Category: Leadership

Cultivating psychological safety through storytelling

A psychologically safe work environment is one where individuals and teams feel able to speak up, challenge the status quo and take calculated risks. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, defines it as “a shared belief that an environment is safe for interpersonal risk.”

As Professor Edmondson also points out, this is not about making it a comfortable or easy working environment, it’s about creating a climate where colleagues feel able to critically question the ideas and actions of their peers and leaders – enabling diversity of thought and innovation.

How does psychological safety improve performance?

In a psychologically safe environment, colleagues have permission to take risks, the confidence to critically question, and the freedom to innovate without fear of failure. This encourages inspiration and action.

The case for diverse teams (in all its forms) has been proven time and again. Yet, to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of a team, everyone must feel respected and empowered. There is no point in having a visibly or cognitively diverse team if the same voices are aired again and again when it comes to key decision making. To establish and reap the benefits of a truly inclusive and diverse team, psychologically safety is essential.

Why leaders should address this fast

While sceptics may interpret this school of thought as encouraging failure without accountability, Mathew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, released in 2015, reminds us that by allowing your teams to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them without judgment, everyone can benefit from those lessons learned and avoid repeating the same mistake.

Psychologically safe environments don’t actively seek failure – instead, they allow teams, organisations, and even entire industries to learn faster. Syed makes the comparison between blame culture in the NHS vs. the critical analysis of errors within the aviation industry. In aviation, there is a commitment to learning from mistakes that enables the industry to collectively take steps to improve its practice. However, the presence of a blame culture and lack of psychological safety within the UK healthcare sector, for example, means that mistakes can take longer to unearth and even longer to learn from – increasing the inevitability that these mistakes are repeated.

In a business world where change is continuous and pace is essential, leaders need to empower their teams to work more autonomously. This is not a ‘nice to have’. If teams don’t feel empowered to make decisions and learn from them quickly, organisations risk being left behind the competition, and potentially, their business becoming irrelevant.

How a storytelling culture creates psychologically safe environments:

Stories help us to make meaning of the world and people around us – it’s an instinctive and natural way to connect with other humans.

In hybrid and remote working environments, creating an innate sense of psychological safety is even harder to achieve as you can’t rely on ad-hoc water cooler moments to connect with colleagues. Developing a storytelling culture provides a solution to this by equipping leaders with a simple and effective way to develop emotional connections with their teams (even through a screen) which in turn cultivates a psychologically safe environment.

We work with clients to implement organisation-wide storytelling cultures to empower teams so that colleagues across the business are equipped with the means and fora to share stories during team calls, town halls, 1:1s, key events and online social work platforms. This commitment to being open and forthcoming with stories, in turn, reduces a climate of fear and fosters a sense of authenticity and innovation.

With one large organisation we recently supported, we helped their leadership team to challenge the dominant narrative that governed the relationship between managers and employees. This ‘background’ narrative had traditionally dictated the working environment where the manager provides instructions, and the employees’ role was simply to deliver as they were told. To overcome this, the new organisational story we created with them articulated both the company’s vision and the role they wanted employees to play in achieving it. We also put in place interventions and practices to embed a storytelling culture throughout the organisation. This shift in the culture of the company helped employees to feel more empowered to contribute and be active players in the organisation’s direction rather than passive participants. 

When team leaders — and others — practice genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what they hear in response, psychological safety in the team grows. The need for inquiry is heightened in diverse teams because of the number and variety of perspectives represented.” Harvard Business Review 

By sharing stories of failure and success, leaders send out a strong message to their teams that value is placed on the willingness to act and drive teams forward over and above a pursuit of perfection or to maintain the status quo. At a deeper level, they place value on the need for new ideas and diverse perspectives – creating a truly inclusive environment that allows individuals to thrive and bring their unique solutions to the table without judgement.

Webinar: ‘Creating an environmental legacy’ with Douglas Millican – CEO of Scottish Water

When an entire nation depends on your services every day, as a leader, how do you ensure that your organisation remains resilient to any new challenge that may impact on delivery?

Scottish Water is trusted to keep Scotland supplied with clean water and take care of the country’s natural environment every minute of every day. With a proud heritage based on innovation, to ensure the organisation remains on the front foot to achieve its delivery targets and environmental ambitions, they’ve unveiled a future vision that gives its committed team of 4,000 employees more ownership over their roles.

In our ‘Stories from the C-suite’ series, we talk to leaders who we believe are expert storytellers about their approach to turning vision into reality to future-proof their business for the long term. In this episode, Douglas Millican CEO of Scottish Water for nearly 10 years joined us to explore:

  •  How the role of CEO has evolved in the last decade
  •  The ways leaders can build a legacy for our planet as well as their business
  •  The role of storytelling in aligning and galvanising employees behind achieving Scottish Water’s future vision

In the years ahead, leaders will need to continue adjusting to recent seismic societal and economic shifts by staying nimble, flexible and creatively future-proofing their organisations. This proved to be a pertinent conversation packed with key takeaways.

Enter your details to watch a recording of the webinar in full.

Why empathetic leaders get results

Empathetic leadership has become crucial for businesses. Increased use of the term in management speak demonstrates a shift away from traditional management styles that have tended to be laser-focused on the organisation’s bottom-line with little recognition of the motivation and productivity of the individuals involved.

At its most basic level, empathetic leadership requires leaders to take time to understand the people they lead, and to make decisions informed by this understanding.

What changed?

The role of employers and leaders has evolved

Over the past decade, our personal and professional lives have become increasingly intertwined, a trend that has been catalysed by the pandemic.

“The office and home were once strictly separated by physical distance, but now – thanks to the internet and smartphones which mean you are always available, always on – the walls between work, home and our social identity have collapsed.”
Pandora Sykes, How do we know we’re doing it right?

Therefore, the remit of a leader is no longer limited to supporting individuals in their offices but also in their homes – which demands a greater level of empathy. 

Newer cohorts no longer respond to command-and-control leadership

One undeniable benefit of the digital age has been the ability of more people to share their personal experiences of success but more interestingly, of failure. Personal and professional stories of struggle or disappointment have dominated the world of celebrity culture in the recent past – an ‘air-brushed’ image of perfection doesn’t wash with younger generations. This has translated into the world of work too. On LinkedIn, for example, we see increasingly personal posts that highlight pertinent issues such as mental health or the struggles of parents balancing work and family life.

“Become a leader that practises vulnerability… Show that you don’t have all the answers but that you are committed to improving work culture for your employees.”
Abadesi Osunsade, The Financial Times

What’s become clear is that Millennials and Gen Z, who grew up in the age of social media and sharing, respond to a more intimate style of leadership that allows room for making mistakes and learning from them. An infallible, distant, all-knowing figure is just not what they’re used to or value in leadership.

How empathy benefits organisations

Retention of talent

In a competitive recruitment market – where traditional notions, of company loyalty are steadily on the decline (as proved by the Great Resignation last summer) leaders need to understand and respect the needs of individuals to avoid losing talent and to remain relevant as employers. For leaders to build strong teams around them, it is necessary that they put the mechanisms in place that values and prioritises getting to understand what employees want from their working lives and careers.

Unlocking new potential in your people

By taking the time to understand both the individual and collective stories of people within their teams, leaders become better positioned to understand where damaging narratives may be holding back colleagues, or even entire areas of the business. In his leadership of the England Football team, Gareth Southgate has previously talked about the importance of re-writing damaging narratives with the support of sports psychologists.

“We’ve spoken to the players about writing their own stories,” said Southgate after the team beat Colombia in an unprecedentedly victorious (for England) penalty shootout using Euro 2020. “Tonight they showed they don’t have to conform to what’s gone before. They have created their own history … We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.”
Gareth Southgate, The Guardian

How you can lead with empathy

At The Storytellers, having supported a broad range of organisations and leadership teams in this area, we’ve observed a few impactful ways you can effectively demonstrate and practise empathy when communicating with teams and colleagues.

  • Empathetic leadership is not a one-way street: to understand the needs of team members, leaders must create a space that allows colleagues to be open without fear of negative consequences. Leading with empathy is not just about leaders demonstrating empathy for their team members, it’s also about allowing yourself to show vulnerability. This in turn leads to teams and individuals able to empathise with their leaders and with other colleagues.
  • Embedding a storytelling culture builds authenticity, mutual respect and trust between leaders and their teams: demonstrating empathy for your teams creates a sense of psychological safety and can remove any sense of fearing failure which can lead to inertia within teams – this something our clients are increasingly seeking guidance on. By sharing stories of success and failure, leaders can create more authentic dialogues with their teams and encourage a more dynamic atmosphere where new ideas can be brought to the table and are encouraged without judgment.
  • Empathising through data: whilst empathetic leadership is most commonly associated with soft-leadership skills, on the aggregate-level you can understand employees better through proactive and meaningful employee engagement monitoring that is informs future business strategy.

Theni recently took part in our webinar exploring how leaders can use storytelling to to build an empathetic connection with their employees. Enter your details to watch a recording of the session in full.

How storytelling can inspire your people to take initiative and ownership over their roles

The workforce challenge in 2022 is significant, organisations are dealing with the aftermath of ‘The Great Resignation’, sustained remote working, and a competitive recruitment market. Leaders need to provide meaningful autonomy to employees, whilst giving their teams a clear direction.

Moving leadership away from the parent-child dynamic

Prior to the pandemic, Gen Z had just entered the workforce. A key characteristic of this demographic has been the desire for increased autonomy at work – mirroring a trend set by their millennial predecessors. In 2019, with the rise of portfolio, skills-based careers, organisations began to reckon with this demand from younger generations that were disillusioned by jobs for life and traditional hierarchical structures. Incoming cohorts sought rewarding and fulfilling professional experiences that aligned with their personal values.

Key statistics:

  • According to a Gallup study on the American workforce, 42% of millennials would change to a job if they were able to work independently on a project of their choosing.
  • In 2021, over 40% of the global workforce were considering leaving their job.

Fast forward two years, and the pandemic has led many of us, regardless of age, to evaluate what work means and the purpose we derive from it – as demonstrated by ‘The Great Resignation’ last summer.

This increased desire for autonomy and purpose-driven work has extended across generations. As remote working becomes entrenched into the world of work, employees are demanding more than flexibility and office perks, they want autonomy3.

What this means for organisations

In a competitive recruitment market and a new world of remote-working –where hands-on micromanagement approaches are proving near impossible to sustain – leaders need to adapt at pace to provide autonomy.

Going beyond providing flexible working hours or locations, they must also ensure the culture within their organisation prioritises employee initiative. This means leading by example to remove over-bearing management and creating an environment that allows employees to take ownership over their roles and makes people feel trusted.

Among our clients, we have seen that some leaders are ready to meet this need and are keen to provide autonomy to their employees. They want to build confidence in their workforce to adopt a more agile mindset that encourages calculated risks so that employees can take ownership of their roles with more responsibility and initiative to fulfil their roles with independence.

The key challenge for leaders

The role of the leader is to provide colleagues with a clear sense of direction and purpose within the organisation without being too prescriptive around outputs and how they individually fulfil this purpose. So how do leaders provide the autonomy and ownership that employees desire, whilst ensuring that all colleagues are working towards a common purpose?

Leaders need to ensure employees understand the purpose, values and culture of the company, and be clear on what the vision of success looks like so that employees can take ownership of that vision within their individual roles. This is something that has been recognised by the World Economic Forum – it proposes that you cannot provide autonomy without a clear purpose: “While the new generations crave expanded notions of autonomy, organizations cannot simply extend it without a mechanism for alignment. By clearly articulating and embedding the organizational purpose and the principles that uphold it, employees will be empowered with guardrails to make decisions at any level.”

How leaders begin to address this challenge:

  • Define your overarching organisational narrative and ambition: are your teams clear and inspired by the journey the organisation is on?
  • Develop a clear story about what your company stands for and its purpose: do colleagues have an accessible values framework that is aligned to your narrative? 
  • Provide colleagues with the confidence to contribute to the narrative. Highlight that their ideas and passion will dictate if, how and when the organisation will reach its desired destination: how can you start to encourage colleagues to actively think about their role within this narrative?

Future-proofing your organisation in 2022

How leaders will grow resilience and relevancy through storytelling

Every day, we see firsthand the complex challenges that impact how people perform, and the opportunities leaders must seize to ensure their organisation remains relevant and resilient for years to come. 

In our experience, to ensure your business can adapt to any number of potential new scenarios, your people must be able to quickly make sense of the situation they face and feel empowered to take the right course of action to resolve it. 

In today’s non-linear world, rigid long-term plans can prove a burden or soon become irrelevant. Therefore, a strong compelling narrative will ensure everyone in your organisation understands their role and the purpose of what they do – even if the business goal or strategy has to quickly shift. This narrative can help you to establish the right culture to combat the aforementioned brittleness, as well as encouraging innovation and creativity so that your organisation can remain agile and maintain competitive advantage. It can also be used to help leaders build connection and belonging to help people to overcome their anxieties.

Featuring insights from members of The Storytellers team, our eBook on future-proofing your organisation considers how leaders can unleash the power of their organisation’s story to create belief and shift mindsets in the face of the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Explore how to:

  • Accelerate your ESG strategy
  • Embed hybrid working
  • Elevate your EVP
  • Sustain digital transformation
  • Lead with empathy

Complete the short form to immediately download your copy

How the stories of climate change can inspire business transformation

Climate change as a social movement has transformed in recent years, compelling increasing numbers of individuals, communities, nations and governments to take action. Key to this success has been the creation and communication of stories that have won hearts and minds to drive change.

Stories – used in the right way – have the power to transform cultures. Within large businesses, a clear, compelling narrative helps your people to become more understanding and responsive to even the most complex of challenges.

As the early stories of climate change have demonstrated, business leaders shouldn’t assume that by just focusing solely on the facts, it will be enough to bring people on your change journey. So what key lessons can we take away from the biggest stories at the heart of the climate crisis?

Evoking emotions has a long-lasting impact

If the story of your organisation connects people on an emotional level to your purpose, values and goals, it has the power to unite everyone behind your mission and motivate them to work in new ways.

In 2017, the second BBC ‘Blue Planet’ series continued to educate us on the wonders of the world’s oceans. However, it was the penultimate episode which focused on pollution that would go on to establish its legacy. In 50 minutes, narrator David Attenborough – a master professional when it comes to the art of storytelling – dramatically changed the mindset of the millions who tuned in, by showing in graphic detail the impact that microplastics are having on the lives of the marine life.

It led us to rethink our reliance on single-use plastic and compelled governments to take action by introducing a plastic bag tax in many countries. Even today, for those who watched that episode, the guilt wrought every time we pay for a new plastic bag demonstrates the long-lasting impact an emotive story can have on us.

Don’t dwell on the ‘doom and gloom.’ You need to complete the narrative

When there is too much focus on the challenge, people will remain reluctant to act without clarity on how it can be overcome. As we have previously experienced with climate change, when the narrative becomes too upsetting to follow, or the problem appears too great to solve, over time people will still disengage – regardless of its urgency or importance. 

The groundbreaking TV documentary series ‘Years of living dangerously,’ first aired in 2014, provided poignant first-hand reports on those affected by climate change – from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy to the upheaval caused by drought in the Middle East. Series One was emotive; it educated millions and even won an EMMY, but it didn’t open our eyes to the growing number of climate change solutions in development. The show’s Executive producers also realised this, and to keep people engaged throughout the second series, they shifted the narrative from ‘this is happening’ to focus on ‘this must happen next’. 

In his latest book ‘A Life on our Planet’, Attenborough also shows us the impact of a complete narrative. It begins with his amazing backstory as a pioneer in television and natural history film-making, while witnessing first-hand the destruction of the natural world. It then explores the hard reality of what is likely to happen if we don’t make radical changes. But crucially, in the final section, the narrative moves to a new ‘vision,’ as he outlines the journey we can all go on to save the planet and improve our lives. This rollercoaster structure of contrasting emotions not only makes the book a gripping read, but more importantly, it provides hope and invites people to play their part in collectively influencing the future.

Within a large organisation, establishing a complete narrative will motivate your people to pursue the best course of action to achieve your goals. In turn, sharing stories of successful outcomes then helps to build the belief that ‘change is happening’.

The powerful are not always in positions of power

Having influencers or change champions who are prepared to ‘spread the word’ is essential to any cause. Working not from traditional positions of leadership, they have the ability to unite people because as they have already gained the trust of their followers or peers.

Those campaigning for action against climate change are predominantly not those in traditional positions of power. Accessible across a variety of platforms, social media, blogs or podcasts, these individuals convey a notion of real possibility to their audience. For example, whether or not you agree with the tactics and actions of Extinction Rebellion, its proponents are such a broad cross-section of society, they’ve proved highly effective in passing on their message.

Leaders have to role model change

Unlike David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg doesn’t have decades of professional broadcasting experience, but what she does have is an instinctive understanding of how she and her actions can create a story that is arguably more impactful than any words. 

As Thunberg shifted from the role of influencer to a leader in the global fight against climate change, she’s been able to influence people – not through the stories she told, but the stories she has inspired others to create. From being the teenage influencer sitting outside the House of Parliament in Stockholm with her homemade banner to the trips she made back and forth across the Atlantic by sailing boat in order to speak to world leaders without having to leave a carbon footprint, her public life is a story. Yet her story has become a metaphor for how older generations are destroying the future for the young.

As a business leader, if you too are role modelling critical behaviours within your organisation, you will create stories that inspire others to follow your example. Storytelling will always be a fundamental trait of human behaviour. Use it to your advantage and it will help to navigate your organisation through even the greatest of change journeys.

How leaders can build momentum to accelerate digital transformation

Any digital transformation programme requires organisational change. The global pandemic has brought forward digital transformation by seven years*, and today more customer interactions, products or services are fully digitised than ever before.

Digital transformation remains a crucial enabler – a means to achieve wider organisational, customer service, growth and retention goals more quickly.

At the height of the COVID-19 response, the world of work embraced everything at our digital disposal to get through the crisis together and respond to rapidly changing business and customer needs.

It’s easy to assume that everyone is comfortable with these changes – after all, we have seen how well they can function, and embedded new ways of working in our lives. However, digital transformation also brings change that runs deep within organisations – impacting everything from operating models and structures to company culture and recruitment. In turn, this can also leave people feeling like they have lost autonomy or that their skills and expertise are no longer valued. 

When people fail to connect the reasons for your digital journey with the ‘bigger picture’ of your organisational goals – or struggle to understand their role within the future organisation – this heightens the risk of resistance and disengagement with the process.

With the right approach, the story you tell as an organisation – driven by a shared vision of a digitally empowered future – can galvanise your people and their talents, turning uncertainty into an opportunity to ensure your digital journey is sustainable for the long term.

Enter your details to read our ebook on how leaders can harness the power of storytelling to overcome the key challenges of digital transformation to drive change and new opportunities.

*McKinsey & Company 2020

Webinar: ‘Empowering the future generation’ with Abigail Melville – CEO of We Rise

Today, ’Gen Z’ can easily get the wrong idea about big organisations – and vice versa. In an increasingly complicated system of post-16 education, young people in the UK are all too often left to navigate their own path, relying on personal and social networks to make the difficult transition from school to work. This disadvantages those from less affluent backgrounds.

We Rise is an award-winning community business challenging stereotypes and tackling social disadvantage. Its mission is to empower young people to create successful futures by enabling them to explore and experience the real world of work, try new things and be challenged to deliver.

Passionate about tackling inequality, after 25 years working in public, commercial and non-profit organisations – including spells as a Councillor in South London, public affairs consultant and secondary school teacher – Abigail Melville founded We Rise to make an impact in her community.

In our ‘Stories from the C-Suite’ series, we talk to C-suite leaders who we believe are expert storytellers about the challenges of leading organisations through change and find out what lies ahead in the next stages of their journey.

In this latest episode, Abigail joined us to explore:

  • How the global pandemic has impacted opportunities for young people
  • How organisations can benefit by empowering a more diverse future workforce
  • How We Rise uses storytelling and narrative to shift mindsets and drive change.

Enter your details to watch a recording of the webinar in full.

Overcoming key leadership challenges in 2021

The number of new opportunities and challenges created by the pandemic shows no sign of dwindling. Businesses that can respond to new demands on their markets will always be best equipped to navigate risks and remain sustainable in the long term. 

The COVID crisis has fundamentally changed many aspects of our lives, not at least how we work, and successful business leaders will adjust to these seismic societal shifts by staying nimble, flexible and creatively future-proofing their organisations.

In our ‘Stories from the C-suite’ series, we talk to leaders, who we believe are expert storytellers, about the challenges of leading through change and how they will approach the next stages in their journey.

Each webinar provided valuable takeaways on how leaders can overcome both the common and more unique challenges large organisations face at this time. 

As the series takes a break during August and September, I invite you to catch up or watch back and reflect on the conversations we’ve had since the beginning of the year.

Stories from the c-suite Rabobank

WATCH: ’Future of Food’ with Will Jennings – CEO, UK at Rabobank 

Will shared how the global food crisis has come to drive Rabobank’s mission and purpose. And why storytelling and narrative are important to leaders looking to drive long-lasting change.

Stories from the Csuite CFA Institute

READ: Transformation in Asia’ with Nick Pollard – MD APAC, CFA Institute

Accompanying this webinar is a free guide outlining the skill set needed for leaders to unlock business transformation in Asia.

Stories from the C-suite AXA Health

WATCH: ’The Future of Health’ with Tracy Garrad – CEO, AXA Health

We explored how Tracy dealt with the challenges of the pandemic in an industry at the forefront of the crisis. We also discussed how the business has adapted and what healthcare will look like in the future.

Stories from the C-suite: Noble Foods

WATCH: ’Food for thought’ with Duncan Everett – CEO, Noble Foods

From a unique position of having experienced and led two different food companies during the pandemic, we were keen to hear what Duncan had learned and what he will focus on moving forward.

Stories From the Csuite - Hostelworld

WATCH: Navigating Crisis’ with Gary Morrison – CEO, Hostelworld

Arguably one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, the travel industry has been dealt consistent blows with no respite. We discussed with Gary, a veteran of digital travel companies, what Hostelworld did to ensure that it had a roadmap to recovery, and how it plans to thrive when normal travel patterns resume.

Stories from the C-suite Hays

WATCH: ’Talking Talent’ with Alistair Cox – CEO, Hays plc

Forces of change are sweeping across the recruitment industry, and we wanted to know how Alistair is navigating this tumultuous but exciting landscape. He also shared plenty of insights on what the future of recruitment might look like.

Stories from the C-suite: Pheonix Group

WATCH: ’Facing The Crisis’ with Andy Briggs – CEO, Phoenix Group

He was a new CEO, taking up the role during the early stages of the pandemic – we wanted to know how Andy was able to navigate Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement business, through the toughest of times.

Follow our LinkedIn page or sign-up to our newsletter for notifications about future ‘Stories from the C-Suite’ webinars. If you have any suggestions of leaders you would like to hear from or ideas on topics you would like us to cover – we would also love to hear from you. Please email us: connect@thestorytellers.com