Leveraging Storytelling to Create High-Performance Teams

By: Kelsey Schurer in Business Storytelling
on March 18th, 2022

I’m sitting in my office chair, silently crying on Zoom. Yes, I know—completely unprofessional. No muting myself. No turning off my screen. I’ve got tears streaming down my face and snot coming out of my nose for everyone on the speaker gallery to see.

But I’m not ashamed because the woman in the center of the screen—she’s crying with me. In fact, if I look around, I can see wet eyes, quivering chins, and hands folded in prayer from a lot of these folks. They are all colleagues from the same company witnessing the same reaction within each other on full display: their heroism.

The catalyst for all this emotion in the virtual room is storytelling. While her colleagues listen and lean in, one woman bravely shares her story of how she came to the company—how she became the woman she is today with all her weaknesses and strengths, all her trials and triumphs.

Mostly, though, she tells us a story about losing her father to cancer. And because I lost my grandmother to cancer—just like that—we are connected though we’ve barely spoken two words to one another. Because we’ve heard each other, we’ve seen each other. And seeing each other for the heroes we are—that makes all the difference.

Storytelling as a Company’s Compass

When we talk about storytelling, we aren’t just talking about a quick little anecdote you say to get the crowd laughing or relieve the awkwardness of new team members at meetings. We are talking about a sacred commitment to know and understand one another on a deeper level.

The workplace has often been a place where disconnect can breed into disengagement, or worse, disdain. Employees who felt energized and grateful on their first day can find themselves burned out, undervalued, unseen, unheard, and, eventually, expendable in the name of “high performance.” Within our high-performance teams, we find people who are self-motivated, talented, and willing to go the extra mile for a purposeful outcome. And yet, in the absence of collaboration, connection, trust, or feeling valued for their contributions, those high-performance teams become medium-performance teams. Mistrust builds, purpose slips, and the hunger to belong elsewhere creeps in.

Compass sitting on a wooden windowsill

From a leadership standpoint, when trust is sacrificed for the sake of profit or outcomes, a leader will soon find the cracks in their vessel. Naturally, they might want to blame the crew—though they’ll all go down with the ship when the storm topples it over. High-performance teams need a purposeful compass to help guide alongside the captain. They need to be able to rely on one another as a crew to survive inevitable storms and to know in their guts how each person can best contribute to the well-being and stability of the company through their unique superpowers and strengths.

Simply put, when the storm comes, leaders need heroes on deck—and it’s challenging for leaders to see their teams as heroes unless they have heard the stories of their team’s heroic endeavors and the moments in the storms of life when they thought they weren’t going to come out alive.

Storytelling Builds Trust

A hero’s journey requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. A hero leaves behind their ordinary world such as a previous job position, an internship, a childhood of working parents (the beginning) and enters into the new, special world of the company full of trials and challenges (the middle) that pushes them to show up heroically and discover a superpower they can wield purposefully as they and the company grow (the ending!). Along the way, these trials and challenges apply enough pressure that they cause the hero to lean on mentorship or allyship for support and guidance.

“When we tell a story using the structure of the hero’s journey, we shine a light upon the less comfortable parts of ourselves—our mistakes, our failures, our moments of doubt.”

High-performance teams require the same kind of pressure and the same kind of support to continue to thrive in their most impactful configuration. One of the best ways to create that energizing pressure is through psychological safety that allows for vulnerability—a safe place to look beyond the surface version of ourselves that we rarely allow each other to see past. Storytelling courses and storytelling team-building activities are an ideal ecosystem for fostering vulnerability, establishing trust, and identifying which people are the right support system for the heroes in the room.

When we tell a story using the structure of the hero’s journey, we shine a light upon the less comfortable parts of ourselves—our mistakes, our failures, our moments of doubt. Every hero who adventures into a new world will fumble and fall. It is the nature of being human. The quickest way to accept and honor our humanity is to listen for it—to witness that humanity unfolding in a story that evokes emotion and opens a doorway into the secret truths of how we each uniquely and brilliantly navigate the world.

I am unworthy of leadership because I do not look like other leaders.

I have a stutter. I could never give a presentation.

How can I mentor someone when I’ve never had a mentor?

When we gain access to our own heroic nature through a shared storytelling experience that also reveals the heroic nature of our classmates, we intuitively begin to see the heroic nature of everyone around us: our colleagues, our customers, our clients, our families, our friends. That is when we connect in ways we didn’t think possible. We see each other not as in need of rescuing but as everyday heroes who are capable of saving ourselves as long as we have support from mentors and allies who are willing to travel through this adventure at our sides.

Storytelling Awakens Purpose

To return to the Zoom screen, our brave colleague wraps up her story with a summary of what she has learned throughout her ordeal. Losing her father to cancer was the hardest battle she’s faced, but even after, as a mother and a woman in the workplace, she can still evoke the energy of her father who taught her how to play basketball all those years ago—before he was ever sick.

Now, she shows up to the “court” of her life with the beauty and grace of a player who was taught how to dribble and pass, how to make the shot, how to return to everything she loves and continue onward—even after she thought she’d lost so much. Today, she plays basketball with her child, keeping her father’s legacy—and hers—alive.

That kind of willfulness and strength shows up in her home, on the court, and yes—within the company. Her story is one of many on the team. Her superpower to play through the pain—to turn her pain into awe-inspiring plays—allows her to shine as an all-star athlete at work. When everyone on the court has their own heroic version of that story, imagine what they can do together.