Productivity, Safety and Happiness: The Storytelling Connection

In Charles Duhigg’s latest book Smarter Faster Better one of the points he makes is that a defining characteristic of effective teams is that of psychological safety. In other words, when team members feel safe to explain themselves and have dissenting opinions this can contribute to effective teamwork. This may seem like a no-brainer, but think about it for a second… How many times have you been part of a team where you didn’t feel like you could truly speak your mind? Perhaps you felt you would be reprimanded, ridiculed or would not be taken seriously. I think this happens more than we like to admit even when there is a body of research demonstrating the benefits of openness and candid communications between team members.

As the founder of V-Speed, I try to help organizations improve leadership and teamwork to help them improve specific performance in the areas of safety and operations. Last year during a series of focus groups I saw first hand what happens when team members don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinions. I was interviewing several team members of a client and realized how a lack of trust and mismatched perspectives at multiple levels across the organization led to a large disparity between the way work was designed and perceived at the top and middle of the organization and how it was actually performed by front line teams. Many front line team members felt extremely disconnected from top management and leadership, yet felt they had no voice to speak up. Without a way to get their voices heard and without a culture that is receptive to dissenting opinions and change it is unlikely any organization will experience great results.

But how can this type of culture, a “just culture,” be created and thrive? I believe the power of storytelling can help bridge the gap between what is perceived at top levels of the organization and at lower levels in the organization where the “real work” gets done. If you are a leader you should be very concerned with what happens on the front lines because without workers and people to influence leaders are out of a job. Before we jump on poor leaders or managers, though, we need to lead in with a degree of empathy because just as most workers go to work every day to do a good job, most leaders and managers also go to work each day to do a good job. Oftentimes they just don’t understand this problem exists and that there is a major gap between perceptions from the top to the bottom of the organization. However, it is conversations like we can have through this post that can help initiate change, and part of the change process should include storytelling to help companies and workers feel their way into change. It is one thing to speak to the logic of change efforts, but organizations change through the process of feeling and experiencing the big emotional challenges of people at multiple levels. I truly believe that the gap between the way work is designed by management and imagined on the part of managers and leaders and how work is actually performed by front line operators and supervisors can be reduced through dialogue and storytelling. We must start the conversations and stories by first creating psychological safety to open and shape a receptive climate. These rich stories, where leaders can describe their beliefs and feelings about the good of the organization and where workers can explain their feelings and beliefs about the challenges of their work, the potential workarounds they feel compelled to create which are often necessary to meet competing and sometimes mismatched goals (like on-time production and safety compliance), their goals for themselves and their goals for their teams and the larger organization, can be a powerful tool for helping to initiate change and organizational transformation.

Sidney Dekker explains, “employees are not a problem to control, but a resource to harness,”1 yet leaders and managers so often fall back into the Tayloristic command and control approaches that may have worked in the past. However, the world is a complex place and organizations are too complex to simply think perfunctory obedience to orders by employees is what is needed to achieve success and continuous improvement. It is at the points where interactive complexity occurs (the relationship between the parts of the system) during real work where employees often thrive and create success, rather than failure most of the time. They just need a chance to lift their voices and tell their stories.

Employees are not a problem to control, but a resource to harness!
— Sidney Dekker

As a leader, it is one of your jobs to create the environment that helps teams to be successful and thrive. Giving team members opportunities to tell their stories, and then listening to their stories and providing them with some decision-making control over how they perform their work may be a powerful step in the right direction to create this openness. Additionally, workers may have some excellent ideas on how you may be able to improve safety and reduce risk in your organizations. After all, they are the ones at the “sharp end” doing the work and often understand how to actively create safety during planning and operational execution. Research also suggests giving employees some choice in their work may improve happiness and performance.  Once this openness is created you are starting your journey to creating high-reliability teams.


P.S. If you haven’t figured this out already, I love storytelling. I think we are hard-wired to like stories and I think stories have tremendous potential to impact the way we do work and how we can propel our organizations to new levels of performance. I would love to share our FREE Storytelling Guide with you. To receive your free Storytelling Guide, please enter your email address below. No, we won't send you spammy junk, just solid content designed to help you improve your organization's performance.

Thanks for reading and I wish you a great, productive and safe day!