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Teambuilding 2: Boosting team engagement with storytelling methods

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Team members’ emotional wellbeing plays a significant role in the efficacy of team performance. Stories and narratives can help teams bond and work to shared goals


This three-part series on team building discusses the research evidence on creating and maintaining effective teams and how to apply it to practice. Part 1 looked at team development and strategy and how to balance task, individual and team. This second article examines more deeply the vital work of relationship building and maintenance as part of team development. In particular, it focuses on storytelling in everyday leadership practice and how it can help leaders improve how they connect with, and through, their teams. It considers how research from the non-clinical fields of organisation development, human resources and improvement can support the practice of building healthcare teams and the delivery of good care.

Citation: Craig M et al (2015) Teambuilding 2: Boosting team engagement with storytelling methods. Nursing Times; 111: 15, 20-22.

Authors: Maxine Craig is head of organisation development, South Tees Hospitals Foundation Trust; Pip Hardy is co-founder, Patient Voices programme.


To create and build effective teams it is vital to understand what people want from their team leaders. According to Robinson and Hayday (2009) people look for three things:

  • A genuine concern for their wellbeing;
  • Feedback;
  • The ability to deal with conflict well.

The first two requirements are concerned with human needs. People want their team leaders to care about them and to create the conditions in which they can flourish. Previous generations of nurses were generally told to “leave your emotions at the door of the ward”, but this is no longer the case. The emerging field of neuroleadership, which applies neuro-science to the study of leadership, gives new insights on how to lead effectively, along with a scientific basis for what has long been understood - namely that our emotional wellbeing and, importantly, how well we work with our colleagues, has a major impact on the quality of service and care that we deliver to our patients and service users.

Finding true engagement

Creating the conditions in which people can perform at their best is often known as “engagement”, but the term is overused and often poorly understood.

Many people mistakenly use the term “engagement strategy” to describe a communication plan, but engagement is not the same as giving people information - it is about connecting with people emotionally. As in the expression “engaged to be married”, engagement in this context means “to take to one’s heart”.

This definition is useful as it shows we are talking about feelings and emotions, which are rarely mentioned in corporate engagement strategies. This is the relational work of leadership: the professional responsibility and emotional connection we have with people in our working lives. It is complex, finely balanced and about purpose, passion and values. It is also about humanity and how leaders can serve the needs of the public and those of the people they lead.

According to Godin (2010), “great bosses and world-class organisations hire motivated people, set high expectations and give their people room to become remarkable”.

Engagement is about creating a culture in which the team can become remarkable; this requires individual team members and the team as a whole to have a shared purpose, as discussed in part 1 of this series (Craig and McKeown, 2015).

To quote the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”.

Health professionals are fortunate to do daily work that is meaningful and important to society; while some may say this is a somewhat rosy view, if passion and purpose are aligned, even the most difficult days will hold meaning. Engagement is about loving what you do.

If the job of leaders is to build emotionally engaging relationships, what does strong engagement look like? According to Macey et al (2009), the following behaviours can be observed when people are engaged:

  • Persistence in achieving goals, even when there are setbacks;
  • A clear focus on removing and solving problems that cause setbacks;
  • Adaptability in the approaches taken to achieve goals.

Conversely, a study by Robinson and Hayday (2009) found staff who are not motivated fail to show interest, listen, take responsibility and achieve goals.

If engagement is about relationships, understanding why individual team members are, or are not, fully engaged requires spending time with them. This is the person-centred leadership work outlined in part 1 (Craig and McKeown, 2015).

Engagement is about understanding team members’ hopes and aspirations, why they do what they do, and what they want to do now and in the future. This is all the more challenging because it must be done in a busy clinical environment amid many other pressures; this may be why meaningful engagement is so often missing from teams. An efficient way of approaching this challenge is through team and individual storytelling, which is an effective, affective and reflective way of achieving staff engagement (Sumner, 2009).

The role of stories in organisations

In their book Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare, Ballat and Campling (2011) note the close relationship between the words “kindness” and “kinship”, both of which are crucial in clinical work. They suggest that kinship - the notion of people relying on each other for survival - is central to understanding the NHS. The survival of each individual depends on the survival of the organisation as a whole; as in a family this relies on mutual respect, understanding and support.

People can learn to be a part of that family by sharing - as individuals and as teams - their experiences within the organisation. Their stories tell of their:

  • Hopes and aspirations;
  • Fears and failures;
  • Celebrations and successes;
  • The challenges and opportunities they face.

These all combine to give the collective story of the organisation.

Stories can also convey tacit knowledge, all those things we may not even realise we know but that are needed to do the right things in the right way. Tacit knowledge is not included in any induction handbook or in policies and regulations; it comes from stories shared during coffee breaks, at shift change and, hopefully, during team meetings. These stories help us:

  • Connect our passions and our values to those of our colleagues and the organisation for which we work;
  • Bond as a team working towards a common goal.

Without this connection, all attempts at engagement are futile.

So, what makes stories so special? Good stories entertain and teach, and they also connect with our emotions; it does not matter what the emotion is, as long as we feel something.

They also remind us of our shared humanity: we care about the characters in the story and what happens to them. Stories provide food for thought and help us to make sense of events and experiences. They teach us something about ourselves as individuals and as part of humanity, and allow us to tolerate ambiguity and contemplate complexity - important skills in today’s NHS. Stories help us find meaning in our own experiences and in the experiences of others.

Leading through stories

The importance of storytelling as a core leadership skill has long been acknow-ledged (Denning, 2005). Effective leaders draw on their own experiences to:

  • Align values and passions;
  • Articulate their vision;
  • Inspire people to take actions that will transform this vision into reality.

Writing on the value of storytelling and effective framing in inspiring change across time and place, profession and class, faith and culture, Ganz (2008) cited three types of stories that can be used to link purpose to action and create true engagement (Box 1).

Box 1. Create your story

Three types of story link purpose to action, thereby creating true engagement:

  • The story of self: who you are, your values and experiences, why you do what you do
  • The story of us: your team or group, your shared values and experiences, and why as a group you do the work that you do
  • The story of now: the challenges, hopes and the choices that lie before you (Ganz 2008)

Take time to think about these three types of story, beginning with the story of self. How will you tell these stories? Invite members of your team to think about their own stories.

Organisations are collections of people, who each need a way to connect their own personal story with that of the larger organisation. It is not just the role of the leader to tell stories; everyone in a team or an organisation has important stories to tell. These might include the story that explains why they do what they do, the story that makes meaning from seemingly haphazard events, the story that cautions against certain actions or behaviours, or the story that inspires others to act. Author Jeanette Winterson (2005) likens stories to flashes of light from a lighthouse, going out as “markers and guides, comfort and warning”.

If as a leader you want people to follow you, you need to find out:

  • What motivates them;
  • What they love;
  • What they hate;
  • What frightens them;
  • What success looks like to them.

Along the way you may uncover some wonderful stories that will serve to mark where you are now, guide the way forward, give comfort in troubled times and serve as a warning for the future.

However, if you want to hear these stories you must take the time to listen. Much has been written on how to tell a good story; much less on this crucial other half of the storytelling process. Every story needs a listener, and the ability to listen is one of the most important skills leaders must learn: to listen without interruption or judgement, so the storyteller feels heard and valued.

What makes a good story?

Stories are different from reports, case studies or anecdotes; as Aronson (2013) pointed out, they offer a “narrative arc, movement, unification of action, irrevocable change. Meaning”. The best stories also have an emotional foundation (Martel, 2005); whether they make us feel hope, fear, jubilation, love, hate or loss, it is the emotion a story elicits that prompts us to act. Box 2 looks at how to increase the impact of stories.

Box 2. Give your story impact

When thinking about telling a story, consider the four Cs:

  • Connection: engage and connect with your audience in the very first sentence
  • Context: give enough context so your audience can understand what you are talking about
  • Crisis: recount a challenging or difficult event to keep your audience’s interest
  • Closure: conclude your story, letting your audience know you have no more to say on this topic for the moment

The best stories are about change: either going in search of change, or change coming to us. Stories also change the reader or listener, which means they can help to bring about transformation (Schön, 1988). The best stories have a “dragon”, which represents all the things that must be overcome; without a dragon, listeners quickly lose interest. According to O’Connor (1969): “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell…”.

Overcoming the dragon allows us to show the best of ourselves: courage, humility, humour, strength, cleverness, loyalty, resilience or kindness. It helps us grow in understanding and wisdom, and makes us more human. Box 3 indicates how to connect with your team through storytelling.

Box 3. Connecting teams through storytelling

Invite your team to share stories. Create some protected time and a safe space in which this can happen. Agree to listen respectfully to one another’s stories, without judgement or interruption. Allow each person the same amount of time - 10 minutes works well. Begin by sharing your own story of self: the story of why you do what you do. Don’t forget the story should have a “dragon”. Invite each member of your team to do the same. When everyone has shared a story, take a few minutes to reflect together on your shared experiences and values, your purpose and your passions. You should now have a whole new understanding of the terms “connection” and “engagement”.

As Chamberlin (2006) says, stories are a way of bringing imagination and reality together, “in moments of what we might call faith”; they are about wonder and about wondering: “To wonder how totalitarian states arise, or why cancer cells behave the way they do, or what causes people to live the streets… and then come back again in a circle to the wonder of a son… or a supernova… Or DNA”.

The close relationship between wonder and wondering means we cannot choose between them: “If we try, we end with the kind of amazement that is satisfied with the first explanation, or the kind of curiosity that is incapable of genuine surprise. [Stories] make the world more real, more rational, by bringing us closer to the irrational mystery at its centre. Why did my friend get sick and die? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Whose land is this we live on? How much is enough?” (Chamberlin, 2006).

The way forward

This article has shown how stories and narratives can play a key role in team building and engagement; its transformational power also makes storytelling a powerful tool in contemporary approaches to change management. In a report for NHS Improving Quality, Bevan and Fairman (2014) said effective ways of connecting are central to achieving change. We suggest the age-old skill of storytelling, which many of us first experience as children via bedtime stories, offers healthcare teams an effective way of doing this.

The final part of this series will look at how to help when teams are in difficulty, and how storytelling can be placed at the heart of change.

Key points

  • The emerging field of neuroleadership demonstrates the importance of emotional wellbeing to individual and team performance
  • Creating the conditions in which people can perform at their best is often called “engagement”, 
  • but the term tends to be both overused and poorly understood
  • Using stories and narratives is an effective way to help people bond as a team and work towards shared goals
  • Storytelling in clinical environments can help staff to make sense of events and experiences, thereby bringing about improvements
  • The transformational power of storytelling makes it a powerful tool in contemporary approaches to change management 
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