Joe is a systems analyst. A pretty good one at that. His company spent a lot of money to bring him on board. But when the honeymoon was over, Joe started having doubts about having changed jobs.
"It’s becoming increasingly clear to me why management is experiencing difficulty moving this company forward", he says. "They pay their employees well. But there’s an overwhelming sense of apathy around here. Nobody takes any initiative. They just show up, go through the motions, and show up and collect a paycheck twice a month."
The people at Joe’s company are not alone. Employee disengagement is a staggering problem in the United States. According to a recent Gallup poll, it affects 70 per cent of the workforce here. Considering how disengagement negatively impacts productivity, employee turnover and the overall health of companies, this is no small problem.
Margaret King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, attributes employee disengagement to the fact that many companies don’t realize the importance of meaningful work. ‘People need other things besides the money the organization gives them’, she says. ‘[They need] opportunity, and feeling like [they’re] part of something with meaning. People value being valued’, she adds.
Similarly, Michael Mankins, a partner at management consultancy Bain & Co, suggests that the disengagement stems from a lack of inspiration. ‘Leaders need to inspire their people through shared purpose’, he says.
Speaker and author Louie Gravance says that 'Companies need to connect with feelings people have about their work. Inspiration matters because of the emotional nature of work.'
For reasons stated, providing employees with a meaningful and fulfilling purpose can be highly motivating. But while listening in on exchanges between managers and their people, we find the problem is not so much a lack of purpose as it is the way purpose gets
communicated. No matter how inspiriting your company's purpose is, if it is communicated through a lot of corporate speak, tired cliches, vague abstractions or self-serving facts, it will have little or no effect on employee engagement. This is like using dog biscuits to influence a cat. Nobody will care.
Microsoft, IBM, Coca-Cola, SAP and a growing number of large and small companies are now discovering a better way to inspire engagement. Specifically, they are learning how to use storytelling. Having experienced how communication devoid of emotion does very little to spark employees, they have turned to the art and science of storytelling to give information the heartbeat it needs.
Consider the CEO who proclaims that a new product introduction will transform their company. Now compare this to the CEO who shares a personal story about their company’s hard-fought journey to a new product breakthrough that will make a difference to people’s lives.
Consider the manager who congratulates his team for achieving its goals. Compare him to the manager who tells stories recognizing how various individuals pushed the company over a difficult-to-reach goal line.
Consider the head of research who shows tables and charts explaining the problems and opportunities the company is now facing. Compare this to the person who adds anecdotes about the unexpected experiences she had while conducting customer interviews. In any case, when stories are used, engagement takes place as facts are wrapped within an emotional context. As an added bonus, the teller becomes someone people can identify with and better relate to.
In his famous book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink says, ‘In many professions, what used to matter most were abilities associated with the left side of the brain: linear, sequential, spreadsheet kind of faculties. Those still matter, but they’re not enough’. He goes on to say that the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind, crediting the mind of the storyteller.
The good news is that learning how to use storytelling as an engagement tool is not like having to learn a whole new language. This is because storytelling is a very natural form of communication. We tell stories all of the time during social exchanges. For business managers, the first step is to become keenly aware of the form stories take and how they differ from facts and assertions. We're often surprised at how much confusion exists during our workshops. But once participants are able to recognize what a story is and how it is different, we start them practicing using storytelling patterns designed to influence, motivate and inspire people in business settings.
The many problems associated with employee disengagement are pernicious. But more and more companies are finding that storytelling, once added to a leader’s toolkit, can turn skepticism into support, produce enthusiasm, and give motivation the charge it needs for productivity to flourish.