How to avoid the emotional toll of storytelling
By Jo Faragher on 01 September 2023
Storytelling is well known as one of the most impactful ways we can help employees understand the experiences of others.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, for example, businesses wanted to learn more about the experiences of Black employees, and called upon colleagues to share their stories. But while this undoubtedly boosted awareness of the unfairness that minorities experience, it also in many cases added to the emotional exhaustion Black employees were feeling during that time. The impact of feeling like you have to be ‘the voice’ of an under-represented group and the struggle of that group is something that senior executives often overlook.
“Black people get asked a lot to educate white people,” says Judith Germain, a leadership coach at The Maverick Paradox. “What has happened in the past is that the request is placed in a way that’s demanding, disbelieving or sceptical. People who explain their lived experience feel like they are asked to defend themselves or have been gaslighted, so feel they have to go deeper. They’ve shared something deeply personal but are told they don’t understand.” This has a hugely negative impact on individuals’ feelings of psychological safety, adds Germain. “It becomes so much easier just to say everything is fine.” Before asking people to share any stories, what is the culture of the organisation? What are they trying to achieve by asking people to share? If it’s a tick-box exercise because there are problems with the culture, the outcome could be that this makes things worse.
Find common ground
Birgit Neu, a senior D&I advisor and former head of diversity and inclusion at HSBC, believes it’s important to consider the broader D&I context when encouraging employees to share their experiences. “What can happen with a focus on one under-represented group is that others may wonder ‘what about me’ – particularly in a global organisation,” she says. “D&I practitioners should look for common stories across groups to find themes that could be addressed collectively and more inclusively – a lack of role models, for example.” Think first about the aim of sharing experiences – will there be learnings for others, and how will the people who could action those learnings be engaged? Planning for this can avoid scenarios like employee resource groups becoming hubs for sharing bad experiences without participants seeing progress on issues raised.
Germain argues that there is a major difference between those who volunteer to share experiences and those who do it because it is expected. What can work well if D&I teams want to raise awareness of certain issues is to bring in an external speaker or facilitator to mitigate the risk of distress for their own employees. “They can understand the wider leadership and cultural issues and can land the message in a way that doesn’t highlight individuals,” she adds. “Otherwise you can end up making life difficult for the person left behind. Sharing the story needs to add value rather than highlighting them and opening them up to questions.” The channels you choose are also important, adds Neu. Social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and LinkedIn can send stories viral so employees need to be aware this may be a possibility.
Boundaries and support
Arcadia StoryTrack, part of coaching firm Arcadia Consulting, uses the power of story to support clients with culture, change and leadership. “Aside from the many studies of storytelling leading to connection through shared experiences, empathetic connection and relationship building, the opportunity to create a psychologically safe space where we can share stories allows us an opportunity to help share experiences that can inspire connection and action,” explains Olly Woodhead, global consulting director for transformation strategy at the company. “For example, if we can share a story of where we experienced kindness and we can give context then it can encourage a more empathetic approach to kindness in the workplace through an opportunity to give people and teams ‘licence’ to act in a similar way.”
However, if these stories are not aligned to the wider vision of the company, “it can mean we do not have appropriate context and boundaries in which to operate which can lead to confusion on what can be shared and how it is shared”, he adds. Creating a safe environment for open and candid exchanges is crucial, and something that can help is other team members giving examples of ‘how’ to share. Woodhead says: “This should not be viewed as a marketing exercise but as an exercise in authentic and emotive connection with our colleagues with a set of clear objectives to drive and develop a clear way of working and communicating.”
In short, don’t ask people to share stories for the sake of it. If their shared experience highlights a problem, it’s important to demonstrate what the company is doing about it, or that the business at least intends to follow up. Is the organisation in a position to respond if it is picked up by the media, for example? Or if it’s something more sensitive, does an employee have an option to share something anonymously, or to a small group of relevant people? “Think about the outcome you’re aiming for,” she advises. “If it’s a sexual harassment incident, perhaps the person needs to speak to HR or an external party. There are also charities that might be helpful; multiple routes are available.”
Stories could also highlight broader cultural issues rather than single characteristics. Aligning the messages of people’s stories to wider company values can help employees apply the lessons to their everyday jobs and embed inclusion, says Germain. “Look at different cultural ways of thinking, how someone’s background has impacted on their experience in the organisation – then differences become less of an issue and it gets away from personal arguments.”
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