Leading with Stories: Breaking through Walls

Sometimes it feels like you need a hammer to get through the self-constructed walls of resistance and apathy. Let’s face it, trying to inspire work groups to do their best isn’t child’s play. Leaders and managers face these challenges every day.

It may be getting worse. Life is more complex. We have communication tools that speed up the processes but cause information overload. We have global companies and virtual teams but they’ve caused additional problems of miscommunications.

It’s impossible to keep up with every email, and we’ve no time to sit and reflect on what matters most. As our “to-do” lists grow, so does our frustration and feelings that there will never be the satisfaction of total job completion.

The result, as I see it, is a sense of incompetence and confusion that leads to people putting up walls to keep out anymore demands. People do not want to attend one more meeting to learn one more damn thing they should be doing or not be doing.

As a manager, you’ve probably seen this in your people, subtle as it may be. Here you are trying to influence someone who has understandably defaulted to basic self-interest and preservation. He or she won’t say it or even show it, but they are secretly cynical about you and your goals.

The bricks and cement people use to build their walls may have been supplied by your company when they cut back the workforce and asked people to “do more with less.” But it’s also aided by the complexities and demands of personal lives in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, you as manager or leader must find an opening in people’s walls. How do you motivate and inspire someone who is exhausted, frustrated, and in their default mode of self-preservation?

My granddaddy was fond of clichés: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” was typical. He would follow with “He who beats his horse, will soon be walking!”

Sometimes a good cliché can reach someone in a few words when most of us take too long to get to the point, just as I am doing here in this post.

You can’t break through people’s walls with a hammer. The only way is to reach them through a window of hope. Give them a story, more than a cliché. Tell them about your own experiences where you were in similar situations.

Everyone of us has experienced periods of apathy, or cynicism. What worked for you to come out of it? What story could you tell someone who may not realize they’ve built a wall to keep everyone out?

That is the one thing you can do that will help people feel curious again. Help your people make sense of what they’re experiencing, their confusion, their frustration. They will listen to you when you are real. Real stories matter to people.

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