How Can Storytelling Improve Team Performance?

In the context of improvement, I like to think of stories as powerful catalysts for action. Tribal peoples long ago developed a keen understanding of this effect, and nurtured their skills at constructing and telling stories to engage their people from an early age to explore alternate approaches to the challenges of surviving in hostile environments. In those settings, rigid thinking most often led to responses that were out of touch with the demands that dynamic circumstances placed daily on a clan or tribe. Inflexibility could be costly, and often deadly, as is the case in healthcare settings.

For teams to function at the highest level with regards to protecting patients from harm while at the same time providing caring touch in every interaction, all of the team members must share a common mental model for what that means. I believe that one of the fastest and most efficient approaches to attaining such a model is through meaningful, constructive conversation focused on a relevant issue. This is where a powerful story comes in. Stories engage the mind in a particular, unique fashion. We now know that the mind has schemata or patterns that it is using to scan every communication with another person. One of the most powerful of these is known as “narrative schemata.” Research has demonstrated that as we listen to another, our mind is scanning what is being shared with reference to this schema, and stays engaged to the degree to which the “information” conforms to 7 progressive steps, which you will agree after reading them, conforms with the very structure of what we commonly refer to as a story:

  1. Introduction of a setting and characters;
  2. Explanation of state of affairs;
  3. An Initial event;
  4. Emotional response/statement of goal by the protagonist;
  5. Complicating action;
  6. An Outcome;
  7. Reactions to outcome.

Imagine a story about a key behavior such as cross monitoring and the fact that its performance by the key actors in the story actually is the difference between the life and death of a patient. As the team listens to this story, they will have in a sense all shared vicariously in the experience of saving this patient by practicing these behaviors. Then, imagine the team sharing all of the past experiences and behaviors they have witnessed or participated in related to cross monitoring, or its absence. This is also what stories evoke—connections with other spheres of knowledge and experience that are related, thereby facilitating the growth of our knowledge and understanding. In the span of a few minutes of conversation spurred by the story, the team can coalesce around the importance of this life saving team strategy, and thereafter becomes catalyzed in every situation to be aware of whether or not they are practicing cross monitoring. Such an awareness becomes the foundation for change.

This is what we have been witnessing when teams gather to listen to a story using the processes developed within the StoryCareTM system. In the space of just a few days, teams begin demonstrating new behaviors that would have typically taken months or even years to engender employing traditional training models. In doing so, they are tapping into an ancient practice for which each of us is wired, and which has served to help people survive the most hostile environments imaginable. And yes, environments even more inhospitable and dangerous than hospitals!