Marketing Strategy
How Great Leaders Use Storytelling to Activate Empathy in Their Teams

How Great Leaders Use Storytelling to Activate Empathy in Their Teams

May 13, 2020
4 min read

With a long career in sales and marketing, I’ve had direct experience of how persuasive storytelling can be. But storytelling is a useful tool not just for selling things. It can be an effective tool for learning, too.

This won’t be a surprise to anyone with a background in teaching. And you’ve probably had personal experience of learning from a story. Stories, after all, have been used to pass down information to new generations for thousands of years.

But storytelling as a tool for leadership and education in the workplace is often overlooked.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Stories are effective learning tools, and smart leaders can use them to their advantage.
  • Learn how to use storytelling to teach, to bring teams together, and to persuade people to take micro-actions.
  • Storytelling can be used to unlock empathy and help people to find the real value in their work.

Storytelling and Empathy

When researching Mean People Suck, I came across this article written for Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, which explains exactly why storytelling is so effective for learning.

Psychologist and executive coach Vanessa Boris explains that effective storytelling helps us to create a sense of connection and trust. When a group of people hears a story, they feel bonded as if they’ve gone through an experience together.

Stories engage our sense of empathy. In fact, studies have shown that reading literary fiction can improve empathy by enhancing our ability to identify and understand the emotions of others.

It can be very difficult to feel empathy for someone when their situation is something we’ve never experienced and completely alien to everything we know. Storytelling is an effective way of transporting us so we can literally see the world from a new point of view.

In the words of renowned author Neil Gaiman: “In reading, you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

By listening to or reading stories, we can actually train our brains to become more empathetic. As we develop empathy for the characters in stories, we learn how to be more empathetic to people in real life.

Using Storytelling as a Leadership Tool

Empathy is the hidden secret that great leaders use to get the most out of their teams, and they often access it via storytelling.

If your employees are not engaged at work, it might not be because their work isn’t interesting or they’re unhappy in the workplace. For employees to be really engaged, they need to forge a connection with their work.

Let’s be honest; the main reason that most people get up and go to work in the morning is to earn a living. Would paying them twice as much get them to work twice as hard? Unlikely.

Money can be a motivating factor, but true engagement comes when individuals feel totally aligned with the mission and values of an organization and are willing to go above and beyond for that organization because their work has real meaning and value.

It’s not always easy to uncover the true meaning behind the work that individuals do. If they’re working for a charity saving starving children, there’s a clear mission behind their work. But if they feel like all they’re doing is helping a big corporation make more money, they’re unlikely to put in anything more than the bare minimum effort needed to get a paycheck.

Leaders skilled in the art of storytelling can use stories to uncover the true meaning in the work their team is doing using the power of empathy.

storytelling in leadership

Joseph Grenny tells the Harvard Business Review his observations of a disengaged employee of a fast food chain who was spending more time looking at his phone rather than clearing tables. Rather than chastising him, his supervisor told him a story of a two-year-old she’d seen licking sauce from the table while her mother’s back was turned.

Pointing out through a story that the important job of wiping down tables could prevent a young child from becoming sick gave real meaning to this employee’s work. This was far more effective than simply ordering him to put his phone down and get back to work.

Getting Started with Empathetic Storytelling

The fast food supervisor story is a classic example of great leadership achieved through storytelling. It’s also proof that storytelling doesn’t have to be some grandiose production with a big audience. Weaving short stories into our everyday interactions with people can help to activate their empathy so we can get the most out of them.

Storytelling is a skill, but it’s one that is easily learned. You don’t have to be a bestselling author to tell good stories. And you don’t have to be the CEO of the company to lead others with storytelling.

storytelling in the workplace

The first step is to build your own skills of empathy. Practice putting the needs of others before your own. Try mentally stepping into someone else’s shoes whenever you have the opportunity.

In business, practicing empathy with your customers is often the best place to start. The fast food worker put herself in the shoes of the busy mother trying to buy food for her kid. How would she feel if her daughter got sick from a dirty table?

Practice imagining how you’d feel and react in a variety of situations. This is the key to not only understanding your customers better but also telling better stories. Your customers are the characters in your stories, and you’re responsible for how the story ends.

So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy!

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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