Story listening is not an art. It’s a practice. And it’s really easy to develop if you are willing and able to listen. Stories exist everywhere in your organization. You just need to be intentional about hearing them. A story does not have to be a particular length or a particular structure when it comes to listening. It may be a short anecdote about how an employee has helped a customer or an example of a time when a manager helped someone develop a skill. Or it may be a longer narrative of a long term employee’s experience of the company. Whatever the length or subject, there is always opportunity to become a better leader by listening to stories.
So why listen?
Stories provide rich information about customer experience, about the temperature of your staff team and about how you are doing as a leader and as a business. Stories exist whether you are listening for them or not. The people in your organization and who come across it are telling each other things about their experiences. Listening to stories enables you to respond to what is happening in your business. Note the word respond. Not react. Reacting would mean involving yourself in the conversation and either taking credit or being defensive. Responding involves remembering the stories you’ve heard and allowing them to influence you in developing your policies, creating communications or evaluating progress.
Listening to stories also builds connection. As organizations grow, people can sometimes get disconnected. They may be segregated into departments or work spaces. Strange silo behaviour can erupt into your corporate culture where it was never there before. Stories get created about which department is getting more money in their budget or is favoured by the CEO, etc. These are often based on not having enough information about what others are doing or better stories to latch onto. If you have a regular practice of listening to stories, you will be able to be proactive in heading off the negative growth of stories and steer your staff toward more positive tales of cross connection between individuals or teams. Creating a culture of story listening by modelling it yourself will also help keep staff connected to you and the bigger picture of making a difference in the lives of your customers.
How to Listen
Surveys are a great research tool. Unfortunately, too often we rely too much on the numbers and don’t give room for people to actually tell us about their experiences. We go for the easy percentage rather than introduce the hassle of trying to bring together what can seem like random information. However, asking people to ‘Tell us about’ their experience can provide more benefits than are immediately obvious. Yes, the number of people who rated the service to be 4 out of 5 is important. That is good information. But what does it mean? For the business overall, maybe it meets some targets. That’s great. But for the people on the frontline it means nothing. Collecting stories that they can read provides them with valuable information that informs their service delivery. Yep. It’s unscientific. But I guarantee you that your staff will remember the story of why the customer gave them the 2 rating more than they will the overall percentage relating to their performance that month. And they will make changes along the way. Isn’t that what customer feedback SHOULD do? These stories also provide great case studies for training or testimonials for your marketing.
This is my favourite leadership tool. I will admit to sometimes utilizing it because I was bored with some admin task but it is always a valuable thing to do. The key to wandering is being comfortable with not having an agenda or a reason to be talking to your staff. Drop in to an office and see how they are. Ask them what they are working on or about how things are going and listen. Really listen. Ask more questions. You don’t need to stay there for too long. Then move on to another person. Doing this once a week even makes a real difference to your understanding of what is happening in your organization. AND, it gives you lots of great stories to pull out of your back pocket when you have speaking engagements, meetings with potential partners or in performance reviews. Wandering takes you beyond the monthly reports and gets you in touch with actual experience. And that is where you will find the stories.
If you are wandering as a leader and using story based surveys, you are creating an atmosphere of inquiry. So your customers and employees may be ready for this little known ancient technique called ‘asking’. You may not have heard of it in our world of being very ‘busy’ and relying on technology to communicate for us, but it’s a real bonafide way of finding stories. Directly ask your customers or employees to tell you a story. To you personally. If you want to use Skype, Facetime or even your blog, go for it. If you are talking to customers, ask them how your business has made a difference in their lives. Ask them to tell you a story about how you or someone who works for you has helped them. If you are talking to your staff, ask them to tell you about how they have been helped to grow (or not!) in the company or about a time when they felt proud of their work. You will find out how well your Managers are doing and how engaged your team is in your organization.
So get story listening! Not only will it improve your effectiveness as a leader AND help your people feel heard, it will help you to tell better stories. And that is definitely good for business.
If you have any other suggestions about how to listen for stories as a leader, please let us know in the comments!
Lianne is also the Owner of Very Good Stories and a social licensee of the Institute of Community Reporters . You can find out more about Lianne and Very Good Stories at www.verygoodstories.com