The Unexpected Influence of Stories Told at Work (Francesca Gino) The Forum applies the 70:20:10 Lens


We recognise today that the greatest part of organisational learning is within the informal space, that of our experience and interactions. When we discover something new in our work, a new approach, a learned-from-failure moment, an innovative solution, or when we talk with our colleagues, get a management tip from a more senior officer, or watch an expert in his or her craft, we learn.

These examples, the informal and social ones, are wrought with emotion as they greatly involve other people, some we have relationships with. Emotion is a powerful inhibitor of learning. Emotion is the stuff that helps logic, facts, approaches and ideas all stick. Emotion is story, the story we tell ourselves in eureka moments, or it's the story others tell us in their journeys to better understanding. In each case story can spur on behavior change or learning.

In her Harvard Business Review article "The Unexpected Influence of Stories Told at Work", Francesca Gino looks at the science of stories and how they can not only serve to motivate and inspire, but how they can subconsciously direct the culture of an organisation. In the piece, Gino shares examples of common activities, such as founder stories of overcoming adversity to building an organisation to lab experiments, that demonstrate the contagious nature of story where negative behaviors are emulated by others simply seeing or learning of a peer who is rewarded for unethical behaviors.

However, some of the more powerful stories in organisations are from those at lower-levels going above and beyond to help the organisation they believe in, providing excellent customer service or aiding colleagues in another area for no other reason than to help. Gino points out that "It seems we are especially lifted up by stories of those at the bottom behaving generously and particularly discouraged by stories about higher-ups misbehaving." 

Story-telling is an ancient practice, one that humans have been engaging in for 10,000 years. It is the epitome of social learning. When we share stories with others, uncoupled from curriculum or direction by another, it is informal learning; it is honest, raw and compelling. It appeals to us at an emotional level which, as Gino's research would imply, can be contagious.

If the stories are positive, relative and inspiring they can greatly impact an organisation's culture. Not only should leaders in functional areas such as HR or L&D create and curate stories that support a desired culture, there is also clearly an opportunity to encourage and amplify the act of storytelling at all levels of the organisation. Stories by lower-level employees making a difference in the lives of customers are one type of story that help promote similar activities in other employees, but what about the small stories of the employee who steps out of his role to aid a struggling peer? What about the team that collaborates with another to bring about a rapid solution? How about the individual who takes it upon himself to call out an injustice or unethical activity, a whistleblower that ultimately saves the company's reputation, if not millions in legal costs?

These stories, stories from the inside are transformative. When amplified and encouraged they tell people it’s OK to behave this way, it's acceptable to promote yourself and your activities and to inspire the same in others.

Unfortunately, like the word social, "story" has a connotation that we must move past. "Story" to many leaders means verbose tales and time wasting. Leaders, for far too long, have sought efficiency to keep productivity high and in so doing have smothered story-telling and the connections it can create. Story-telling continues however; it happens in the hallways, in the break rooms and in those moments before the official meeting begins. Stories continue to be told because human beings are built for listening to and telling them.

Today, with encouragement by leaders at all levels and through technology in the form of social media, we can reap the benefits of story and channel it into productive gains. But first we must change the notion of story from something that tends to be more narrative to something much shorter, as most story in the busy world of work is in fact short-form. Context and emotion so vital to story can be easily expressed through spoken words, but so too today equally simple emotions can be shared though narration in a short screen capture or emoticons embedded within the components of a text message. In many organisations stories are solicited, then harvested by an internal department, processed and spun back as formal interviews or articles for employees to read.

These are sincere efforts to help people, however today we do not easily accept stories manipulated by a third party. We, in the videos we view, the posts and comments threads of blogs, and the sharing on Facebook and Twitter, have come to accept and welcome the raw emotion of those in our trusted networks. Our profiles speak of our experience and background which provide those who listen to our stories much needed context. Over time and frequency, our social reputation allows us to provide insight and ideas in a very direct and concise manner. In the world of work an example, an analogy, a tip, a how to, and a mistake are stories that can shift practices and opinions faster than any campaign. The first steps to revive the power of story are not only to encourage it but to bring into the open. 

READ: The Unexpected Influence of Stories Told at Work