February 15, 2019 / Esther Choy

Dan Balzer uses storytelling to increase employee engagement

A 2018 Gallup poll made a strong connection between an increase in employee engagement and “recognition received for work accomplishments.” Employee engagement is as high it has ever been since Gallup started tracking it in 2000–yet it is still just 34%. This makes it likely that a large portion of any organization’s workforce could stand to be more engaged—including yours!

In a quest for expansion, growth and profit, it’s easy for organizations to forget about the people whose talents they rely on. But failing to acknowledge these contributions is a fatal misstep. Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, has said that, “To feel valued (and valuable) is almost as compelling a need as food.” When leaders fail to acknowledge the value their employees bring, it is like they are asking them to go hungry.

Storytelling has great power to increase employee engagement. If you take the time and effort to tell your people’s story, they will see that you know first of all that they exist, and, even more than that, that you know their work matters to your organization.

Site and project launches and peer-to-peer trainings are both opportune times to acknowledge your employees. You can train new people to death and even pay them a lot of money. You can go through a list of minute details to tell them everything they must do at any given moment. But you can’t inspire them to act on the training until they feel acknowledged.

The power of acknowledgment is something Dan Balzer, a participant in one of my online courses, says that he has seen first-hand as he has worked in retail with a multi-billion international conglomerate.

Acknowledging Employee Contributions To Company Milestones

When his company began moving into new retail markets in Latin America and Southeast Asia, Balzer realized that many of the people who were helping to start these new markets were invisible to the rest of the company. He decided to use storytelling techniques to make their work more visible. He called this storytelling project “Hidden Heroes.”

Here’s how he did it.

1. He carefully selected people to interview. He focused first on those with whom he had already established rapport. He also chose people who had a mix of experiences, such as finance, operations and marketing, so that others who viewed the series of posts on the social network would get the full picture of what the company’s retail business was like in the region.

He conducted short, three-question interviews:

  • What is your current role?
  • What did you do before you came to this company? (Most had started at the company recently because the company itself was new to the region.)
  • When you are not here, what do you like to do? What gives you enjoyment or satisfaction?

2. He asked for photos. He asked for one professional photo and one of the person pursuing his or her hobbies or interests, such as scuba diving, a side hustle or an adventure.

3. He wrote a post for the company’s internal social networking site.

Balzer didn’t expect the stories to “go viral,” he says. After all, he says, the internal social networking site tends to be “very noisy,” and it can be hard for one post to attract notice. He wondered, “Is a story really important? Will anybody see it?” Ultimately, he decided he wanted to be intentional, no matter the attention his post received. He wanted to bring humanity into the business context.

He received significant feedback on two particularly well-timed posts that happened to coincide with what he calls “the broader ‘buzz’” around a company milestone in the region.

He also noticed that this post mattered to those interviewed. Since the retail sites are joint ventures, some co-workers did not have access to the internal social networking site. One of the employees whose story was featured found other ways to share that story with the wider team. To Balzer, this was another indicator that the “Hidden Hero” felt honored to be featured.

These data points and others told Balzer, “this is worth pursuing.” While many project updates will say, “we spent a year and a half, this is the product, here’s what happened at the launch,” he wanted to say, “Here’s the person.”

Doing that, the people felt acknowledged. They said, “hey, we’re on the map,” says Balzer. “They felt like I had legitimated their experience.”

Peer-to-Peer Training: An Opportunity for Acknowledgment

For companies big and small, no one person should do it all. Train your team to acknowledge one another and make sure they understand the impact. You will multiply the results exponentially without having to do everything yourself.

This is what Dan Balzer did while creating peer-to-peer training programs. He wanted to interview a store owner, so that this person’s experience could inspire and help their peers. Finally, he found the right store owner for a training video–a man who owned a store in the Midwest. He was an immigrant, aspiring to give his kids a good life, and now his two oldest children were in college.

As soon as he heard this man’s story, an idea popped into Balzer’s mind. “Can I talk to your kids?” he asked.

It turned out the store owner’s son and daughter were attending a university in another Midwestern city. The owner called them up then and there and they agreed to an interview.

They told their father’s story from their perspective. Their love for him and for the store were both evident. They shared how much they enjoyed being there when they were kids, helping to restock, and how, when they grew up, their father’s work ethic stood out to them.

Over two thousand of this store owner’s peers watched the video. After watching, one of the store owners said: “Now we think you understand us.” This built loyalty to the brand and was far more effective than telling them minute details of how to run their business.

Imagine having a workforce fiercely loyal and thinking of their personal fortune and that of their employer as the same thing. Wouldn’t you like to have a team just like this? Don’t let today end without acknowledging someone on your team and coming up with a plan to continue to do so systematically and strategically.

Related Articles

How CEOs Can Tell a High Impact Story

How Leaders Can Us Stories to Help Their Team Stay on Mission

Don’t miss out on your next opportunity to use storytelling in your workplace. Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Photo credit: Dan Balzer

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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