The Storytelling Blog

Level up your storytelling skills by understanding and learning how to deliver personal and professional stories in the appropriate social setting.

Here’s How Storytelling Bridges the Trust Gap Many Leaders Have

Jan 02, 2023

When you think of leadership, the words that come to mind are likely associated with direction, guidance, authority, influence, and inspiration. But what makes a person a great leader?

Leaders vs. Managers

Managers get a bad rap. A quick Google search of “leader vs. manager” reveals a gross misunderstanding of the difference between a subordinate role and inferior skills. While both leaders and managers are necessary to run a successful organization, managers often receive descriptions of inferiority when pitted against leaders. You’ve seen the shameless infographic comparisons:

  • Leaders innovate, managers copy
  • Leaders influence, managers dictate
  • Leaders take risks, managers mitigate risk
  • Leaders create the vision, managers execute it
  • Leaders are people-focused, managers are task-oriented

Admittedly, I once bought into these oversimplified — yet quite compelling — articles and visuals. But after taking a closer look, I noticed that great managers have strong leadership qualities, even if it’s not their official role. However, a good leader assumes the full responsibility of winning the company’s confidence, getting all teams excited about a vision, and facilitating intrinsic motivation to move an organization forward.

Leadership is a specialized communication

Why do people passionately follow someone to the heights of success and through the trenches of difficulty? Their compelling vision and infectious charisma may have a part to play, but it’s how they communicate. Leadership is a unique form of communication. Michael Z. Hackman and Craig E. Johnson define leadership as a “human (symbolic) communication that modifies the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet shared group goals and needs.”

What is communication?

Communication is more than a tool leveraged in business meetings, roundtables, or training. It is a dynamic process that occurs even when you are not “on stage.” And suppose leadership is reframed as specialized communication. In that case, it is a similar process of a series of constant signals exchanged between at least two people, interpreted and reinterpreted until there is a shared understanding. It is a form of negotiation. And according to Dean Barnlund’s Transactional Model of Communication, there are six people involved when just two people are communicating:

  1. Who you think you are
  2. Who you think the other person is
  3. Who you think the other person thinks you are
  4. Who the other person thinks they are
  5. Who the other person thinks you are
  6. Who the other person thinks you think they are

If that isn’t complex enough, include personality traits and the fact that communication is circular, not linear, along with its irreversible vs. retractable nature. Now, increase those two people to just 20. That, my friends, is leadership.

What is leadership?

To understand leadership as specialized communication, start by answering, “What exactly are we doing when we’re communicating?” You send verbal and nonverbal signals as symbols to another person or group. Those signals are packaged as symbols, “abstract, arbitrary representations of reality agreed upon by human users,” defined by communication theorist Frank Dance. In other words, anything can be used as a symbol. As long as that symbol represents something in reality that at least two people understand and agree with, the symbol is an effective tool for communication.

So what is leadership? Here’s my definition: Leadership is a human, strategic, and dynamic process that includes three acts:

  1. The deferential or responsive act of understanding symbols shared within a culture or sub-culture to accurately interpret who and what is being expressed.
  2. The creative act of using shared symbols to convey a message that is understood to inspire, encourage, improve, empathize, etc., beyond just getting a job done but fulfilling a vision.
  3. The negotiating act of reinterpreting and retelling those symbols within the appropriate communication model (e.g., Transactional Model) or theory (e.g., Narrative Paradigm Theory) to benefit both parties.

The importance of symbols

Symbols are at the center of leadership. You can interpret, create, or retell those symbols to convey a message that the other person or group will interpret, create, or retell. So what is the purpose of tossing symbols back and forth until they become meaningful communication pieces? What is the endgame? It’s to create a strong sense of shared meaning — tribal, even — to get your team across finish lines. These include team goal lines, personal growth lines, company vision lines, and peer relationship lines — all the lines you and your teams construct together. The intersecting point of all these constructed lines is trust. (Your team automatically comes with sub-cultural lines you must discover to connect with them)

Storytelling effectively leverages symbols as a leader

Establishing trust with your team is the most effective way to leverage symbols as a leader. If a team needs trust to engage in symbol activity (responsive, creative, negotiating) with a leader, and yet it takes symbols to build such trust, what is a leader to do? The most effective way to build trust while leveraging the symbols in your team’s culture is by telling stories. Within the business context, exchanging stories that develop “swift trust” (Hugo & Vu, 2007) is the goal. The ability to exchange business information quickly so that trust is created to get work done, make a transaction, collaborate on a project, or rally behind a vision, is what stories can do if shared appropriately. Most importantly, sharing constructive, personal, or inspiring stories over time will shape an enjoyable work culture and foster healthy relationships.

“Stories serve a persuasive communication function for organizations by representing personal, interpersonal, and corporate perspectives. They help reduce organizational uncertainty by quickly disseminating information, frame organizational events through their value-laden features, and promote organizational culture identification by establishing a social context for members”

— Faye Smith & Joann Keyton

What does storytelling look like in real life?

Translating symbols and storytelling in a real-life work context within an organization can be difficult. How does a leader — or anyone for that matter — leverage the strategic asset of storytelling to quickly build trust, communicate information, and achieve business objectives? There are quite a few storytelling approaches, but some of the clearest organizational frameworks with tangible examples come from the research and work of Stephen Denning, whom Chip Heath (author of Made to Stick) considers the “Warren Buffett of business communication.”

In his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, Denning unpacks eight narrative patterns frequently used in the organizational setting for leaders. His framework includes specific objectives for each pattern, the type of story that will need to be shared, how a leader will need to deliver it, and particular phrases that the story will elicit from the team.

An example is using the Fostering Collaboration narrative pattern to establish objectives for a high-performance team or influential community within an organization. The typical challenge is that if the goals for a project or initiative are too complete, it’ll suppress the team’s proactivity. But if the objectives are not clear enough, the team will lose direction. Denning proposes that telling the right story can help achieve clarity with enough “incompleteness” to help the team take ownership of the project.

One way to specifically use the Fostering Collaboration narrative is by sharing stories from the past, which can illustrate vivid examples of not only what is required of the team but how others accomplished similar objectives in unconventional ways. Denning includes examples of how, for example, a team leveraged an unexpected methodology to achieve results faster than expected or was able to ultimately refine the goal, which resulted in attaining phenomenal performance.

Here’s the complete list of Denning’s Eight Narrative Patterns Based on the Leader’s Objectives

  1. Sparking action
  2. Communicating who you are
  3. Transmitting values
  4. Communicating who the firm is — branding
  5. Fostering Collaboration
  6. Taming the grapevine (the rumor mill)
  7. Sharing knowledge
  8. Leading people into the future

High-level storytelling isn’t just for leaders — it’s for everyone

Stories can and should be used in the business and organizational context to set client expectations, mobilize teams to operate at high performance, remove negative rumors, and transmit company values. Most of all, telling stories should quickly build trust, allowing leaders to communicate and lead from an authentic and mutual context using shared symbols.

However, you don’t have to be an organizational leader to unlock and leverage the power of this kind of storytelling. Great managers use it too. And so do their employees. There’s a reason why the proverbial water cooler is still where people exchange information and experiences you won’t get in a regular meeting (sans an effective agenda). That’s because trust flourishes there. And that is where the stories reside.

Want to learn how to tell better stories? Start with this free training on how to create a signature introduction. Stories don’t have to be complicated. Begin by telling a 30-second one about yourself.


Want Helpful Story Tips Every Week?

Get business storytelling advice and techniques in your inbox.

You're safe with me. I'll never spam you or sell your contact info.