Why Storytelling Helps Us Live (Not Just Admire) Our Values

I recently heard a story about a time Gandhi was travelling to a humanitarian conference with a delegation of westerners accompanying him. As he stepped onto the train one of his shoes slipped off and fell into the gap between the platform and the train. Noticing he just lost a shoe, Gandhi reached down and took his other shoe off, tossing it into the gap before the doors closed. Eventually, one of the western delegates asked Gandhi why he just threw his shoe into the gap. Gandhi replied, “One shoe is of no use to me, but a poor man will find the pair on the tracks today and put them to good use.”

When I heard this story, I had conflicted feelings. On one side I was inspired how it portrayed compassion, selflessness, consciousness, a spirit of unity, and character. I love all those values. Yet, on the other side, I found myself wondering if, given the situation, I would have done the same thing? I like to think like Gandhi, but would I have acted like him? I concluded, unfortunately, probably not.

Don't get me wrong, I would have loved to do it. It makes sense to do it. It's actually pointless not to do it. Gandhi was right, one shoe is of no value. The challenge is that there was only a few seconds between one shoe falling off and the doors closing. It was so fast, there wasn't really any time to decide what to do. For Gandhi, it was instinct. To be honest, I think I would have spent those few seconds more in shock, or frustration, rather than in service to others, as Gandhi was.

Admired verses lived values

We all have values we admire, we agree with, and we aspire to. But what does it take to have lived values? What does it take to have values that you live by so consistently and consciously, that it becomes instinct in the smallest of time frames?

Businesses all create corporate values. They are noble and right, they draw agreement from the staff; they are aspirational and inspiring—but are they lived? That's the challenge organisations need to address: How do we empower our staff to live our values, and not just agree with them?

Storytelling brings values to life

One of best communication tools any leader can use to create more connection to the values of the organisation is storytelling. The story of Gandhi, as short as it is, helped me raise my consciousness about what my own values were, and also increase my awareness of how I want to live those values. It also created an anchor point for discussing the theme with others. The same thing happens in business. Telling stories connects with a very deep part of our humanity. It's perhaps the only communication tool that breaks through the high defenses, and creates an opportunity to connect genuinely and openly. We often associate storytelling with entertainment, but on a deeper level, what it's really associated with, is trust.

What would happen if you increased trust in your organisation by 10%? When an organisation takes seriously the journey of developing a storytelling culture in their teams and wider organisation, the outcome is not just greater clarity in communication, but greater trust, too.

Creating an environment of trust through storytelling

The reason storytelling develops trust has a growing body of scientific backing behind its claims. Paul J. Zac, founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics, a decade ago discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain.

What has this to do with storytelling? A lot. As it turns out, when we hear a story that engages us, with it comes a surge of oxytocin. When this happens, our feeling of trust goes up, and our defenses come down. It creates the environment for genuine connection. And, in business and life, when we open up and make genuine connections and have some honest conversations, we experience progress and sow the seed of future transformation.

We can use our our intelligence and data to craft our organisational values, but storytelling has the power to help everyone understand them, connect with them, discuss them with emotion, internalise them, and ultimately live them.

For it to work, storytelling can’t be thought of as a task. It won’t work its magic if it is treated as a once off event. For storytelling to truly empower transformation, it needs to be a welcomed and nurtured part of an organisation's culture. When that happens, employees can embark on the journey from admiring company values, to truly living them.

If you want your company values to be known and admired, hang them on the office walls; however, if you want them to be lived, then embed your values in relevant stories . . . and share those stories regularly.

*** Article by Mick Mooney. For more insights on storytelling in business and life, connect with Mick on: Linkedin | mickmooney.com

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