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The Behaviorist: For better business decisions, let story be your guide

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Dave Bender, associate at consulting firm Work Wisdom LLC
Dave Bender, associate at consulting firm Work Wisdom LLC

Back when I had more ego than brains, I fought in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden.

Between bouts, I studied a guy I’d soon face. He kept scoring with a hook kick to the head, and none of his opponents saw it coming, even though he always telegraphed with a slight coiling of his body.

Being fundamentally opposed to getting whacked in the head, I took time to close my eyes and play his technique over and over in my mind, along with my counter to it. Sure enough, he went for his go-to move early in our bout. I stepped inside, letting his kick catch air while mine caught his jaw. The replaying of the scene made my move instinctual. It was my visual strategic plan.

Don’t worry. I’m a peaceful guy and not here to promote beating up on folks. I just want to remind us of what we easily forget: that the mind exists to predict what happens next and respond in ways to keep us (and our businesses) alive. We can either help the mind do its job or sabotage it.

Every second your brain scans more than 11 million pieces of information and trashes nearly all of them so you can focus on the handful critical to your goals, values and survival. If you don’t make it clear to your mind what those goals and values are, it’s going to throw away crucial information, leaving you open for a kick in the head.

But how do most organizations communicate those goals and values to their teams? Often it’s through dull strategic outlines, employee handbooks or action plans that drone on about Goal IV, Objective B and Task 13. Literally mind-numbing. The brain’s reward system refuses to release pleasurable dopamine for something so boring — so foreign to the way humans communicate. Don’t get me wrong; these are perfect ways to organize information, but not the way to make things memorable enough for rapid decision-making.

Think of the accounts you’ve heard from people facing life-threatening situations who describe how time slows and their lives pass before their eyes. Actually, time only seems to slow because the brain speeds up. It’s searching like crazy for a pattern, a match — a memory of when it faced a similar crisis and survived.

Here’s where the power of story rules. Since the days of cave folk, our brains hardwired themselves to file crucial information as stories — logical patterns of action and consequence in pictures and scenes. Story takes otherwise dull information that the scanning brain might miss and tags it with brightly colored passion, patterns and all five senses. In a crisis, the brain easily spots those tags and scoops up the information to save our butts.

Best of all, the brain codes the stories of others almost the same as it codes our own experiences. So we don’t need to let a lion chomp on us to know it’s a good idea to run from it. Our evolved neurochemistry makes us crave stories linked to our well-being. Stories are all about the logic of cause and effect. They let your team envision the path that moves your business from Point A to Point B and solve the risks in between.

I’ve identified eight categories of stories that organizations can utilize to develop adaptive, can-do thinking. Here’s one simple way to begin using stories:

Let’s say “Customer-Focused” is one of your values. At your next team meeting, ask members for examples of when that value played out in real life. Easy stuff. Don’t let “I’m not a good storyteller” stop anyone. This isn’t drama class. Just like the martial arts, it’s a discipline developed by regular practice. Let the team know you’ll be looking for more stories next month on customer focus as well as all of the other values.

As these stories become part of the organizational memory, no one will need to search a dusty list of values to know how to make a quick decision. Like the martial artist, each member will intuitively see what’s coming next and respond with agility, confidence and perfect timing.

Dave Bender is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster County consulting firm. He focuses on the use of story in the workplace. He can be reached at david@workwisdomllc.com.

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