Remember the time you walked into a meeting with new people and were asked, “What do you do?” Or, possibly in the days leading up to the actual event, you begin contemplating questions like, “How will I introduce myself?” or “Will there be someone I can relate to?” along with the natural anxiety of entering an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people. As we enter new group environments, moving through the “get to know you stage” can be an awkward part of team forming. In this article, we will look at elevating the introductory elevator speech to help create relational connections through storytelling.
A Personal Story to Drive Change
Many people, especially in American culture, define themselves by their work or the title they hold. Placing value on a job title or allowing performance reviews to determine our value is a trap easily fallen into as people climb the corporate ladder. In the past, I have often found myself nervous with anticipation walking into a performance review or career conversation with my boss in the hopes of hearing how someone else defines my work performance or views my potential with an organization. After the discussions, I would leave with a new sense of self-defined worth based on a review rating or the next job title possibility, forsaking the rest of the elements of my life that make up the whole of who I am.
As humans, we limit the way we view ourselves and others by bounded awareness based on knowledge in the context of the known environment. Bounded awareness keeps people from noticing relevant data, leading to decisions made from accessible but irrelevant information (Bazerman & Moore, 2013). Entering into the room of a training event, we immediately begin making judgments of others unconsciously and then struggle to move beyond those initial snapshot impressions. When career conversations occur or new teams form, knowledge of the external or known characteristics of a person will naturally place boundaries on the lens in which we allow information to inform decisions about others. As training professionals, let us shape a new narrative and proactively enlighten those with whom we interact by taking a different approach to answering the question “What do you do for work?” using storytelling to shape the view of ourselves, find common connections to other group members, and leading to a more informed image of the people we interact with every day. With the following suggested approach to the storied introduction, we have the potential to create more inclusive and psychologically safe environments for work, learning, and team forming.
The Need for Changing the Narrative
Storytelling is a longstanding tradition of humankind, beginning with oral traditions used to build relationships within groups, pass on cultural customs, entertain, and inform (Brown, 2020). Stories are also important to culture (Carson-Knowles, 2021). Whether it is family culture, organizational culture, or societal culture, stories are essential to connecting, communicating, and making sense of our world. Telling and hearing stories is a necessary element to strengthening threads of our human tapestry. The Poet Ali describes stories as the most important language you will ever learn (Ali, 2014). In Ali’s TEDTalk, he effectively illustrates how the language of certain narratives creates a common thread across audience members through the knowledge of shared experiences while not in a shared location.
Over the past year, adjusting to life during a pandemic and with teams no longer sharing a physical location, how does knowing more of the story that makes up the lives of your team help leaders make more informed decisions? This past year of adjusting has also caused organizations to pause and rethink how work gets done, the need to balance the demands outside of our careers, also known as the rest of the “story” of the lives of employees. These stories were present pre-pandemic; the pandemic just pulled forward the need for organizations to pivot and change how they think about work (Fogarty, Philippa;, 2020). The big pause button that was pushed showed how much people were on the go and the need to redefine work-life integration. In the World Economic Forum – The Future of Jobs Report 2020, there is discussion around organizations advancing their digitalization and ability to work remotely (The Future of Jobs Report 2020, 2020). The study found that 83% of the organizations surveyed are making opportunities for more remote work jobs a priority, and 84% are accelerating the digitalization of work processes (video conferencing capabilities, digital tools, etc.) (World Economic Forum, 2020). As we move into the future of working remotely, knowing more about the whole story of our employees will become even more critical to have connection and inclusion among teams that will support employees’ engagement in the organizational mission and strategy. Understanding the demands on a single parent trying to find childcare, employees taking care of older parents because their longstanding arrangements changed instantly, making flexible work arrangements for those who were immunocompromised, and a multitude of other life events that surface through remote or flexible work arrangements. Knowing the stories of our teams may have led to this shift long before a pandemic forced leaders and organizations to shift.
The New Narrative Introduction
“What do you do for a living?” or “What do you do for work?” are questions asked of us frequently. The typical response provides some job title that our company has made up to describe a job profile or a self-made title because we do not want to share the actual job title. What if we changed the narrative in how we respond to this question and others? Instead of providing a title and company, let us describe the type of work we do. Using narratives or storytelling is a starting point to understand the whole person better instead of hearing a compartmentalized title given to us. What if we flipped the script to tell more of the story of what we do every day? For example, my response would be:
My day starts as the family alarm clock ensuring kids are waking up for school, getting dressed, and fueling themselves for the day with some form of nutrition. Woven into this routine is letting the fur kids out to use the facilities and then providing them a morning meal. Waiting at bus stops giving motivational talks to start the learning day right, and saying, “Have a great day! I love you. Be kind!” as the kids step onto the steps of the bus. The day shifts into supporting clients as they discuss how they can better help their teams, improve talent performance, lean into difficult conversations, and just being silent, allowing them space to share concerns without fear of judgment or accusation. Once that part of the day closes, I connect with my home business partner. We begin the meal-making process, tutoring services, dog feeder, chief story reader, completing my schoolwork, companion, and a myriad of other miscellaneous duties as assigned before closing out the day.
Or I could have responded to the question with,
“I am a husband and father of four who works as an H.R. Director.”
Or even simpler yet,
“I am an H.R. Director for ABC Company.”
and left the rest of my story details to be filled in at the discretion of my audience. Reframing how we respond to the question by crafting a more holistic story helps share with our listeners who we are as a whole and gives us a greater sense of purpose and well-being as individuals that move beyond an arbitrary job title.
As we get to know the areas of life that are important to our employees outside of work, the more likely they will feel included and psychologically safe inside the workplace. The importance of sharing our narratives is founded on speaking up when we have an important message to share. Creating a culture of trust through sharing our stories has the potential to lead to a more engaged workforce. As levels of engagement climb, our sense and center of purpose around organizational visions and goals will become more relevant to our teams. Knowing that my boss has a vested interest in my professional life and knows my interests outside of work allows me the space to share ideas, concerns and challenge the status quo. Why? Because that leader also understands my external motivations and intentions of doing good for the company.
A Cautionary Tale to Storytelling
There are cautionary tales in this quest to know more about each other:
- The issue of too much information being shared (TMI). Defining boundaries in what you want to share with co-workers and leaders is an important consideration. It’s always good to have a little mystery left for others to contemplate.
- The trap we can fall into of comparing ourselves to others. As President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy” and can lead to a feeling of inadequacy or inflated belief of who we are. Comparison can lead to damage to our emotional health and well-being. Lifting each other up for who they are, is a healthy approach.
- Knowing our emotional triggers when learning about others. We are all uniquely designed to look, think, and act differently. This diversity among humans can lead to disruptions in our desire to connect. Acknowledging that you may not align philosophically, politically, or even connect as friends is ok. Instead of being a divide, find a way to build these differences into a curiosity to learn more about others. Be sure to check your emotions and open your mind to new perspectives.
- Finally, the approach proposed takes an investment of time. Life is fast-paced, and time is our most valuable commodity. The pandemic imposed a bit of a slow down to life. As we look at getting back to “normal,” let us reinvest some of the found time in building deeper, closer connections with those we spend a significant amount of time with.
Being mindful of these pitfalls will enhance getting to know others at a deeper level of connection.
The Road to Understanding and Inclusion
As we become more informed about the areas of life that are important to employees outside of work, the more likely they will feel included and psychologically safe inside the workplace. The importance of sharing our narratives is founded on speaking up when we have an important message to share leading to better information informing the decision-making process about individuals, teams, and organizational change. Creating a culture of trust by sharing our stories and building closer relationships can lead to a more engaged workforce and learning environment. As levels of engagement climb, our sense and center of purpose around organizational vision, goals, and desire to develop will become more relevant to our teams. Taking the time to be curious about co-workers, conference attendees, or the new barista at our favorite coffee shop will lead to higher trust and psychological safety levels and move us beyond the bounded awareness we inadvertently place on individuals. Finally, as we begin to view ourselves in a more holistic approach through acknowledging all that we do, we can improve our belief in our self-worth and purpose.
Ali, P. (2014, October 23). The most important language you will ever learn. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=488ZBeaGo6s
Bazerman, M. H., & Moore, D. A. (2013). Judgment in Managerial Decision Making. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
Brown, T. (2020, January 24). Storytelling and Cultural Traditions. Retrieved from National Geographic Society: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/storytelling-and-cultural-traditions/
Carson-Knowles, T. (2021). Stories Matter: Why Stories Are Important to Our Lives and Culture. Retrieved from TCK Publishing: https://www.tckpublishing.com/stories-matter/
Fogarty, Philippa; (2020). Coronavirus: How the world of work may change forever. Retrieved from BBC.com: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201023-coronavirus-how-will-the-pandemic-change-the-way-we-work
The Future of Jobs Report 2020. (2020, October 20). Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020
World Economic Forum. (2020, October). The Future of Jobs Report. Retrieved from weforum.org: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2020.pdf