Storytelling isn't just a form of entertainment, it's a way of passing down lessons, history, and morals. Stories can influence people to act, think, and behave a certain way. Just as a peer's behavior is contagious, a character's behavior also can affect the reader or listener.
Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor, writes in Harvard Business Review about the how leaders can influence employee behavior through stories. After doing a series of experiments that found unethical behavior is contagious when someone witnesses a peer acting dishonestly, Gino started looking at storytelling as a way to influence people in a positive way.
Take a look at Disney's creation myth: Walt Disney grew up on a farm in Missouri and started drawing for money when a neighbor asked him to draw pictures of the man's horse. When he grew up, Walt worked as a cartoonist for a newspaper. At that job, he learned how to make moving images with cutout animations. He became passionate about animation, opened his own studio, and eventually became one of the most important animators and entrepreneurs in history.
"Simple stories can be an effective source of inspiration," Gino writes. "In fact, they can be even more powerful than that: stories can influence our decisions and behavior. By presenting vivid examples of people who faced the challenges we face, they not only last across time but also are contagious."
Sean Martin, a professor at Boston College, recently conducted an experiment in which he presented 600 new hires at an IT firm with stories about the company during the onboarding process. Martin broke the subjects into groups. Some groups heard a story about someone who abided by the company's values, which others heard about someone who diverged from those values.
Martin's experiment found that when new hires listened to stories about low-level employees who upheld the company's values, they were encouraged to behave positively. But, Gino writes, among the new employees who heard stories about high-level employees violating values and ethics, "fewer value-upholding behaviors were observed."
"It seems we are especially lifted up by stories of those at the bottom behaving generously and particularly discouraged by stories about higher-ups misbehaving," she writes.