How to Motivate Employees Without Bossing Them Around

You’ve spent a lot of time developing that new policy or process, and you know it’s the right thing to do for your company or department. But now comes the hard part: engaging team members in the change. 

You’re concerned that your employees:

a) won’t get it

b) won’t believe in it, and 

c) won’t do it.

In the past, you’ve tried to use data to make your case. But you learned that facts aren’t interesting (You had to deal with too many yawns and too much staring into space.) nor do facts persuade. 

You could try to create a spectacular presentation (Good-bye, PowerPoint; Hello, Prezi?) but you’re not confident that all that effort would be worthwhile. After all, once the show is over, will anyone remember it?

Sounds like you’re ready for a completely different approach to communicating with your employees. What you need to do is this: Tell a story.

I’ve been reading a terrific book–Managing By Storying Around–by the late David Armstrong. As CEO of Armstrong Industries, Armstrong used stories “to inspire others and to help them discover something about themselves that they would have otherwise missed through a boring flow chart or company memo,” according to his company tribute page.

Storytelling wasn’t just an avocation for Armstrong; he could point to years of evidence demonstrating how the practice helped employees be more receptive to change and new ways of thinking.

Here are 7 reasons to consider this approach for motivating your team members. Management by storytelling is: 

  1. Simple. Since we’ve all told stories since we were children, anyone can do it.
  2. Timeless. Management fads have come and gone, but storytelling is still compelling, whether you’re listening to a sermon or watching the latest Marvel blockbuster.
  3. Appropriate for any demographic. “The nature of your workforce will change over time,” Armstrong writes. “But you’ll always be able to tell stories to communicate with every employee.”
  4. The best form of training. At Armstrong’s company, leaders used stories to tell people “how we do things. They let people know the kinds of things that will get them promoted and what will get them promoted.”
  5. An effective way to empower people. “The stories lay out guidelines; it is up to the people to get the job done,” wrote Armstrong. “Once they know what we believe it, they internalize it and, to a very large extent, manage themselves.”
  6. A great way to spread the word. Armstrong Industries shared stores to everyone in the company, so “the things we believe it are constantly reinforced.”
  7. A wonderful form of recognition. “People love to hear and read about people–especially about themselves,” wrote Armstrong. 

Okay, you’re convinced that it’s a good idea to tell stories. But how do you create a story? Armstrong’s book offers a super-simple formula:

  • Always begin with a heroic deed.
  • The story must be true. (Verify all facts.)
  • Think of a clever title.
  • Stick to one idea or theme.
  • Keep the story short. You should be able to tell it in under two minutes.
  • Use people’s names.
  • Be specific and form a mental picture.
  • Even if the moral of the story seems self-evident, be explicit about the message you’re trying to get across.

Want more direction on how to tell an effective story? Here are three columns I’ve written recently that you might find helpful:

Published on: Sep 22, 2018

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