I have never met of half of my employees in-person. But as the leader of a completely virtual team, it has always been important for me to maintain a company that feels like a family. I want each team member to feel valued, trusted, and loved. And not just by me, but also their co-workers.
To create such a culture, I try to be the example. For me, the most natural way to do that is to be a storyteller. I'm open and honest with my employees about my life. From what I do on the weekends to my struggles with infertility, they know my story.
As a result, they've trusted me and each other with their own stories, making us a more united and caring team.
Unfortunately, in this age of data overload, many leaders forget the power of storytelling. Don't be one of those leaders. Use these four strategies instead:
1. Do away with cliches.
"Teamwork makes the dream work."
"You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
"Think outside the box."
Employees have heard it all. When a leader comes to them for the thousandth time with a motivational cliche, they're going to tune out.
The co-author of The Loyalist Team, Audrey Epstein, has a great rule of thumb to help you out. She says when you simply want your employees to know something, give them facts. But, when you want them to do something or believe in something, share a story.
"You don't need the most poignant, life-changing event to use storytelling effectively," she said. "I encourage leaders to find many stories, small things that happen every day, that they can tie to a simple, timely leadership message."
The next time an employee needs your guidance, stop and think about a time when you were in a similar situation. Whether you succeed or not, share that story and don't leave out the emotions you were feeling. The employee will identify with those feelings and better connect with your message.
2. Create a shared narrative.
When people hear stories, they create images in their mind. Since they weren't likely there when the events occurred, listeners fill in the blanks with their own experiences. This ties them into the narrative, which can be very powerful for leaders.
"Most people want to belong to a group, their tribe or herd," said Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist at the management consultancy Simon Associates. "They start to believe the shared story that others around them tell to create their reality."
Use this to your advantage when getting employees to believe in the company culture. Share stories of employees who have embodied company values during team meetings. The rest of your employees will build onto these stories with their own experiences. This will make them want to contribute to the shared narrative of the company culture.
3. Turn their jobs into stories.
Leaders often take for granted that they can see the whole picture. You know how each employee fits into the processes and the organization's success. Unfortunately, employees don't always see or understand their part.
"Great leaders use stories to help employees understand how their job, the very specific thing they are great at, is crucial to the success of the entire team and organization," said Adam Fingerman, co-founder and CEO of the app design and development company ArcTouch.
Give employees the whole story and make them characters in it. Don't just tell an employee they did a "good job" after a project succeeds. Let them know how their work contributed. For instance, if an employee wrote a sales report that provided managers with insights that helped them improve quarterly sales, tell them exactly how that impacted the outcome.
4. Give them the chance to be the hero.
Who hasn't imagined themselves slaying a dragon, being a cunning spy, or simply saving the world? We love stories because they give us the opportunity to experience the impossible.
Your stories, however, can motivate employees to be the hero in the real world.
"Frequently, a story can serve to inspire by allowing an employee to picture herself in the position of the protagonist, achieving something that in a regular conversation would seem more difficult," said Jeff Kupietzky, the CEO of email marketing platform, PowerInbox.
This is the one time you want to make your stories less detailed. If you tell an employee the story of how Sally succeeded, that employee will envision Sally's face. But if you give an account of a nameless employee, the employee will impose themselves onto the character. They'll relate to the traits that led the character to triumph and feel more confident in themselves.