Workplace Culture

Inspiring Employees Through Your Story

I have two teenage boys. In 2017, this means I watch a lot of superhero movies.

The superhero movies I like best are the origin stories, like Batman Begins or Antman, where the protagonist goes from being a relatively normal guy to a stupendous fighting machine. It’s hard to relate to movies that are only crazy, high-powered action, but seeing a regular person become a super-duper-world-protector can be quite rousing.

When I worked at Palliser Furniture, Human Resources had a Palliser origin story. They made it into a documentary, and it was also part of employee orientation. The documentary featured Abram DeFehr, who was dissatisfied with how he was treated at Safeway. As a result, he left his job to make wooden ladders in his basement. We saw worn B & W photographs of Abe in the first factory (a converted chicken barn), and heard a voiceover of the aging Abe himself tell us about the birth of the company. By the end of the documentary, us new recruits had watched a Russian immigrant progress from a beleaguered bottom-rung grocer to the founder of an organization with a mission. It was inspiring for us, because now, as new Palliser hires, it was our origin story.

Paul Zak, neuroeconomist at Claremont College, can explain why we identify with Abe’s narrative, and others like it. He has discovered that an engaging story – one that interests us in a hero’s tension and struggle – sparks a release of cortisol, the hormone that sustains attention in our brains. As we follow a story, our brains echo the emotions of the main characters. This is empathy. When there’s empathy, the brain creates oxytocin. The more oxytocin that’s created, the greater the chances we will mimic the behaviors of the hero after the story is finished. To put it more simply, organizational origin stories tie workers to the trajectory of the founder on a neuronal level.

Paul Smith, author of Lead with Story, and former director of market research at Procter & Gamble says, “I’m hard-pressed to think of a company that doesn’t have an interesting foundational story. But I suspect there are many that haven’t crafted and told theirs. And they’re important. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. A nameless, faceless corporation with no real purpose, no story, is not an inspiring place to be.”

How to Craft an Organizational Origin Story

In five years of helping people tell stories, I have found the STAR acronym, taken from behavioral interviewing, is the most practical way to help storytelling novices with the writing process.

To use STAR, you must pick a hero, which is usually your organization’s founder. Then write about how they started the company:

S – stands for “Situation”: Describe a problem your founder faced that listeners canb relate to. Ideally, they will recognize it could happen to them or someone they know. For the Palliser story, the situation for Abram was that he worked his way into management at Safeway twice, only to be fired and then re-hired at an entry-level position.

T – stands for “Task”: Tell your listeners what the hero’s goal was. Abram’s task was to find a career situation where he would be recognized for his hard work.

A – stands for “Approach”: Describe how your protagonist approached the task. Abe had some experience with carpentry that he enjoyed, so he made a prototype of a stepping-stool in his basement and took it to a local department store to see if he could interest the purchasing department.

R – stands for “Result”: Explain the good things that transpired. For Abe, the quality of his work gave him so many orders that he had to leave Safeway. He soon needed to hire people to help fill those orders. Abe did not forget what it was like to be an immigrant, and now gives many newcomers to the country their first careers.

These four elements form the basic plotline for your story, but you’ll want to add texture as well.

Add Texture

As Konstantin Stanislavski, the great Russian director states, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of a story cause the parts of our brains responsible for sensing these things to activate, leading to a far more engaged audience. If you’re telling the story yourself, be ready to act out parts of the story. Find out what the hero would actually say, and what the reply would be as well. Also be sure to include pivotal quotes in your story. Allow your voice and body to experience the emotions of the story. This will give your story life.

What’s Your Organization’s Origin Story?

Try telling your organization’s origin story right now! Grab a writing instrument, and write out the STAR acronym. Complete the situation, task, approach, and result, and try telling it to someone. Be enthusiastic as you tell the story, and ask for feedback when you’re finished. You may have just discovered one of your best motivational tools.

ACHIEVE is conducting a study for a book we are working on. The book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We hope you participate in the short survey – we would love to hear your input.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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