The ability to motivate teams has always been essential to effective leadership, but the tactics have changed with a shift in leadership style.
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Conventional wisdom once dictated that leaders keep their distance and exude an air of authority in order to command respect. Crisp formality was synonymous with professionalism. But recent thinking on leadership suggests that being reserved and impersonal can be counterproductive. The more effective leaders are those who open up and show vulnerability – specifically by sharing personal stories. Doing so communicates humility, forges connections, and builds trust.
The importance of trust in relationships is well documented, and this holds true far outside the realm of personal ties. “Trust is also one of the most essential forms of capital a leader has”, says Frances X. Frei of Harvard Business School. “Building trust, however, often requires thinking about leadership from a new perspective”, she adds. In her research, Frei identifies several core drivers of trust, including authenticity and empathy. Telling personal stories taps into both.
Harvard Business Review offers four tips for building trust through personal storytelling, and thereby developing more effective leadership capabilities. One way to shed the traditional leader’s façade of perfection and open up is to share stories of failure. Because everyone has them, sharing them creates relatability. These stories can be especially powerful if they contain lessons learned or resiliency gained. This helps encourage teams to persevere through their own professional challenges and setbacks, and to learn from mistakes.
Another way to tell stories that build trust is to share your emotional state, whether about telling the story, or the emotions you experienced at the time. This takes a cue from the work of psychologist Daniel Goleman, an expert in leadership styles and author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence. Goleman also developed the idea of “resonant leadership”, defining resonant leaders as those who “use their emotional intelligence to direct the feelings to help a group meet its goals.”
Evidence of this effect can be found in neuroscience. Researchers from Cleveland Clinic and the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University studied the neural mechanisms involved in recalling interactions with leaders who were “resonant” or “dissonant”. Data from fMRI scans showed clear positive responses in the brain to resonant leaders, while dissonant leaders elicited “avoidance, narrowed attention, decreased compassion, and negative emotions”.
Similarly, sharing the emotional impact that current events or business developments are having on you can improve your ability to inspire and motivate teams. Doing so brings shared experience to light. More often than not, people will respond with empathy, which builds trust. And the more your team trusts you, the more inclined they will be to follow your lead.
It also pays to invest time in listening to the inspiring stories of others, for example in a TED Talk or podcast. Notice how the speaker persuades their audience, and what about their story makes you feel connected and draws you in. These techniques can be learned, improved with practice, and put to use in your professional interactions to optimize your effectiveness as a leader.