It’s an all-too-common scenario: you’re looking at your numbers, and you’ve finally realized that your team just isn’t performing well. Marketing leads are down, sales numbers are off, and customer satisfaction scores are flagging, too.
This time, it’s not just a fluke or a blip caused by some outside factor that you can’t control. You’ve been tracking the pattern long enough to know that, this time, the problem is your team. Their mojo has gone AWOL.
When your team is in a slump, how can you, as their leader, help them get back on track?
Sure, you can give them a clear goal to aspire to and help them build a plan to achieve it. But, if they’ve been struggling for a while, getting back on track might not come naturally to them. They may need you to give them reasons to believe they actually can win again.
That’s what the right story, told from a place of empathy, can do. Telling the right story at the right time can forge stronger bonds between you and your employees and inspire them to execute at the level you need.
But not all stories – even personal ones – work in all scenarios. Here are three things you can do to choose the right story for your situation.
1. Acknowledge their mood so you can plan how to move them
If your team is going through a slump, fear not: all organizations go through seasons. Those seasons don’t just affect the bottom line, they also affect how people think and feel. During a time of poor performance, your team is likely feeling anxious, frightened, or mournful about the good old days. So, when choosing what story to deliver, consider not just how you’re feeling about your team’s poor performance – but also how it might be affecting their mood, too.
In Illuminate, my co-author Nancy Duarte and I explore when to use stories of different types – what we call motivating and warning stories – depending on the organizational mood. If your low-performing team members are acting complacent or seem unwilling to embrace change, you may need to use warning communication to chip away at their resistance. A warning story is one that cautions them about the possible negative outcomes of staying put or straying from the course. It can encourage them to face up to their challenge, or try out a different strategy. Picking the right story for the team’s mood can be the key to getting them moving or stopping them from heading in the wrong direction.
2. Think of your team as the heroes, not the villains
Your team is probably working hard, even if that effort isn’t completely paying off. So before you start preaching, put yourself in their shoes. Try hard to identify with what they’re experiencing and what’s difficult about their jobs. Then, let that guide you to tell a story that helps them see how they can be overcome their challenges and get to their goal. If your struggling team members can see or feel themselves in the stories you tell, they’ll relate more to you as a mentor — and be more motivated to apply the learning from your story.
A few years ago, I worked with an exec who was unhappy with her sales team’s performance. She wanted to motivate them to do better, so she planned to give a talk about her own early years in sales when it wasn’t uncommon for her to close three deals in a day. “It’s not that hard to sell,” she thought, and she believed her personal story about hustle and determination would get that point across.
However, that story could have landed the wrong way. It might have sounded like a brag or seemed like she was talking down to her team. It also may have made her look out of touch with what it takes to sell the company’s services today. It’s waaaayyy harder than it used to be – and her team knows it.
When she ran her story by me, we role-played how her team might react. She quickly realized it might backfire and decided to find a new story that would be more inspiring. She also realized her words needed to impart the heart of what actually makes a successful sale – which isn’t just hard work and hustle. After some thought, she chose to tell a tale about one sales rep on her team who was doing things right. This rep actually used to struggle to make quota, but he’d turned it around by practicing new skills, like researching his clients and competitors and using those insights to create targeted account plans and more relevant pitches. The new story landed well because it showed empathy for salespeople, and it communicated a point of view that revealed how her team could be more successful.
3. Give them something to think about—and something to do
When people are flailing or failing, they tend to doubt themselves and start to question their decisions. So, giving your team clarity is really important – both in the actions that you expect and about the mindsets they should adopt. The better they understand what they should do – or not do – in the future to be successful, the more able they’ll be to take the right next step. That means your story needs to include a lesson of some kind.
Stories have long been used to communicate lessons, especially in the form of parables or fables. Ever since 600 BC, Aesop’s fables have been teaching people important life lessons like “slow and steady wins the race” or “look before you leap.”
Exploring the lesson that your own team needs to hear in this moment will point you toward the main point or “moral” of your story. The moral is like the story’s big idea. It asserts your unique point of view and illustrates the stakes if your audience does or doesn’t adopt it.
For instance, the executive who wanted to motivate her sales team first chose a story whose moral was simply “work harder.” But that was a bad takeaway for two reasons: it’s demotivating, and it’s vague. Instead, she realized that what she actually wanted to say was, “work smarter, and here’s how.” So she sharpened her message into a more specific – and motivating – moral: “By knowing your clients better, you can serve them better (and make your quota).” That lesson gave her team new knowledge they could use to approach sales from a fresher, and hopefully more fruitful, angle.
Ultimately, stories are a persuasive communication tool, but only if you choose the right one in each situation. If you want to move teams with your stories, it takes a little thought to understand your audience, find a story that’s relevant to them, and sharpen your takeaway so it elicits the outcome you want. If you approach the process with a clear outcome in mind and communicate with empathy, you can ensure that the stories you tell will resonate with your audience and advance your goals.
Illustrated by Alexis Macias