stories: Many companies helped customers by reducing prices, waiving fees, offering free support, or deferring payments. Some went above and beyond to help their customers stay in business.
  4. Survival stories: Some organizations needed to find news of working to get through. How did your teams work together to get through the darkest days?
  5. Change stories: What changed in the way you do business? How did remote teams collaborate? How did you accommodate the quickly changing landscape?
  6. Tough reality stories: For many companies, the pandemic brought lay-offs, salary cuts, project cancellations, and big revenue hits. Now is the time to get the human side of the trauma and the triumph.

To get started collecting your stories, put someone in charge of gathering, and categorizing them. Go through your chat rooms, emails, town halls, and surveys to surface the stories that will build your brand narrative for many years to come.

About The Authors

For over 25 years, Andrew Brown has helped SaaS/IaaS companies harness communications to thrive throughout pandemics, crises, mergers, acquisitions, expansions, downsizings, and global product launches. He is the author of the “Building strong business relationships” book series. He is cofounder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators and co-host of The Swear Jar podcast.

For over 20 years, Elizabeth Williams has worked with companies including ADP, Rogers, TELUS, The Beer Store, Constellation Software, Bank of Montreal, and Aon to help them tell their stories and engage employees and customers in meaningful conversations. She is co-author of The Fearless Communicator’s Guide to COVID-19, co-host of The Swear Jar podcast, and cofounder of The Academy of Business Communications which trains fearless communicators.

[1] Packard, D. (1995). The HP Way.