Reactivating employees’ engagement through corporate storytelling

March 18, 2021

Keeping employees motivated is one of the most critical challenges enterprises face. Particularly when a company is undergoing changes or transformation, it can be difficult to maintain morale and productivity if employees don’t feel deeply invested in the company’s future. One of the most powerful tools that can help is developing a corporate storytelling.

Levels of employee engagement have dropped to shockingly low levels.

A poll several years ago by Gallup found that only 34% of employees felt “engaged” at work and that 16.5% felt “actively disengaged.”

Dispiriting numbers, but the same study also found that managers accounted for about 70% of the variance in how employees related to their work.

One of the most powerful tools in the manager’s arsenal for driving engagement is the narrative around the company. But it’s important to distinguish what is meant by a narrative versus stories or anecdotes. The latter may have beginnings, middles, and ends and serve to illustrate a point or theme. Corporate storytelling is a more general kind of story that is open-ended and conveys where a company has been, where it is today, and where it hopes to go in the future.

These narratives express a company’s values and so help to engage employees by inspiring them to feel part of a mission that is bigger than themselves. They allow managers to communicate the value and benefits of being part of a larger organization while also making the company feel more personal. They also act as a goal-setting framework that strengthens the credibility of the speaker and their ideas while helping them to lead.

Let’s be clear: narratives are hard to build. If they were easy, everyone would do it. And yet, some of the world’s most successful companies have built powerful internal and external narratives. Consider Apple and its Think Different narrative that hints at its rebellious roots, and its approach to product development, while calling on customers and employees to participate in creating an exciting future.

Storytelling can be particularly important during times of upheaval and crisis. During Covid, for instance, managers have had to reinvent the way they recruit and train, as well as how they oversee a workforce that is suddenly remote. The lack of direct socialization makes these tasks even more challenging than usual. But here, narratives have a strong role to play in forging new attachments, especially when it comes to onboarding new employees.

To see how one can look back to a previous global crisis: the 2007-8 financial meltdown. Swedish telecommunication leader Ericsson surveyed employees in 2008 and found senior leaders’ motivation at 52%, leadership communication at 57%, and awareness of strategy at 66%, according to an academic study. So the company developed a 3-year program to overhaul internal communication to use more storytelling, including mandatory workshops for executives. By the end of 2009, those same seniors motivation had increased by 22%, strategy awareness had grown by 11%, and leadership communication had risen to 18%.

There is no single right way to construct a corporate storytelling. But any powerful narrative will include elements such as the company’s accomplishments, why it matters, and what the future holds for those who choose to be a part of it. Here are 4 steps to help start the process of developing your company’s narrative:

  1. Define how the company and products make a difference
    This should start with conversations among top executives. The language developed here should feel natural and authentic.
  2. Understand the company’s journey
    This requires a strong, honest assessment. Rather than imagining what one wishes the journey has been, map out where the company has been, the current state of affairs, the ambitions for the future. Ask yourself: What connects all 3?
  3. Make it inclusive
    Employees must feel part of the journey. A good narrative isn’t just about a product or service. It rises above that to speak more generally about the company’s culture in a way that inspires employees and convinces them to be a part of that mission.
  4. Make it simple and emotional
    Any good narrative will connect quickly with employees without the need for lengthy explanations. It should carry an aspirational element that will make employees feel a sense of pride in contributing to the company’s success.

Of course, even the best narrative is just a foundation. Managers and executives must put it into practice every day, using it to guide everything from the way they communicate with employees to product and strategic decisions. Only by embracing a narrative thoroughly will it truly reflect and express a company’s core culture in a way that employees engage with it and forge a deeper bond with their work.

To learn more about the role managers might take on in a post-Covid world, read our article about working remotely and developing softskills.

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