Man enthusiastically telling a story to two other people

Too often, ethics trainings can be boring and ineffective. Storytelling can help—not just by keeping your participants awake, but also by helping them remember and act on what you teach.

Mary Gentile, Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership

Some ethics training is a bit like parrot training. Employees hear about their organization’s policies, procedures, and code of values, and they parrot them back.

This type of ethics training serves a purpose—at least from a legal perspective. (An ethics training program can mean a reduced sentence if a crime occurs in an organization.) But studies show that ethics trainings that focus on reciting the rules are ineffective. They don’t actually help employees make ethical decisions in the real world.

So, these trainings can be a massive waste of time and resources. Or worse, they can even backfire. Research suggests that unethical behavior runs rampant when a company says one thing and then does another, and that’s precisely what happens when a company invests in ethics training that sounds good but doesn’t change everyday behavior in the workplace.

Storytelling and Episodic Memory

The answer to this problem may sound old-fashioned: storytelling. But to understand why storytelling can help, we need to take a close look at neuroscience. In particular, we need to observe how our brains remember and make use of what we experience.

Our memory does not work like a container for holding facts and information. There are two different types of conscious memory: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory records knowledge like facts, abstract ideas, and concepts. When we learn about values such as integrity and honesty or when we memorize codes of ethics, we store them in semantic memory.

Episodic memory, on the other hand, captures experiences or “episodes” that occur in particular times and places, along with the feelings and emotions that make the events meaningful to us.

When you face a real ethical challenge at work, you are not likely to access your semantic memory—at least not at first. You will not stop to mentally comb through values statements or try to recall a code of conduct you once memorized. Instead, you are likely to rely on episodic memory. You will recall moments from your past, looking for patterns that match your current situation. These past experiences, for better or worse, will often guide how you react to the present challenge. 

Emotions play a crucial role in this process. While semantic memories are abstract and unemotional, episodic memories carry emotional “tags.” These tags help us connect our current reality with familiar experiences from our past. If the present moment matches a past episode tagged with the emotion of fear, for example, we are likely to process the current experience through the lens of fear. 

Stories are effective because they tap into episodic memory. They evoke feelings and engage the senses. They help us see, hear, and feel what ethical behavior is like instead of simply listing a value or defining what it means.

Take, for example, a company committed to providing quality products. By telling the story of an employee who refused to sell a product he suspected to be faulty despite the fact that he incurred a cost in order to ensure that the product was functional, the company can much more powerfully communicate their commitment to quality than by simply listing “quality” on a sheet of core values.

What to Do

Here are a few ways you can leverage the power of storytelling in your organization.

Look for Exemplars

Keep in mind that when you add storytelling to your ethics training, you’re not looking for vivid examples of employees who did the wrong thing and faced harsh consequences. You’re not trying to scare your employees straight; you’re trying to give them something to aspire to. Studies show that negative examples can sometimes have the unintended effect of making unethical behavior seem normal and acceptable.

NDDCEL Executive Director Christopher Adkins often begins training sessions by asking employees to recall a story about a person at their company who exemplifies the “organization at its best.” Employees share these stories in a small group and identify the patterns across the stories. This “exemplar exercise” is a powerful way to energize ethics training. Instead of beginning with slides of core values, employees learn about values through the stories of people who live them out. The exercise also is optimistic and practical, showing that values “on paper” can—and are—being practiced every day in the organization. Lastly, the stories provide examples of behaviors to be emulated. 

Every organization has exemplars. And they are not always senior leaders. Think of the stories that get told in break rooms and on elevator rides about people who have exemplified leadership, values, or integrity. Capture these stories and craft them into teachable moments that reinforce your organization’s values and make your commitments more salient to your employees.

Encourage Authenticity

While it’s important to focus on positive stories, that doesn’t mean you should pretend your organization is filled with angels.

Employees need to hear real, relatable stories about people doing the right thing while also facing challenges, distress, and uncertainty. Make time for senior leaders to talk about ethical dilemmas they have faced, but not so that they can glorify themselves.

Instead, encourage these leaders to share their thought processes during the decision: Why was the choice difficult? What were they afraid of or worried about? Who or what tempted them to do the wrong thing? Where did they find support to voice their concerns?  What strategies helped them voice effectively?  NDDCEL Board Member Mary Gentile offers “A Tale of Two Stories” framework in the Giving Voice to Values program that helps leaders reflect on these past situations.

When you give employees a look inside the messy, sometimes emotionally-intense process of making an ethical choice, you show that it’s normal to face ethical dilemmas. This goes a long way toward creating a context for embracing tough topics and discussing them openly.

Authentic stories always have a life of their own. This can help you extend ethics training to informal settings. Great stories trickle up, down, and across an organization. A story told in new-employee orientation can surface again at informal conversations, lunches, and coffee breaks, for example.

Use Stories to Unite Diverse Groups

Every organization contains many potential lines of division—not just race, religion, gender, and status, but also personality differences and differences in career stage and background. These differences shape our interactions with others and our expectations about how our organization should function. When we use words like “Communication,” “Respect,” “Integrity,” and “Excellence” with a diverse group, our meaning may be understood differently by different people.

In fact, some employees may have been at companies that only claimed to have these values in the past and emptied them of their meaning. (The above values, as it turns out, were used by Enron in their 2000 annual report.)  Stories reinvigorate values and create fresh, shared experiences. They promote a sense of shared purpose and unite us with one another despite all of our differences.

Change is coming to your organization and its culture. It will become especially intense during leadership transitions, mergers and acquisitions, and restructuring. So, make sure to find your exemplary stories. Tell them authentically, and unite all of your employees around them. Storytelling is the best tool you have for staying open to new manifestations of your values while bringing the best of your past into the future.

Originally by Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership. Used by kind permission of NDDCEL.