Use Stories to Change Employee Behavior

By Charles Jacob Jan 5, 2010
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I recently walked by the open door to a corporate training session, where the manager was sitting with a 4-inch binder facing a dozen new employees. He was talking animatedly, but everyone else was descending deep into a comatose state. The only enlightenment here was discovering that their manager was boring and that they needed to load their smart phones with new games if they had to endure another training session.

It has been 50 years since Arlington, Va.-based National Training Laboratories, a behavioral psychology center, demonstrated that audiences only retain about 5 percent of content days after a lecture. Yet too many of us still persist in believing that we can teach people by talking at them—despite obvious clues to the contrary, including yawns and distracted looks from audience members.

Learning changes the brain by creating new networks of neurons with a lower threshold for activation, and the more we use these new networks, the stronger they grow. But new information must first get past the part of the mind that zealously resists change. While the brain is quick to counter any argument it doesn’t agree with, having an experience or relating to another’s experience sneaks right by that initial barrier.

These experiences—or stories—are how the brain makes sense of the world, scientists now believe. Therefore, stories become effective behavioral change tools for managers. Because stories are experiences rather than arguments, the brain doesn’t summon up rebuttals. When we encounter a story, we identify with it as if it’s our own, trying out its points of view and the thoughts it conveys.

Great leaders tell stories about what people need to do to achieve inspirational visions of the future, but their stories are told as much with their actions as with their words. Modeling the behavior you want employees to emulate is also a story for their brains to accept. Our response is keyed by specialized neurons in the brain that mirror the leader’s behavior and the thinking behind it. We become like the leader. But we will only embrace a leader’s story if we believe it’s genuine and if it addresses what’s important to us.

To be an effective leader and teacher, you must live the story you tell, and it must engage your aspirations and those of your employees. When you then model the behavior and the thought process you want employees to adopt, their mirror neurons will mimic the firing pattern of our brains, and they will learn.

No matter what approach we use, we must establish a clear benefit for employees to undertake the hard work of learning. When the choice is between rote learning and an electronic game, the game will win every time. But nothing will trump our innate desire to achieve an inspiring vision of the future, even when a bit of rote learning is required to get there.

The author is managing partner of One Eighty Partners and founder of the Amherst Consulting Group in Boston. He wrote Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science (Portfolio, 2009).

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