An Introduction to Storytelling in Employee Branding

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 2, no. 1, 2008

Tony Quinlan
Narrate Consulting

Let’s begin with clearing up a potential misunderstanding. Storytelling is a misnomer. It conjures up the image of a passive audience sitting listening to someone with the charismatic, persuasive power to entrance them. It revolves around a carefully constructed story designed to carry you out of the day-to-day to somewhere else and change your thinking while you’re there.

To some managers, it sounds like a dream come true. To most of us, however, that would be a nightmare. In an organization, charismatic persuasion and the ability to direct someone’s thinking smacks more of cults and propaganda than modern-day work practices. (And cults are less effective as organizations—they are typically blind and less resilient.) If this was what you were hoping for from this article, please leave those thoughts at the door.

What is on offer here for proponents of employee branding—or “employee engagement”, its more trendy cousin—is more powerful and more positive than that simplistic view. The real power and opportunity for using stories in organizations is in listening to stories, helping others to create their own authentic stories and making sense of the stories told.

Why stories?
Why tell stories in the organization at all? After so much research and honing of practice, good communications departments are skilled at producing clear messages, good copy and straightforward values or mission statements. With such clear direction, good data and evidence of what to do next, shouldn’t that be enough?

Sadly not—because neuroscience shows us that people rarely make decisions on the basis of rational analysis of data at the best of times. And when they are under stress, or being measured against a target, or being asked to change their behaviour, rational argument and values do nothing to persuade them.

Thinking otherwise, though tempting, is trying to lever human behaviour and organizational culture into a process that can be analysed, planned and repeated. We all know from our own experiences that that is patently not the case.

Instead we know, from Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, that people make decisions according to the cognitive patterns they have created in their heads. Indeed, they don’t even make decisions according to the most appropriate pattern, but rather to the first pattern that the perceived situation fits.

These patterns can be viewed as internal, personal stories—and understanding these stories will take us a long way towards understanding patterns of behaviour in the organization. By sharing alternative stories, and helping people see the world through the perspective of a different story, we can open up the possibility for others to shift their worldview and subsequently their behaviour.

A valuable tool in Narrate’s work is the Cynefin framework (Figure 1), created by Dave Snowden, and the concepts behind it. It’s applicable in many different areas, but can be used to distinguish key themes, areas and projects and the recommended approaches to them.

Cynefin framework
Figure 1
The Cynefin framework

In a vastly simplified description, culture falls into the Complex domain (for a fuller explanation of the Cynefin framework, read ‘The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World’, referenced at the end of this chapter). Here causality is blurred, many different elements combine to create overall effects and results will never repeat exactly.

In this domain, control is impossible, influence essential. Here, patterns of belief and behaviour dominate.

It also requires different actions—trying out certain elements, waiting to perceive the results and then acting to reinforce the emerging patterns or disrupt them if they are negative. It can be about creating boundaries and attractors, by reinforcing desirable behaviours and disrupting undesirable ones.

By contrast, the complicated domain does have repeatable cause-and-effect chains, although these may be extended through various stages. Here, we can analyse or bring in expert help to identify how results are created and impose processes to repeat them. Too often, we have tried to cram employee engagement into this domain.

Given the vagaries of human behaviour and belief, I believe organizational culture sits squarely in the complex domain. I suggest that management—based in process, measurement and hierarchy—is more inclined to sit in the complicated domain.

What is engagement?
Not persuasion, for a start. The desire to see engagement as a one-way communication in which “employees are engaged” is evidence of an old-fashioned mindset—power, decisions and control lie high up the organization. Those further down the hierarchy are tasked mainly to obey. Here, engagement is merely a means of persuading people, while giving an illusion that the choice is theirs.

This view cannot be effective for much longer. Compared with even 10 years ago, people in organizations have changed. The old days of a willing, compliant workforce were an illusion. The truth was always that organizations have no control over people, only levers of influence.

No longer willing to take at face value what’s being told to them by the organization, people have far greater access to information than ever before, and more ways of expressing their own opinions. Equally, they are more experienced at deconstructing any organizational communications—making them masters of cynicism when it comes to the usual parade of internal communications tools and messages.

In the ’80s and ’90s, much of the goal of internal communications (such as it was in those days) was to inspire company loyalty—I still remember being asked why I wasn’t more loyal to the organization. Yet the idea of inspiring loyalty was fundamentally flawed—it’s a two-way thing. Once the organization had proved that it was not loyal to you—as most did repeatedly in those of “downsizing” and “re-engineering”—it became apparent to all but the most hardy company men, that loyalty to the organization was not a long-term secure prospect.

In the ’00s, we’ve abandoned the concept of organizational loyalty, been through internal branding and are now on to engagement—how do we engage our employees? And yet the same applies: engagement is a two-way contract. And while our organizations are very keen to ensure our people are engaged, how engaged is the organization with our people?

Until the organization becomes engaged and concerned about the well-being of its people, engagement is going to be a limited concept—and one doomed to fail in the same manner as loyalty did.

To borrow a truism from knowledge management, ‘Engagement can only be volunteered, not conscripted.” But before that can happen, there must be a level of trust, which itself only arises through a sense of being seen and heard.

I’d love to be able to say storytelling is a magic bullet that will inspire change or engage employees, that there is a simple recipe or standard 12-step process to using stories, but it’s not that simple. There are those who offer more mechanistic approaches to using stories and these are useful in certain situations and with certain audiences.
The approach described here is based on involvement, discovery and ongoing adaptation, rather than prescriptive, top-down plans. It can actually save time, energy and budget, but it can feel uncomfortable to people used to management procedures, hierarchies and six sigma-style programmes.

Working with stories
Although when I first came to using stories in organizations, it was about crafting stories to communicate particular messages, this is a role that has been almost completely dispensed with as our practice and use of stories has developed.

The Narrate model (Figure 2) sets out the general approach. It begins with a general sense of what the opportunity is, but the first step is then to gather material to map the current perceptions and culture—collecting real, authentic, naturally-told stories. It’s critical to realize that listening to stories emerge is more useful than crafting stories or telling them in the early stages.

No single story will ever give you an accurate picture of the organization—but the patterns that emerge from multiple stories, the shapes of events and beliefs, the archetypical characters that emerge are what provide the most powerful opportunities to view the world as others see it.

Similarly, few single stories will engage with employees. Better, instead, to support them with multiple viewpoints and perspectives on a situation, and then facilitate them understanding their own roles and stories casino online ahead.

Having said that, it’s important to note too that even listening or diagnostic events generate expectations among the audience. Every intervention is a diagnostic and every diagnostic is an intervention.

With all this material, there is then a need for sense-making exercises for key members of the organization. The patterns that emerge may indicate a gap in material which may lead to more story gathering. The patterns may also have implications for the original impetus for the project—which may need reshaping or rescoping as a result.

Process map for narrative engagements
Figure 2
Process map for narrative engagements

With a greater understanding of the culture and the opportunity or need for engagement, it’s then possible to identify leverage points in the organization where relatively minor actions will produce significantly larger results. At the same time patterns will have emerged that are healthy or unhealthy and these can be reinforced or disrupted as required.

From here, all the range of HR, change and communications’ tools can be brought to bear on the issue—with narrative clearly playing a part within that.

Cognitive patterns
One of the great assumptions of communications is that if we give people clear instructions and data, they will change. That is, we as human beings process information to make decisions. As I mentioned earlier, recent advances in neuroscience show that this is wrong—that instead we make decisions by processing patterns, not information.

This has important connotations for the standard model of internal communications and employee engagement. It nullifies traditional practice of clear messages, well-written copy, etc.

Far less the frequent approach of quantities of data to prove a hypothesis. If we already have a belief about how the world works, it takes significant quantitative and qualitative data to shift that.

Our inclination as human beings is to make the information and data we are given fit our preconceived ideas. It is not until there is significant difference between the data and our model that we open to the possibility of our model being wrong.

So, in communicating effectively—engaging—with people within the organization, we must look for ways to bring their cognitive patterns to awareness. Not to change them, but to allow for the possibility of greater understanding and common negotiation of a shared viewpoint.

As Burns put it:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

These cognitive patterns are, from one perspective, simply stories or scripts that predict consequences and inform behaviour and decisions—perspective filters that determine how we see the world.

Data, principles, information are usually context-less
One of the other core reasons for using story is the poverty of traditional value lists and mission statements as communications tools. The following story from Wikipedia about US congressman Lynn Westmoreland demonstrates it beautifully:

Westmoreland appeared on the Better Know a District segment of The Colbert Report on June 14, 2006. Stephen Colbert noted the fact that the congressman has co-sponsored a bill to place the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. When asked to name all the commandments he was only able to remember three; one, “don’t lie,” was only partially correct (the Ninth Commandment is an injunction against “bearing false witness against your neighbor,” not lying per se). Westmoreland’s press secretary claims Westmoreland actually got up to about seven of the Ten Commandments before petering out, but that part was edited out. Said the secretary, “I challenge anybody outside of the clergy to try to (name them all).”

This reinforces something critical in most organizational communications. The 10 commandments form a solid base for much of the west’s legal, moral and ethical practices, regardless of your personal religion and belief, yet few people can name them.

That list of corporate values, principles or beliefs that has been slaved over for so long and encapsulates the organizational ethos. What are the chances of remembering them? And what are the chances of actually acting on them?

Now, parables and stories on the other hand are memorable, understandable and actionable—because they are more in line with the way our brains and behaviour patterns work. But on the surface, they’re just not as intellectually impressive as ‘Thou shalt make the customer thy God.’

Stories also carry with them context and causality—allowing audiences to determine when and why actions were taken, something that pure principles cannot do, therefore creating the (usually erroneous) assumption that they apply at all times and in all situations. (The reality, of course, is that they don’t apply universally, and most people adopt workarounds when the principles don’t apply. The difficulty, however, becomes when is it acceptable to ignore organizational principles and when is it not? Not is usually the moment just after the work-around has failed and the manager needs a scapegoat.)

An anatomy of stories

What makes up a story?
People talk about stories in organizations frequently, but the object of the discussion is rarely a real example of an influential, appealing story. Too often, it’s a disparate series of supposedly important events that occurred to a faceless group of people. For the sake of those involved, it usually conforms to the standard organization planning process.

In school, we’re taught that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This originally came from Aristotle’s poetics, so it seems to be a solid basis for thinking about stories. However, a beginning, a middle and an end also describes a snake, so perhaps it’s not going to give us much idea of what an engaging story really consists of.

A sympathetic lead character
First, engaging stories are about people. Ideally, a single person is the main character in any story. Someone with enough in common with the audience to help them empathise with the character.

Organization stories are too often about groups or divisions or, worse still, the overall organizations themselves. But we don’t engage with these stories because we can’t empathise with how it feels to be a corporation or a group. Where stories are concerned, we need single person protagonists. (There are exceptions—sports supporters being a good example of individuals associating with a national or regional identity.)

A group of people is less interesting than a single person. Someone like me is more interesting than someone unlike me. So, when listening to a story about change, I’ll be more engaged with a story about someone coming to terms with what the change is about, what it might mean day-to-day, what the chances are of being made redundant, how threatened they are at a personal level by the change, rather than a story about meeting stakeholder expectations, returns and principles for the future.

A clear problem
A story without a problem is just a portrait—and not engaging.

In Hollywood, they talk about ‘the inciting incident’—something that means that the setting of the story can no longer remain the same. In an organization, it might mean a takeover threat, a fundamental change in the market, but not “efficiencies”.

The inciting incident must matter to the audience (or at least it must obviously matter to the lead character). Without the impetus of good inciting incident, there is no momentum in the story—and the audience has no reason to care.

Tests and obstacles
One of the greatest flaws in most organizational stories is their sense of being sanitized. A good story proceeds from the problem through challenges and obstacles, making and resolving mistakes along the way. Most corporate stories go straight from problem to resolution in a straight line. The lack of mistakes and real obstacles (as opposed to obstacles that are automatically resolved by a new product we’ve just introduced) is what brands these as propaganda.

In most engaging stories, the obstacles increase in difficulty or complexity as the story goes on—increasing a sense of tension and risk. Interesting, engaging company stories tend to revolve on the “bet-the-company” decisions.

Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru, talks about story events as being meaningful chosen moments that illuminate the entire life of a character. The same applies to stories in organizations—they must be chosen moments that illuminate something deeper about the culture. In particular, a story reveals character in those chosen moments through the choices made by the lead protagonist—especially when they’re under stress.

So finally, a good story will feature a choice made in a moment of pressure—and that is when the reader learns about the real values of the character in the story.

Tips: In change programmes, this is the most important point—the story must show someone making a choice that goes against what would be expected in the current situation.

For an excellent example of how to tell a personal, engaging story watch Dr Larry Brilliant talk about his work with the World Health Organization eradicating smallpox in the first ten minutes of the video at TED:

G. Klein: Sources of Power. Cambridge: MIT Press 1999.

McKee, Robert; “Story”; Methuen 1999

D. Snowden and C. Kurtz: ‘The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex and Complicated World’, IBM Systems Journal, vol. 42, no. 3 (available through

;I. Shah: The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasruddin. London: Octagon Press 1985
;C. Heath and D. Heath: Made to Stick. New York: Random House 2007.
;H. Gardner: Changing Minds: the Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. Harvard, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press 2006.
;E. H. Schein: Organizational Culture and Leadership. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley 2004.

Tony QuinlanAn Introduction to Storytelling in Employee Branding

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