How to be an effective leader in a team by using stories

Effective leaders know the importance of a strong and cohesive team

Effective leaders know the importance of a strong and cohesive team. There’s no one-size-fits-all for leaders but a good starting place is to know yourself first – what excites and what motivates you. Reflection helps here. Colleagues you can trust. A good mentor. The ability to stand back and have work-life balance. From there you can build up your own approach – both in leadership and in how you and connect with your team.

The tried-and-trusted way to deepen your connection to your team is through regular group meetings and one-to-one catch ups. More and more leaders are having an ‘open door policy’ to show they’re accessible. Or, an ‘ask-anything-you-want’ lunch once a month.

But whether you do these in person or remotely via web conferencing there’s an all-too-common scenario that plays out.

Before a meeting starts, there’s ease among the group. The atmosphere is relaxed. Everyone is chatting and shooting the breeze. But, when the leader takes centre stage, the natural flow is interrupted. People become stiff or silent. The ‘feedback loop’ between the leader and the group can stop. 

How to shift this? Start each meeting with a story.

Not long. Ideally you want the point of your story to reinforce the point of the meeting – or at least be linked.

Stories place everyone in the room. They move minds. They express emotions. They motivate. They inspire.

5 ways to use a story to kick-start a meeting

  1. Ensure your story makes a point about the broader business topic.A relevance statement is a great place to start. You can then expand to show exactly what you mean. In stories, chronology helps locate people. Use words like ‘before we were doing this’… ‘or then something happens’. 
  2. The devil’s in the details, so be specific.Use data points to back-up your story.
  3. Be concise.Remember that your story is just an introduction to a discussion, so max 3 minutes.
  4. Use a personal story – where appropriate.People tend to relate to a story that has a human touch. However, keep it professional and within the context of your workplace.
  5. Help people visualise your narrative with ‘word-pictures’. The human mind naturally creates images when visual details are presented. This improves comprehension. 

By sharing a story at the start of a meeting you can change the course of the discussion that follows. Thoughts?

How unconscious bias affects us all

The hottest phrase on people’s lips at the moment is unconscious bias. I’ve been speaking to CEOs in insurance, professional services, in start-ups and in government, and they are all saying that to improve gender diversity we need to address our unconscious biases.

Google kicked off this trend in May 2014 when it published its woeful diversity statistics and pledged to do better. Since then, writes Ellen Huet, in Forbes, the search giant has put its 50,000+ workforce ‘through workshops on how to understand and stop unconscious bias, which is the set of deep-in-the-brain automatic preferences that almost all humans have.’

Facebook has followed along with countless other corporates worldwide. Even though these workshops can help in showing up our prejudices, experts in the field worry that there isn’t enough follow-through to make long-term change.

At Anecdotewe know that when we run Storytelling for Leadersworkshops, one day isn’t enough. That’s why we have a six-month ongoing program to help embed the changes.

We also know stories can shift entrenched views. Unlike an argument which is a push factor, stories are a pull factor. When we argue with someone and give evidence to prove a point, it can actually trigger someone’s confirmation bias. This means they believe their viewpoint even more strongly — making it harder to win them over.

Now, there are literally dozens of different biasesthat we can have which prevents us thinking or perceiving rationally. Even though our brains are powerful machines, all humans make errors in processing information. This means that when we meet someone for the first time — man / woman; black / white; abled / disabled — we can quickly come to a misguided conclusion about that individual. Canadian bioethicist and futurist, George P. Dvorskyspells out the 12 common biases in more detail.

So, what fascinates me, is how we can use stories to effectively overcome our biases. This was illustrated perfectly last month when I went to a Women in Leadership lunch at the American Chamber of Commerce. On the panel, Dana Feldman, Head of Enterprise Sales Solutions at LinkedIn was describing how they are addressing gender diversity in the Sydney office.

I’m paraphrasing here. Feldman described how, at a casual lunchtime group for men and women, they addressed unconscious bias. After the meeting one of the men went to do an interview with a new job applicant for a sales role. It was a female applicant and at the end of the interview the male LinkedIn employee felt that she wasn’t right for the role; on his feedback form, he wrote that ‘she was too aggressive.’

He went to the recruiting officer and dropped off the form. As he got in the lift to go back to his desk, he had one of those Ah-ah moments. He asked himself, would he have had written that if it had been a man? No, he probably wouldn’t. He turned around, went back down the lift and changed what he’d written on the form.

The female applicant went through to the next round of interviews. Not only that, she got the job.

For me, this is a stunning example of how powerful unconscious bias training can be — but also how a story in so few words can illustrate this. And, of course, how it has the potential to change lives.

Over to you. How can we use story to overcome our unconscious bias — and to really affect change?