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A story to illustrate how stories work

I’d like to illustrate my point by repeating a story that I told in my book The Language of Leaders. The story was about my encounter with the safety director of a home construction company. His name was ‘Steve’ and I was called in because he was being ineffective in his communication and adversarial in his style. The HR director who brought me in said that although Steve was passionate about his role as head of health and safety, he was actually angry and controlling all the time and was having an adverse effect on staff morale.

People had no sense of what drove him or why he pushed so furiously for every last detail to be checked. Steve fumed that his people ‘weren’t paying attention’, hated that they merely responded to crises and never sought active ways to tackle problems or bolt the fine points down.

We dug into his beliefs and values to find what really drove him. Steve told me how, at a previous company, a boy had strayed onto one of his sites. He had managed to get through a gap in the fence after everyone had gone home, fallen into a deep pit excavated for foundations and had been severely injured. In pain, bleeding profusely, he died alone in the night.

Steve took on the agonizing responsibility of telling the boy’s mother himself. It was his duty, but it was the most harrowing experience of his life.

It was made all the more bitter when he learned the gap in the fence had not been secured by one person in his crew. The pit too had not been protected properly by a different member of his crew; by themselves, minor omissions, but a confluence of details that proved fatal.

Steve’s credo became that no detail was too small when it came to health and safety. No one could have mistaken the strength of his feeling when he told me, ‘I never want to have to tell another mother that her child has been in an accident on one of our sites.’

I advised Steve to go and tell that story everywhere in the organization. Every chance he got, he was to tell that story without making any other points. ‘Just tell that story and then get out,’ I told him. His story, when told, had a profound and positive impact on his business.

Steve’s entire workforce saw why attending to such details of health and safety practice was important, and responded wholeheartedly. His story moved them in a way that rules and regulations never could. Authentic, based on his strong point of view and entirely appropriate to his organization, it changed behaviours and raised the benchmark for safety. His people did what was right whether he was there or not, and were happier doing it.

Initially, Steve had acted rationally in pursuing a strategy of active health and safety for his company, but this alone left him frustrated and his people cold. His story channelled his passion and produced a win–win for all the stakeholders – especially Steve, who now knew what his integrity could achieve.

This story has six essential elements, the crucial components that go to make up a powerful and purposeful story. In a few pages I will deconstruct the story for you, and show you how you can construct your own compelling stories that will help to drive change in your own organization.

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