Storytelling and Feedback

If you ask someone to tell you about a time they received harsh feedback, they will tell you their story. Often they will tell you what they were wearing, where it happened, and what led to the criticism. They will tell you how it made them feel and it will be recalled with such specificity and precision that you can practically see it like a scene in a film because they are telling you their story and not merely a set of facts.

We can all recall a time that we were given feedback that should have been a gift but felt more like a square, hard punch to the gut; the kind of moment that made us a little smaller and hot with shame. This kind of story will become a cautionary tale but not necessarily a vehicle of change. As a leader, people will wrap the lessons they’ve learned from you in narrative.

You need to decide what kind of stories you want people to share because those stories create your culture and will be your legacy.

Stories are passed down from one person to another, because unlike a set of facts, stories engage memory and emotion. Nearly 30 years after playing Osric in Hamlet at the Drama Studio London in Berkeley, I can recall the feedback I got from my British director after my entrance onstage.

[Please insert disgusted, hostile British accent here] “STOP! STOP! Get off of this stage. Ms. Houghtailing I want you to leave this stage and come back doing something that makes me believe you. Enter this scene as if the man in the third row who has paid money to be here actually feels as if it was not an utter waste of his time.”

This feedback was boomed from a seat of judgment in the theater with the entire cast and crew watching as I stood on stage under the hot theater lights. Specific words were punched for emphasis lest I fail to miss the point.  I felt his words in my stomach that sank down to my knees that became gelatinous with the stain of humiliation. It wasn’t really just the words. It was the tone and volume that made my eyes wet and my face hot.

Feedback is an opportunity to demonstrate emotional intelligence and sophisticated leadership. Merely pointing out a problem and assigning blame is lazy and unlikely to influence behavior. Raw criticism isn’t an investment in professional development but instead a vehicle to vent frustration. If you want to make an impact, craft a story to express the challenge and solution. Storytelling is an excellent way to achieve Aristotle’s three-legged stool of persuasion that requires logic, emotion and credibility. Narrative naturally increases trust and credibility and inspires emotion in a way that reporting does not. Storytelling is a more effective mode of persuasion than louder voices, pointed tones, or more precise fact patterns.

Instead of saying, “Your micro management is creating a lot of anxiety and making people resentful,” you can tell a story about how you too have struggled with perfectionism which made delegation hard. Be vulnerable about the way you alienated your direct reports and compromised trust and explain the turning point that transformed your behavior. Narrating your experience helps you create a bond, builds trust, and improves the odds that you will actually influence a behavioral change. It’s what I call Narrative Imprinting.™ In nature, imprinting occurs when a young animal develops trust in its parent and forms its identity. Narrative Leadership relies on storytelling for Narrative Imprinting™ to occur to build trust and credibility and inspire those you lead to actually follow.

Stories do not cost you anything, they don’t take any more time and you are more likely to achieve the desired outcome if you use storytelling as a leader.

Here are just a couple of things to remember when you use storytelling in leadership.

  1. Make sure the story is true. If you want to build good relationships you need to be credible, vulnerable and authentic. This is not a place to fake it.
  2. Don’t use an example. An example is not a story. Stories have a structure, characters, a point of view and a theme or purpose.
  3. If you don’t have a story of your own, share a story that someone has told you. If it’s not confidential then you can always use a narrative other than your own to express a point. Stories organically move from person to person through time because they are shared.
  4. Think about how you want to leave people. I try to the best of my ability to make sure that those who have come in contact with me are better for having known me. I’m a deeply flawed human and miss the mark sometimes, but I set the bar high because as my favorite American Lit professor Dr. Olmstead used to say, “No one ever got a higher result by lowering the bar.”
  5. In leadership as well as business development I tell people to think about what you want people to know, do and feel after meeting with you or hearing you speak. It makes every encounter purposeful and clear and mitigates your risk of simply venting or simply wasting everyone’s times.

As you rise make your way into leadership, consider those who have made an impact on you and the stories you tell about those managers, mentors and colleagues. Others are telling stories about you too and the impact you made for better or worse.

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