Storytelling Matrix, Part 2: The Power of Personal Disclosure

This article is the second in a series on The Storytelling Matrix: a subtle field of energy at the heart of all business matters. You might also enjoy the first article in the series: Problem and Paradox

Setting a New Tone for Leadership

As leaders you’re taught to be in control. To be a voice of authority. And to never let people see you sweat.

You’ve been taught you’re not supposed to express emotion or be vulnerable at work. Keep your personal life separate. Put on your game face when you show up at the office. Especially when you have the role and responsibility of leadership.

Of course, that’s no way to lead in the 21st century. Business is more complex and relationship-driven than ever. You rarely have all the answers. And your decisions aren’t always going to be right.

So how do you get your team to trust you? To forgive you for being human? To have faith in the collective future together?

The answer is personal disclosure.

You want to know that your leaders have your back. That they care about you. And that you have access to the flow of information, especially around the issues that matter most. We all have the same basic human desires to feel seen, heard, recognized, and appreciated. Nowhere is that more important than at work.

This is the reason I use a range of storytelling exercises in trainings and off-sites. When you’re forced to adapt and innovate faster than ever, the strength of your team determines everything — and that depends on trust, rapport and alignment. Better start sharing more stories.

At a Recent Off-site for a Long-Time Client…

Gathered in a room, were a dozen of middle managers, plus the leadership team. While I’ve been working with the company’s executives for years, this was the first time a larger group of this size had assembled to discuss strategy.

The intention of the day was to extend the company’s model of leadership farther and wider into the culture. While the company has undergone significant growth, this day was an important new chapter. The leadership team knew they would have to open up at a deeper level and model the behavior they were seeking to empower in others.

We went through several storytelling exercises throughout the day, but one stood out for its ability to set the tone and bring the message to life.

Storytelling Exercise: “Inside the Actor’s Studio”

The exercise is modeled after the Fishbowl method often used in the world of organizational development. Although in this case I drew inspiration from James Lipton’s TV interview series to lighten up the mood. The key is to facilitate a reflective and open dialogue about the journey and lessons learned. It becomes an opportunity for modeling a leadership culture of disclosure and strengthening rapport amongst attendees. And giving the leaders of the culture an opportunity to share from their hearts.

(Thanks to Michelle James and Bob Devlin for helping me design the approach below).

Here’s How the Exercise Worked:

  1. Earlier in the day, participants were asked to submit questions via index cards, based on the following prompt: “what questions do you have for the leadership team?” Nothing is off limits. What do you want to know about the leadership team at a personal level, group level, or company level.
  2. We collected the anonymous submissions and I organized them into themes and a logical flow for the proceedings. I didn’t edit out any of the questions, especially any potentially controversial or hard-hitting prompts.
  3. We started the exercise with four chairs in the center (inner circle). The leadership team members and myself (as facilitator). The rest of participants sat in a circle of chairs around the first group (outer circle).
  4. What happened next defied expectations. As I started to pepper the leadership team with questions, they opened up with such candor and brutal honesty that the room was riveted.
  5. Originally planned for 45 minutes, the exercise was extended another 30 minutes because it made such a dramatic impact.

Here’s Some of the Questions that Came Up:

  • What’s your favorite food?
  • Do you ever feel like you don’t know what you are doing?
  • Where do you see the company in 10 years?
  • What’s one thing that keeps you up at night?
  • How can we create more paths for career advancement?
  • Is profit-sharing something you’re willing to consider?
  • What have been the hardest decisions you’ve had to make?
  • What qualities do you appreciate most in your fellow leadership team?
  • What’s your favorite swear word?

The Key to Success With This Exercise

The leadership was ready and prepared to be real. They embraced any topic, especially anything that might be previously taboo or perceived to be off-limits. They shared in a manner that was genuine, vulnerable, and human. In the process, they redefined expectations for their culture. There was no script or canned response. They didn’t get to preview any of the questions in advance (although that’s an option if you want).

They were willing to talk about anything and everything that came up. When asked the hard questions, they revealed how painful and agonizing it was to carry the mantle of leadership, and the hard decisions they often have to make. I did not censor any questions. And we extended the time allotted because I wanted them to address every question submitted (more than 30). The ultimate impact of the exercise was profound.

Keep in mind, there are many variations on how you can structure and facilitate this exercise successfully. Hope the above example inspires you to experiment for yourself.

Add Your Voice to the Conversation

Personal disclosure is a powerful tool for shaping the tone of your culture.

  • Where and how do you try create more disclosure in your organization?
  • What obstacles do you face in creating a more open culture for sharing?
  • What are the taboo topics your company has a hard time discussing?

Please add a comment or question below.


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  • Keith Edmeades

    Your statement above is so true, Michael, “Personal disclosure is a powerful tool for shaping the tone of your culture” So fundamentla; so powerful; and yet so many false barriers to go there. I suppose it’s about embracing the power of vulnerability, biting the bullet, opening your heart and being the role-model, through, perhaps being the firsrt to share your fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities, with all the members of your team   

    • http://www.getstoried.com/ Michael Margolis

      keith, you’re right. It’s easier said than done. But it’s actually pretty simple. It begins by just opening up and being really candid. 

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