Boost engagement by encouraging your employees to become storytellers

By Mike Cook

From the time I began playing golf at age 11 until he stopped playing in his mid 70s, many of my most memorable moments with my father took place on a golf course. Summer afternoons in Michigan, dry breezes blowing, flat landscapes and lots and lots of trees.

Neither my father nor I were particularly accomplished golfers — for us the game has always been more social than competitive. However, in order to pursue the game repeatedly and endure its challenges you do need to hit the occasional good shot. One of the things I remember most fondly from these occasions with my father was that somewhere during each round we played he would hit a particularly good shot and almost instantaneously exclaim, “That will keep me coming back!”

The following quote from an anonymous source who could have only been an experienced golfer reminds me of those experiences with my father: “Golf can best be defined as an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle.”

On more than one occasion I have mentioned my perspective on engagement: engagement is association by choice and choice alone.

With this perspective in mind I’ll go further and offer a corollary thought — when a particular choice is favored anything that facilitates it being made ought to be enhanced.

Stories, much like the one I opened with today about golf and my father, are intended to create an emotional connection to the activity they are associated with and facilitate the choice to continue participating. In every work environment there is one feature that I believe we as leaders significantly under value and it is the role that storytelling plays in facilitating the choice to engage or sustain engagement. Just to be clear, in this instance I am not talking about you as the leader using the power of story. Much has already been well written about the role of the leader as propagator of powerful business narratives.

Steve Denning is likely the most prolific and recognized authority on both the leaders as storyteller and the power of story to inspire action in the workplace. In the second edition of “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of the Business Narrative” he is very definite about the state of story telling and its role in leadership. “…the importance of storytelling as a leadership tool has become generally accepted, even in big organizations.” And then later in the same piece he goes on to say, “…storytelling has gained recognition as a core competence of leadership.”

According to Denning if as a leader you are not by this time developing your capacity as a storyteller you are running well behind the current arc of management thinking.

The stories I am referring to in this instance are not those of the leader, but rather those of the people reporting to us. The stories they have created about being part of our company. they are collecting and editing these daily. Are we managing this process to facilitate the choice to engage or sustain engagement?

Not much has been written about managing the process of employees’ storytelling in the workplace. Don’t we all know when we, as leaders are being celebrated and related to as characters in some employee’s opera, the saga unfolds at any opportunity and without regard to responsibility. And are we ourselves so different? Left to our own devices, most of us will focus our collection process and our life lessons on those experiences that involved pain. If we are honest about a day in the workplace, especially in a knowledge-era company, it is highly possible to describe a day as the anonymous golfer described that sport. “… an endless series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle.”

And isn’t it the miracles that keep us coming back, isn’t it the miracles that satisfy our souls in spite of the sometimes seemingly endless string of setbacks, the no, no, no, no, nos that are suddenly erased by the yes. But these miracles are most valuable when collected and shared, made public.

Managing this process is leadership at its best because it leaves the storytellers following the lead of their own voice and whose voice would they likely choose to follow most reliably?

How simple might it be for you to gather your team once a week and in a round table discussion have each person describe what happened at work last week that made it worth coming back this week?

By establishing this practice, you would be sort of setting up the choice for them, don’t you see?

Note: A version of this article may have been published previously.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other.”

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