Leaders Tell Stories to Shape a Culture of Accountability

Once upon a time, one of the top ten hospitals in the country was facing significant difficulty acquiring critical patient information. When patients first arrived in the emergency room, next-of-kin information was only obtained 42% of the time. Numerous training efforts had done little to remedy this — but after attending an Accountability Builder™ workshop, managers understood what was missing: they needed to show their team the “Why” behind the policy, inspiring every associate to take accountability and ownership to ensure the best patient outcomes.

Armed with concise, meaningful stories, the managers brought the team together and shared their stories about specific past situations where next-of-kin data was and wasn’t obtained — instances in which collecting that data was literally the difference between life and death. Each story vividly illustrated the impact, highlighting “why” the policy was so important. These stories struck a nerve with the team — and the impact was immediate: in less than two weeks, next-of-kin data collection rose from 47% to 92%!


Why Is Storytelling Such an Effective Tool for Leaders to Shape a Culture of Accountability?

The example above illustrates just how powerful stories can be for leaders to shape a Culture of Accountability. By using a compelling narrative to connect with their team, the managers at the hospital were able to increase accountability to efficiently solve a serious problem that previous training approaches had been unable to address.

This is but one example of the power of storytelling. Consider a TED talk: many of the best talks begin with a brief story that grabs audience attention and seamlessly leads into the discussion of more complex principles. But what is it about well-told stories that captures our full attention?

One reason is that stories are ingrained in our culture and in the way we make sense of the world. Our experience with storytelling harkens back to childhood, when we were told stories that helped us give order to our surroundings and understanding to our place in the world. In this way, stories create an instant connection between the storyteller and the audience, opening a space for positive engagement.

What Makes a Great Story?

Of course, not every story is powerful. We’ve all had to sit through long, meandering stories that never seem to get to the point, and in cases like this, storytelling might do more harm than good. Every great story, however, conforms to a few key rules.

First, brevity. Effective stories should be succinct and to the point. If stories wind on, it’s easy to lose focus or become wrapped up in ultimately insignificant details. Brevity is essential to encourage engagement with your narrative and drive home the message.

Second, clarity. Powerful storytelling must be focused. Shaping culture and changing the behavior of your team requires each person to understand the story and why it’s being told. Make sure your audience is on the same page throughout your storytelling, and always conclude by restating the story’s purpose. It’s quite possible, even in a story that’s less than one minute long, that people will forget exactly why you’re telling that story!

Finally, action. Storytelling in the workplace must translate into concrete outcomes. Whether you’re telling the story of behaviors to emulate or those that should be avoided, the narrative should end with a clear connection to the actions someone or some team took, and the impact that behavior has made on Key Results. Be overt about that connection. Do not assume that people will simply make the connection themselves. Make it easy! Tell them how the behavior detailed in the story impacted the results that are important to all of us.

Practice telling stories every day, as often as you can. Time and again, we have seen leaders hone their storytelling craft, leading to stronger more accountable cultures focused on results.

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