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Storytelling in HR: when do stories sugarcoat our feedback?

Organization & Teams


January 15, 2020

August 26, 2020

Storytelling is all the rage nowadays. Big companies like Microsoft even have Chief Storytelling Officers. But are stories really what we need when we’re giving our team members feedback? Some food for thought.

“Storytelling is just like sugar. Of course, my daughter will eat her broccoli a lot faster if I throw a big scoop of sugar over it”, writes Richard Engelfriet, author of “De Succesillusie”, in het Algemeen Dagblad. He concludes: “A little less storytelling and more facts, please”. 

Companies have embraced storytelling as a communication tool for a while now, both in their external and internal communication. Generally speaking storytelling in a business context means adding a narrative structure to a message, usually in order to influence behavior. Whether it’s persuading customers to buy your product, inspiring your employees with a great speech or providing your team members with feedback.  

Sugarcoating feedback

The general idea behind storytelling is that stories stick with us better than plain messages, facts and figures. Our brains are in fact hardwired for storytelling. Research shows that our mind demands a narrative. 

Although a good story never hurts anyone, the storytelling hype does raise questions in an HR-context, especially when it comes to giving feedback. For instance, when are stories simply a way of sugarcoating a message – just like Engelfriet points out?

Brutal honesty

Research shows that managers and CEOs usually have a hard time providing their employees with candid and brutally honest feedback. They tend to inflate it or are overly careful with their words and tone – especially when giving bad news. 

Needless to say, employees don’t benefit from sugarcoated feedback. In fact, they actually want the negative feedback that most managers and CEOs are too afraid to give. They believe that feedback is essential to their career development.

Fairy tales 

Back to storytelling. Let’s say you’ve noticed that one of your employees has been underperforming for quite a while. Taking a lot of detours and using a lot of words to get the message across and make it fit into a certain narrative, will probably make the feedback all the more painful. Sometimes all someone needs to hear is simply the truth – as long as it’s offered respectfully, while making a true connection to the person in front of you.

Although there’s no doubt that constructive storytelling can help with the feedback progress, managers, CEOs, and HR professionals should be mindful of the fact that their stories should not become fairy tales. Sincere honesty is key. 

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