How Employee Storytelling Helps Build Empathy at Work

 Employees working together in the office at World Wide Technology
Employees working together in the office at World Wide Technology, No. 19 on the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For List.

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Follow in the footsteps of World Wide Technology and build a storytelling program that helps show workers you care about them beyond their value as an employee.

Are you more than a number on a spreadsheet?

A key element of the employee experience is knowing that management cares about you as a person. Employees want to feel that their job matters, but they also want to be respected as individuals with lives outside the workplace.

They want to tell their stories — and they will if you give them the platform.

The power of empathy

There’s plenty of evidence that empathy is a potent tool for creating better workplaces and stronger companies.

Empathy can improve your personal well-being, reduce burnout at work — even predict higher wages and professional success. Plus, it’s a management skill that the AI bots can’t replace any time soon.

Empathy plays a crucial role in our creation of the PEOPLE Companies That Care® List every year, and is often a key component for companies that make the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List.

But is empathy something that can be learned? Or is it an innate ability that leaders either have or do not have? Luckily, researchers say empathy is a skill that can be honed over time.

One of the top ways to build your empathy muscle? Talk to people.

“There are some skills that you need when it comes to empathy,” said Bob Ferrell, executive vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at World Wide Technology. He joined Ann Marr, executive vice president, global human resources, at our For All™ Summit, where he shared tips for practicing empathy:

  1. Be present.
  2. Quiet your mind and your voice.
  3. Limit distractions.
  4. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings.

“When folks come to see me, they say, ‘Bob, you got a minute?’” said Ferrell. “I say, ‘I’ve got an hour for you.’ What that means is I’m going to stop all the phone calls, all the texting, people knocking on the door, and just focus on that individual.” 

That kind of focus is hard to scale across an organization, however. That’s why World Wide Technology has developed a storytelling program to help employees connect.

[Hear from more inspiring leaders at our next For All™ Summit May 7-9, 2024 in New Orleans]

Employee storytelling

Storytelling has become something of a business buzzword, but stories retain immense power for your organization.

“It’s a support system,” says Marr. “It’s encouragement and it’s inspiration.”

The human brain loves stories. A good story can help organize information, aid memory, and even influence behavior change. When you turn your employees into storytellers, you can tap into the power of story to build connection, break down barriers and build a stronger sense of belonging across the organization.

“It’s really, in essence, getting to know your teammates beyond their name tag,” Ferrell said.

“If you know the person beyond their name tag, you know when that person’s having a bad day or a good day, and you know how to address or talk to that individual so it doesn’t impact their day negatively.”download.gif

World Wide Technology built its storytelling program on the success of a listening program which started after the murder of George Floyd. Employees joined a 90-minute session connecting a senior leader at the company to about 25

“In some cases, they really poured out their hearts around their experiences,” said Marr. The stories coming out of the listening sessions were so powerful that the team decided to build a storytelling program to help share these stories with the whole company.

As part of the storytelling program, employees can submit videos, essays, poems, artwork, or other media. The diversity, equity, and inclusion team at world Wide Technology works with employees to guide them through the development process. Final stories are shared on an internal SharePoint page.

So far, the page has over 4,500 views.

The storytelling program is just one of the ways World Wide Technology has gone above and beyond to create an inclusive workplace. The company made an impressive jump from No. 71 to No. 19 on the 2023 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List.

At the tech firm, 93% of employees said they felt welcome when joining the company and 91% said they were proud of where they work. Eighty-seven percent of employees said the company was a great place to work, compared to just 57% at a typical U.S. company.

Building your program

Here’s World Wide Technology’s advice for building your own employee storytelling program:

1. Find the feedback channels you already have. Ferrell recommends asking: How are you collecting information from your employees? Does that content help foster a sense of belonging

2. Get creative about opportunities for storytelling. “You’ve got to look beyond the business,” Marr shared. “You have to really connect back to the teams, to the individuals, and really learn more about the people you’re working with.”

3. Establish leadership buy-in. Does your leadership team understand the value of storytelling for your culture? “If not, you’re gonna be pushing it uphill very hard,” Ferrell said.

“This has been such an important and such an incredible initiative that we’ve done at World Wide,” Marr said. “I viewed some of the stories, and I was amazed … there’s things I didn’t know about people.”

Share your story

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Ted Kitterman