Hannah Lennox

Is the work you, the 'real' you?

This article comes from one of Gradvert’s top facilitators, Mark Cooper.

Do we ever really know someone? Do we ever really see the world through their eyes? The person we sit next to day in, day out - how much do we really know about their history?

A couple of weeks ago I sadly had to attend the funeral of an old friend. At the beginning of the service the Vicar asked us all to join the family afterwards so that we could share our services and reminscences. As I sat there and listened to the eulogy, I became acutely aware that there was so much more to my friend that I had known nothing about. She had grown up always wanting to be a nurse; she was the peace-keeper in the family; she had always wanted to go visit China and had managed to get there before she passed away; and she had recently been planning to move to Spain. If only I had taken more time to ask her about her life while the opportunity was there. I’m sure it’s something we all feel when the time has gone and we can’t ask those questions.

This got me to thinking about storytelling. When the Vicar invited us to come back and share stories, I felt it was a rather odd (possibly even casual) thing to do, but in hindsight, I realised that it is the most human and natural thing we can do as a race. Humankind has told stories since the dawn of time to pass on information, help people remember a message and stimulate an emotional response (love, fear, excitement and so on). In times of sorrow and loss, the very best way we can help remember and relive happy times is through sharing stories. In fact, one thing that really did stick in my mind about my friend was a story she told me about an incident when she was a schoolgirl. She had been running along in the playground when a pencil she had in her pocket fell through a hole. The pencil had been sharpened at both ends, and as it fell she caught it painfully between her knees by the two points. Ever since then, she had two lead point marks on the inside of her knees.

The power of storytelling was brought home to me a week later when I was working with Gradvert delivering on ‘Influencing to Inspire’ workshop to one of their clients. At the beginning of the session the delegates were all able to easily recount a personal story that had a big impact on their life. Some were funny, some were sad and some were simply unbelievable! The point was that they were all memorable and allowed me a bit of an insight into their lives and personas.

Authenticity is something we pay little attention to in the world of work, but we’re all human and there is no weakness in bringing ‘yourself’ to work. My first point about how well we know the person we sit next to at work is very much influenced by ‘what they bring of themselves’ to work. Are they being authentic, or is this their ‘work persona or work facade’?

As the workshop progressed, it became clear that while storytelling is something one can easily do in a relaxed and non-work related setting, it is more of a challenge in a business context. I set an exercise to tell a story to illustrate a business change or message and this proved much more challenging. Stories appear to be the province of Health and Safety training where we can recount bad accidents and industrial mishaps, but seem to prove more of a challenge when we want to illustrate the benefits of cut backs, streamlining or new processes being introduced. This natural human skill seems to stutter and flounder when it has to be ‘professionalised’, almost as if we get stage fright.

And yet, the most engaging and persuasive business leaders all use stories to their advantage, often giving a bit of themselves away. In fact, ‘storytelling’ is now recognised as a key leadership skill. Richard Branson speaks regularly about the importance of storytelling and claims that the Virgin story is what attracts people to work there and buy its products. In 2017, virgin.com devoted an entire month to storytelling and training others how to attract customers and investors by sharing their own stories. Although not regularly included in the MBA programme, most successful businesses are waking up to the storytelling approach and embracing its benefits.

How easy is it to remember a compelling and engaging story in comparison to a long list of facts or bits of information? I can still remember stories that my first boss told me 20 years ago about her life and how she had chosen her field of work. Surely this is a skill we should all be harnessing and showcasing in our businesses? And yet, we often avoid doing so.

Perhaps it is a reticence to ‘bare ourselves’ or let colleagues into our personal lives. Perhaps, simply, the fear that people might not see it as relevant or useful at work. Whatever the reason, the most memorable parts of my working day always form themselves into a story. If I can share these stories and have an impact on the listener, then so much the better. It might even help them do something differently or inspire them to try something new.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably…

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