Teamwork Skills and the Storyteller

‘The combined action of a group, especially when effective and efficient.’ Teamwork as defined in the Oxford Dictionary.

Combined action. Oxford assumes we know what that is – but do we? Today, discussions about teamwork range from thoughts on leadership style to group behaviors. We swim in an ocean of ‘how to’ articles on motivations, conflict resolution, building, keeping and ending teams. It seems the life raft for teams is not easy to find; the storyteller as the architect of cohesion.

Why Include the Storyteller?

It is a bit odd that storytelling is generally not included in many discussions when it is the glue that binds a team together. Where there is consensus about teams, it exists around communication: language, sharing, listening, persuasion, debate, finding the right agreement between points of view; all of these elements are features of a story well told; a shared vision.

While there are some great management consultants and thought leaders, storytelling remains the elephant in the room. Gurus like Charles Pellerin, Stephen Denning, John Seely Brown, Roger Martin, Michael Margolis, and Doug Lipman articulate the importance of storytelling as a key corporate communications device and educate leading CEOs on how to tell a good story. But as we go down into the organization the emphasis diminishes.

In the arts, it is well known that story telling is the key communication mechanism to share values and knowledge. It leads teams to a common goal and explains why you are doing what you are doing. Science uses stories to tell us about everything from viruses to the universe. There is no reason for business to keep them in the boardroom closet.

Storytelling carries the power to combine us; we begin to trust those we know and we know them by sharing in their personal story. We move together when we can see the vision ahead.

So why is storytelling the elephant in the room?

For the most part, people don’t know how to tell the story of story.  Business storytelling hardly registers as a search term and where it is used, its meaning is distorted. Some articles launch into the need to pull out our childhood fables. Others prefer to use stories to depict the workplace as Darth Vader or paint teams as something akin to the suburb of ‘Edward Scissorhands’, filled with women in pearls with collagen smiles and men with perfect white teeth and great golf scores. All of these make for a bizarre story about storytelling as an effective team building tool.

So why the gap between the professional CEO coaches that truly teach story and the team builders who talk about everything but the story?

Perhaps because business storytelling proves we aren’t actually the sophisticated, complex and misunderstood species that we like to believe we are, we avoid it. After all, we get a great deal of self esteem from what we do. Who could admit that they spent the day or week learning to tell their story? It would certainly knock us back into grade school to admit what many senior executives already know. Somehow, we have given the right to own the story to the executive levels. However, we know that in every organization it is not the executives who own the story. The story of a great team is owned by the team and forged from their experience.

If we are going to build great teams we need to tell stories and from them create new stories to define our team. It shouldn’t be that hard if we stop being shy about asking for story weavers to come do their job.

There are great storytellers on every part of this globe. It is a tradition that has been around since we started to communicate. Storytelling is more critical to building a team than that long checklist we take away from those ballroom seminars on team building.

The consultant we need is actually the person who can take the characters of the team and weave them into a vision that can sustain us while we move toward our goal? Perhaps storytelling is the penultimate team building skill.