The Power of Storytelling: Q&A with Professor Julia Lee

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What kinds of stories are being told in your organization? Do these stories lift people up or criticize and belittle? How can storytelling be used to help teams perform better and even reduce employee stress?

We recently chatted with Julia Lee, assistant professor of management and organizations at Michigan Ross. She studies relational self-affirmation and how it can lead to positive outcomes in the workplace – like improved team performance and reduced burnout and turnover. Lee received a PhD and MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School and was previously a Lab Fellow in the Institutional Corruption Program at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Positive Organizations.

Check out her interview below – or listen to it in the episode of WorkHuman Radio embedded at the top of this post.

Can you share a bit about yourself and your research at Harvard and now at the University of Michigan?

Since I was a doctoral student, my research has focused on leveraging psychological insights to promote a behavioral change in our organizations. And in particular, I’ve focused on humanizing our workplace by tapping into social relationships and networks, both in the workplace and also through personal relationships.

One topic that you discuss in your papers is relational self-affirmation. How is that activated?

Relational self-affirmation is the process by which individuals internalize the positive social feedback they receive from others. Positive social feedback broadens your perspective on how you’re contributing to others in your own network of relationships.

In order for this to be activated, we asked our study participants to nominate their family members, friends, and co-workers to write stories highlighting their unique contributions and strengths. So the study participants learn something about themselves through these stories.

It’s like other people in your life are holding up a mirror for you and telling you a story of when you were at your best and making your contribution.

A lot of work today happens in highly collaborative, agile teams. What are some of the challenges that arise working in teams?

We are constantly being pulled into working in teams because the problems that most modern organizations face these days are rather complex and difficult to solve, and therefore require many individuals to collaborate.

One common challenge that I studied was that there seems to be this productivity loss when people start working together. A lot of us feel anxious about whether we’ll belong in a new group of people and whether we’ll be negatively evaluated by others if we bring up a new idea. Team members may not contribute enough even though they’re capable of contributing more. Although the purpose of teaming is to bring each member’s unique perspective and expertise to the table, often our team dynamics do not encourage speaking up in a group setting.

How can relational self-affirmation improve a team’s information exchange and performance?

In my research with Dan Cable at London Business School, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, and Brad Staats at UNC Chapel Hill, we have found that this process of relational self-affirmation can reduce the productivity loss that comes from feeling anxious and concerned about whether you will belong to your team and be accepted by other members. Relational self-affirmation helps people focus on their unique expertise and contribution and emboldens people to contribute to the team even more.

We have studied this with a group of senior executives who come to Harvard to be trained as they get promoted, virtual workers from Amazon Mechanical Turks, and also military cadets. The teams that went through this process of relational self-affirmation, as compared to the teams that did not, ended up sharing more unique perspectives. These teams were able to tap into the team’s resources better. And I believe that this is one way to prepare ourselves before we start working in teams.

How does it impact people’s emotions and even physiology?

In addition to studying the effects of relational self-affirmation in the group setting, we also had the opportunity to work with the laboratory and gather some data on what physiological changes occur as a result of experiencing relational self-affirmation. This research specifically speaks to the power of stories that other people tell us about ourselves; not only can they change the way we view ourselves, but also the way we interact with others in our teams.

In this particular study, we measured the extent to which relational self-affirmation can buffer social threats. I had a lot of fun running this particular study. Although it may sound a bit cruel, I asked the lab participants to play a ball-tossing game online. There are two fictional players you see on the screen and you get to toss a ball to them or receive a ball from them during this computer-based game.

It’s a very simple game but after you play this game for a couple of minutes, the other two players all of a sudden stop tossing the ball to you, which is a little bit cruel. And in previous research, this has been found to be a reliable way of making people feel socially excluded and ostracized, regardless of whether they believe that these players are real or not.

Even though it’s just such a simple game, people still felt very socially hurt by the fact that he or she was excluded. In this particular research, I measured skin conductance, which is essentially a measure of emotional sweating in your hand and is also associated with anxiety and arousal. I found that the people who received positive social narratives from others experienced less physiological stress from this kind of social stress relative to the people who did not receive positive social narratives.

What are the differences between an employee’s transactional beliefs and relational beliefs? Do you think these beliefs typically change over time?

Typically, when an employee joins a new organization, they develop a belief about their relationship with their employer. For example, you could develop more transactional beliefs, such as “I just do this for money,” or “I’m just going to do what is expected of me but no more than what I am asked to do.” Or people could develop more relational beliefs such as, “I expect to learn and grow with this company.”

Transactional beliefs tend to increase over time as you spend more time with your organization. And in our study of 1,400 new consultants, we found that this was in fact the case. The participants who went through the typical newcomer onboarding had an increase in transactional beliefs over the course of their first year. But then the participants who received the positive social narratives intervention as part of their onboarding experience ended up having less of an increase in transactional beliefs.

What’s important for our listeners is that this kind of belief ended up predicting their turnover intentions as well, which means that the people who are relationally affirmed at the beginning of their organizational entry are less likely to quit. This research speaks to the importance of how organizations can help employees bring their positive identity to work.

Based on your research, what should companies be doing more of when it comes to motivating their people? How can organizations help their people bring their whole, authentic selves to work and what would you say they should stop doing?

I think companies can create more opportunities for sharing social narratives in the workplace and bringing the employees’ silent stories to life. The kind of stories that you receive from those you know well have such a strong emotional impact on you. But oftentimes, these stories of contributions and strengths tend to go unnoticed and unspoken.

We should also think about the ways in which performance feedback is delivered. Most people tend to get nervous about receiving negative feedback. I’m not saying we need to ditch performance reviews completely. But organizations can definitely do better in terms of reminding individuals who they are at their best and also helping them reach their full potential.

Would you agree that it would be better if employers would recognize people more frequently as opposed to waiting for an annual review to give feedback?

Performance feedback is not very informative or helpful in motivating employees when it lacks specificity. One of the reasons why I believe receiving these contribution narratives from others is effective is that the stories that people received were very specific.

It may feel really good to hear that you’re generous or creative, but it’s far more useful to hear about a specific situation in which you generated a novel idea in a meeting. Whatever format it comes in, performance feedback or any type of narrative shared in the workplace has to be very specific.

Social recognition invites more voices within an organization to give and receive recognition in the moment, and it’s often displayed on a public newsfeed where everybody can pile on their congratulations. How do you see social recognition tying back to the value of small, positive psychology interventions?

Social recognition is a fundamental mechanism by which relational self-affirmation works. It really is about seeing yourself as socially valued and appreciated by others. And while my past work has focused on what happens when you receive these recognitions from your social network, what’s really interesting about what you do is that there needs to be the givers of recognition and the receivers as well to make this whole process works.

My colleague, Jane Dutton, and I recently published a piece in Harvard Business Review on how we narrate other people. As we introduce them to others or as we work in a group setting, how we narrate other people really matters. So as an employee, regardless of your position in your organization, you have power to help other people view themselves in a socially valued and appreciated way. I do believe social recognition can start a positive spiral in your workplace.


The Power of Storytelling: Q&A with Prof. Julia Lee @michiganross #workhuman
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