Motivate by Telling Stories

How do leaders motivate their team? First, by hiring the right people. Internal drive cannot be taught. Once a person is hired, they must feel a connection. Without that connection to a moral purpose, productivity suffers, and the job becomes less fun. Going through the motions is not rewarding!

Connection happens when you see past the details of a task to its human consequences. When you feel connected to the moral purpose of your work, you behave differently. Now “moral purpose” might sound lofty but it needn’t mean saving a puppy or curing cancer; it can involve any kind of human service. And at the end of the day, all business is about service.

That’s where leaders come in. The first responsibility of leaders — whether front line supervisors, middle managers, or executives — is to compensate for the inevitable alienation that complex organizations create, and provide employees with a visceral connection to the human purpose they serve.

Leaders can maintain a lively sense of connection through storytelling. It needn’t be an elaborate ritual involving an audience gathered for a relaxed evening. It isn’t. Most storytelling is brief. It involves using concrete examples that reframe a moment by personifying human consequences.

People’s feelings about their work are only partly about the work itself. They are equally, if not more so, about how they frame their work. Do they see what they’re doing as a mindless ritual? Do they see it as empty compliance? Or do they see it as sacred duty? If you change the frame you change the feeling. And nothing changes frames faster than a story.

For example, in one study at a large healthcare provider, we examined why some employees were somewhat casual about hand hygiene while others were zealots. Hand washing in hospitals is one of the most critical factors in avoiding hospital acquired infections. While many doctors, nurses, housekeepers, and technicians were mostly attentive to this innocuous act, a handful of employees were relentlessly vigilant. It turned out this group was far more likely than their peers to have personally been infected in the past while they were a patient in a hospital—or had a family member who was. They were motivated because they had a personal or vicarious experience with the human consequences of a seemingly simple task, and that made them feel differently.

Research shows that once a task becomes familiar, our brains devote far less cognitive resources to it. One of the downsides of this brilliant design is that we disconnect. We stop seeing past our work to the people we affect.

Any organization where there is strong sense of moral motivation, the leaders are always storytellers. They understand and act on their responsibility to overcome the inevitable alienation of routine organizational life by connecting employees with those they serve.

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