Culture Matters for Successful Employee Onboarding

team meeting training featuring storytelling

A quick google search for “onboarding trends in 2019” reveals a growing recognition that cultural assimilation is an important factor in making your onboarding process successful. A quarter of Forbes Coaches Council members, when asked about their creative onboarding strategies, spoke to one aspect of culture or another, for example, “Get Them Clear On Life Mission, Values, Outcomes, And Role,” “Share Tribal Stories,” or “5 Ways to Onboard New Employees to Your Company’s Culture.” In another article on improving onboarding, Clear Company included a section titled “Ignite with Culture.” Writing about 8 Onboarding Trends in 2019, HR Daily Advisor listed “cultural assimilation” as number 3. Clearly, on top of standard tasks relevant to compliance and role preparedness, leaders acknowledge the need to inculcate new hires in culture to support their success.

Many of these articles reference storytelling. The reasons are obvious. By way of stories, values, traditions, and best practices become instilled. As a communication form, storytelling is accessible and requires no prelude. Everyone is culturally conversant in the form. Planners and managers know from experience that stories are more engaging than data, statistics, and linear learning content.

Storytelling in the onboarding process

However, giving storytelling a central role in the onboarding process is something new. Are we ready to validate the proposition that stories create parallel value alongside other learning content? 

Storytelling gives training creators a lot to lean on. You are employing the natural human proclivity toward stories to your advantage. Secondly, stories transfer knowledge in its most absorbable form. Thirdly, stories play a sustaining role in any culture, and, inasmuch as a strong practice of listening is a component of storytelling, stories support the positive evolution of that culture as well. As an HR manager seeking to improve performance and retention, if you choose to integrate storytelling, the next important question becomes, “what stories do we tell?”

The obvious response might be, “we must tell the origin story of the organization.” But too frequently these storied narratives become overly-branded and lose their authenticity and traction. They shouldn’t be disregarded, but they need to be augmented. The organizational narrative needs to be well-rounded. Ask yourself: What is the story of the organization today? And how will is what’s being spoken about today useful in preparing new hires for their first tomorrow? To get to this information quickly, what’s needed is a model of listening.

“Listening” means taking an ethnographic approach to an organization’s culture. Those who are assigned to this task need to position themselves within the culture and raise their “antennae.” With a series of prompts created by HR, they should listen without preconceptions or marketing agendas and approach the gathering of useful stories with a fresh perspective. What may not sound like stories at first can become them; established stories may need to be subjected to critical analysis so that they can evolve. “Being open” might be the most succinct way to talk about this approach.

Who will be the storytellers?

As to the task of identifying who tells the stories, that opens up a fascinating series of questions: Where is the most important knowledge held? What is the role of experiential knowledge in contrast to methodologies or systematized information? To what degree can diversity and inclusion be expressed through the choice of storytellers? In essence, when looking at storytelling in an organization, to consider all voices as having potential contributions benefits the organization in 2 ways: new or tacit knowledge may surface; and employees feel valued in a natural way. Better than awards and praise, in some sense, saying you want to hear what someone has to say is a deep recognition of their value.

The listening process itself, whether done over a few days or a few months, is a little like detective work. It discovers bits of information. Slowly, themes begin to emerge. These sources can be developed into complete stories. A dedicated space and time is necessary for that information to surface. This can be a storytelling workshop or group training.

For example, a group of managers, asked to tell stories about an energy company going through dramatic change, might only speak in fragmentary anecdotes or personal exclamations that don’t cohere into a sensical whole. Trained listeners will be able to identify dominant themes, guide these toward full stories, and create a durable and flexible narrative fabric.

Supporting change

Once the listening phase is over, from a hand-picked array of representative storytellers, who have responded to accurate prompts, and who have basic training in a solid storytelling methodology such as Narativ’s, the best stories can be coaxed out, crafted, and prepared for presentation. These stories will be living documents of a company’s culture at the moment. That doesn’t mean that age-old values have been dispensed with. Quite the contrary, fresh stories demonstrate how they have endured. Especially when they are displayed alongside one another. These stories portray values in action while also clarifying roles and their challenges. This is much more exciting and beneficial than reading aphorisms hung on a wall.

Ownership through engagement

As new hires assimilate these stories, trainers should provide them with avenues of engagement. Encourage them to ask questions. As a further step, new hires can be asked to contribute personal stories of their own that speak to experiences that align with the values at the core of an organization. This aids assimilation and generates ownership. The longer a new hire remains engaged at the company, the more likely it is that one day too their stories will be told and leave an indelible mark on the organization’s legacy.

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