Humans are enamoured by stories. Stories have a way of capturing people, of engaging people. If we want an engaged workforce, why would we choose a different way? Why not choose the oldest proven way, which is still true today, to engage employees? Stories and goals go hand in hand – the main character (story) and the accountable individual (goals), rising action (story) and regular check-ins (goals), a final resolution (story) and outcomes-based management (goals). A goal management methodology, like OKRs, when interwoven with some simple story-telling techniques, can be one of the best ways to capture attention and drive employee engagement.

“We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent stories… As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A brief history of humankind

OKRs drive employee engagement

Many things can be said about employee engagement. We can talk about remuneration, management styles, working conditions, etc. But few things are as engaging, exciting and exhilarating as a well-told story. These stories are not intended to “trick” a workforce into believing something that is not true. There are many examples of masses of people convinced by fake stories (Theranos is a great recent example) – let it be clear that we don’t support this in any way. We want to translate a set of complex best-guess hypotheses about the future (strategic maps, themes and goals) into a format that a wider audience can fluently engage with. These are persuasive stories.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, proposed that persuasive rhetoric appeals to an audience in three ways: logos (logical reasoning), ethos (character and credibility), pathos (the audience’s emotion).

We propose that a good goal management framework – one that is persuasive and engaging – supports Aristotle’s claim that has stood the test of time over the past 2 millenniums.

The intention is to increase team engagement with goals. And different team members engage in different ways. Aristotle’s three elements speak to three ways to engage individuals on a team.

Logos – Thinking logically

Logos is the logical argument for your point. Or in our case, the logical argument for your goal.

The logos of goals ensures that your goals stand up to logical reasoning and arguments put against it.

When a strategy is translated into goals, a fair amount of critical thinking needs to be applied. Strategy is always unknown, by its nature. It is a best-guess hypothesis. This translation – of strategy into goals – is not a quick exercise. It takes time and commitment from senior team members, and it will require asking some tough questions. In the end, the diversity of thought that is applied during the translation will move the “best-guess hypothesis” closer to reality.

As we know, team members engage with goals in different ways. The logos part intends to speak to those individuals who require an intellectual connection with goals. It needs to make logical sense. It flows from the argument, the rhetoric will be “logically we can conclude”.

Ethos – Building credibility

Ethos is about establishing authority to speak on a subject.

Ethos is about building trust and credibility. This is done over time, as proof is amassed that goals maintain a healthy balance between ambitious and realistic.

Trust and credibility, like relationships, can’t be rushed. It’s earned over time. Something like earning credibility has a vast number of variables informing it, but there are a few no-brainers to address – things like competence, consistency, integrity. Keeping score is necessary to address some of these elements. Keeping score often has a negative connotation – it can be seen as a way to reprimand underperformers. This connotation has to be turned on its head. Keeping score is about continuous improvement – which all teams should strive for, asking “how do we operate more effectively as a team over time?”. It’s a way to showcase competence, consistency and integrity.

One of the important elements here is that OKRs are scored by outcomes (results), not by output, input or tasks. When we look at outcomes, it’s not about the individual anymore – it’s about what the team achieves, about the measurable impact on the business and not the “busy work” we do.

Pathos – Engaging emotions

Pathos is the attempt to convince an audience emotionally.

Articulating goals with pathos in mind encourages thinking beyond the facts – how do we speak to emotions? How do we make goals inspirational?

Ambitious, inspirational goals release adrenaline – and adrenaline is what gets us going. If you’ve ever experienced your heart rate pulsing as you’ve watched a TV series or listened to a story, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes, and for some people more than others, we need to feel an emotional connection to the story being told. Only then will we be able to buy into it.

These three elements – logos, ethos, pathos, but specifically pathos – shouldn’t be driven in isolation; rather, they should be held in balance. Similar to all of us having felt the exhilaration of a heart-pounding inciting incident in a Hollywood blockbuster, we’ve also witnessed the aftermath of men and women driven by emotion where rationality is omitted. Pathos needs to be wrapped in ethos and logos. Goals can be inspirational and realistic at the same time. (Balance inspirational objectives with realistic key results.)

“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

Simon Sinek

An exemplary engagement example

The best examples of engaged teams that we all witness weekly are sports teams. Think of the story they tell – a story of bravado, of conquering, of celebration, of champions. A story that starts with an incredibly clear goal – a world champion title maybe. It’s a four or five-year goal, that’s then broken down into shorter-term mini-goals – develop those team members, win that tournament, increase fitness in these ways. It then develops into very specific measurable contributions and results.

As fans, we sometimes look onto the field without an understanding of the work being done off the field. The critical thinking applied to get to the world cup, the credibility built over many years, and the elements at play to build emotional connections.

The beauty of this is that, even if they don’t win, they’ve still built a team. It’s a win-win scenario.

We are made for stories and by stories.

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