Four Ways to Use Storytelling to Boost Employee Retention and Engagement

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Think about your first days at your current job. You probably met your supervisor and team, learned the company’s culture, history, and goals, and began the journey to becoming a contributing member of the organization. Regardless of your position, level, or industry, what’s one thing you probably heard at least a few times? Stories. Maybe a member of your team shared the experience behind launching a new product or opening a new location or your supervisor explained the history behind a procedure. To help your team get to know and understand you more – you tell them about your experiences – in the process giving them insight into how to best support your success. It turns out the stories we hear and tell strongly influence our commitment, satisfaction, and even retention. Here are 4 research-supported ways to use story-telling to build performance and retention.

4 Ways to use Storytelling

1. Tell new employees stories about your organization and team early to gain commitment to your values, norms, and vision.

Research and common sense tell us that showing how our values are lived is more effective than simply stating them. In recruitment experiments, for example, applicants find anecdotes from current employees about the organization’s values more persuasive than general value statements. But once applicants have chosen you as an employer, do stories matter? Yes. A training experiment conducted at a large organization found newcomers who heard stories about employees living the company’s values were more likely to help members of their team, and their contribution was perceived as greater by their fellow team members two months later. While the study did not measure retention, we know employees are significantly more likely to stay when they are perceived as making a valuable contribution by their team.

2. Incorporate stories that involve people similar to your audience.

Story-telling helps new employees see and understand your values and vision. But simply telling a story about your organization’s history and purpose is not enough. Stories about people similar to your audience have the greatest influence on newcomer behavior and commitment. In fact, in the same experiment mentioned above, newcomers who heard stories about employees in similar positions received higher performance ratings from their team than those who heard stories about high level executives. Further, team members reported lower “deviant behaviors” – or transgressions counter to the organization’s values and ways of doing things – for this group.

Clearly, telling the history of your company and sharing the accomplishments of managers and executives is a great way to excite newcomers about your organization’s direction, but you should balance this with stories that apply to the audience being trained and on boarded.  Training new general managers?  Tell them about the remarkable things your general managers have done.   – By telling a story newcomers can relate to you by creating a “me too!” effect that boosts performance and retention.

3. Keep it positive!

Have you ever started a new job and heard at least one “cautionary tale” where an employee violated a rule or norm and disaster was soon to follow? While well-intentioned, these stories are not effective in building commitment to your values and way of doing things. In fact, peers report a greater rate of deviant behaviors, for newcomers who heard negative stories – especially when the story involved an employee in a similar position.

4. Encourage employees to share and reflect on how their unique strengths and values can improve their performance.

As you’re planning onboarding and training, it’s easy to focus exclusively on how you communicate and teach employees your values, norms, and expectations. However, providing employees with the opportunity to think about how their own strengths and values can be actualized at work will positively influence intentions to stay with the organization later in employment. An experiment at a call center explored how self-expression affects retention and engagement. In the self-expression condition of the experiment, leaders emphasized that call center responders would be able to express themselves through their interactions with customers, and how the job would provide opportunities for growth aligned with their individual needs and goals. After the overview, newcomers completed individual problem-solving exercises, with no right or wrong answers, and then shared their responses with the group to give others an opportunity to share their unique perspectives. Groups then answered questions about what leads them to their happiest times and best performance at work, and then discussed how they can leverage their strengths and true talents on the job. Newcomers involved in this type of training program, were 47% more likely to still be employed with the company six months later compared to those in a traditional training program that focused only on procedures and learning the company values! By focusing on both the identity and values of the newcomer, and the organization’s culture and expectations, the training program was able to foster a stronger employment relationship. Employees in the self-expression focused training also had three times greater commitment and satisfaction with the company.

Next Steps

Training, and your employees’ first days on the job, shape the relationship they have with your company.  Looking at each component of the new hire experience – from the welcome they receive on the first day, to the content of training and the stories you tell – influences performance and retention in the months and years to come. The stories we tell, and how we encourage newcomers to share and tell their own stories, has a lasting impact on the employment relationship and the employee’s level of engagement and commitment.

Want to know what’s affecting your current employees and their experience at work? Conducting an employee experience survey annually, and pulse surveys throughout the year, will ensure your team is aware of potential issues before they become performance and turnover problems – as well as telling you what you are doing well so you can keep doing it!

Take a closer look at how to build employee engagement in our whitepaper.

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