Building Trust Through Storytelling

An organization’s greatest asset is its team members — and their authentic connection.

Many of our coaching engagements are what we call “well work” — with teams that are performing well, getting along and highly functional. Why we are consulted when something isn’t broken? There is significant potential for teams beyond being highly functional. We’re invited to get them to the next level of their development and growth — to become an authentic team. Our secret code is simple: share a bit of humanity so your teammates see you as a real person, not just someone who fills a role.

To connect on a human level, being able and willing to express emotion and vulnerability are paramount. Colleagues may admire your intellect, appreciate your experience and rely on your expertise; however, they will trust you when they connect to your humanity, the part of you that lies beyond your professional skills.

Let them in to the fragile, even raw, parts of yourself that you have learned to keep intimate. Yes, it’s awkward and scary: That’s the point. Your head tells you to hold back. So, why take the risk? For the opportunity to forge a bond of trust and a deep, authentic connection. By showing your vulnerability, you demonstrate the courage to be a whole person — someone who stretches beyond the limits of aptitude and productivity.

Most of us do our best to compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives. But the truth is, compartmentalization creates isolation — we isolate ourselves with our challenges. You never feel supported or deeply connected with other team members because they don’t have a clue what’s going on with you.

We recently led a team offsite for a regional sporting goods firm, and one of the team members revealed that they had gotten engaged six months ago. The team didn’t even know. As it turns out, people withhold all kinds of information, not just their struggles but also their joys.

The gift you bring to your team is YOU. And what makes you different from every other person sitting in a room with you is your story. For us to truly know one another, we have to understand each other’s stories. We’re not talking about what’s in your resume or your company bio. We mean the life-shaping experiences that have shaped your values, inspired your sense of purpose, fueled your determination and created the unique matrix from which you evaluate choices and make decisions.

Sharing Your Story

Without exception, everyone’s story has been shaped by positive and negative events. Often, our most poignant experiences are the challenges that have forced us to grow.

At the team offsites we lead, we begin with a simple, though-provoking request: share five life-shaping experiences that have made you the person you are. We then share our own life-shapers, which serve as a model for the kinds of experiences to share and help the participants connect with us as real people, not just coaches. Our sharing helps them find the courage to delve into their own stories.

The exercise is an invitation for others to see you through your unique lens. It rarely unfolds without tears, jubilation, inspiration and, most important, appreciation of the human condition. Everyone’s stories are sacred.

What’s amazing is how listening to someone’s story often replaces the old version of the story you may have told yourself or made up about that person. Have you ever sized up another person in 30 seconds? Are you certain you’re on target?

It’s human nature to fill in the blanks. We bring closure to things that are open because we dislike uncertainty. Although this survival skill is useful in certain circumstances, it is harmful when you are trying to build relationships and trust with coworkers. To truly connect, you need the real story from the only person who can tell it.

When you share your story, connect to the narrative through emotion — express your feelings with both words and nonverbal energy. Share how your story impacts you, your family and your vocation. When you speak about your life-shaping events, your emotional connection to those events and why they have been significant in informing who you have become as a leader and person, your listeners will be attracted to the “real” you.

What Success Looks Like

Andre, one of our coaching clients, built a successful auto parts distribution business he started from his garage while working two jobs. He lost his father at age 11 and worked his way through high school and college while staying close to home, as he was a surrogate father for his three younger siblings. He skipped most of his boyhood and found it difficult to connect with many people. He preferred to keep his nonwork life private. When we met Andre, he was single and chose to live near his elderly mother.

We worked with Andre one-on-one for six months before he asked us to help develop a new leadership structure at his company intended to help the team come together to meet the growing needs of his business and fulfill its potential. Based on our coaching work with Andre, we knew his story and were acutely aware of his discomfort in opening up about it. The organizational structure was the easy part. He had solid people who filled the slots. Helping the team come together was the challenge. We had earned Andre’s trust, so he gave us the green light to facilitate a three-day leadership retreat in the mountains.

We left the city early in the morning and kicked off the retreat before lunch. We used the first few hours to gently and slowly create the feeling of safety among the team members we knew we would need. We opted for an early, informal dinner outside and then gathered around in a circle with a fire roaring in the background. We asked each person to share five life-shaping experiences and then modeled our stories for the group. There was immediate awe, appreciation, connection and anticipation.

“Who’s next?” we asked.

Seth, the operations chief, raised his hand. His story was about losing his twin brother in an accident just before high school graduation; it brought all of us to tears. Amazingly, no one on his team had known about it. What was equally amazing was how relieved he was to share the story. This information helped the team understand why he never misses his twin sons’ hockey and baseball games.

To our surprise, Andre stepped up next and shared — for the first time — his story about the sudden loss of his father and how it informed his growing years. He cried. Everyone cried. We sat for 20 minutes. Then, Andre accepted warm hugs from each of his team members.

In all, it was a breakthrough night of connection and sharing that catalyzed a major shift in how the team would coalesce.

After connecting with everyone’s life-shaping experiences, teams form a bond that forever changes how they see one another. You might begin to understand your colleagues’ decision-making processes and the motivations behind their ideas and positions. This doesn’t mean you won’t have differences of opinion. On the contrary, taking trust to a much higher level allows for more expression of dissenting opinions.

Sharing stories also allows you to feel seen as a real person in addition to the function you perform or role you play at work. You are no longer isolated or alone. You may recognize that others have struggles similar to yours. Before sharing stories, our field of vision is limited; we see only the function someone has behind a desk, performing tasks. The work flows and the goals are met, so all is good. Yet you are leaving enormous capacity to create and energy to collaborate on the sideline. By inviting people to share their whole selves, with all their experience and wisdom, the team can be better than “good.”

Sharing life-shaping experiences is one tactic that will take your team to a deeper level of trust. But trust isn’t an event — it requires ongoing commitment.

Creating Connection

Don’t wait for an offsite. You can create shared experiences every day in simple ways.

Consider a daily huddle as the first opportunity in the morning, even if it’s a five-minute standing connection. End the huddle with a team mantra that becomes a ritual and, ultimately, a shared experience. Utilize weekly meetings to include something personal, like a quick story or update, so you continue to reinforce the holistic nature of the relationships you’re co-creating.

Sure, it’s business. But part of business is getting to know the people you work with. So, find ways to keep connections alive. The more you connect and the deeper you explore together, the greater the return on building trust and, ultimately, your power as a team.

Andre, Seth and the rest of the team left the mountain retreat connected and energized. They started more or less as strangers, merely working together, and left appreciating each other as individuals.

Understanding leads to support and empathy for one another. The marketing executive may be quicker to get the accounting executive the information she requested because he views the task as being helpful to a teammate rather than as a chore. You are no longer merely co-workers in a functional workgroup; you are teammates on a winning team. Rather than completing a task simply because it is in your job description, you are more likely to go above and beyond because you want to help your teammate succeed. Chances are, that teammate will reciprocate, and others will follow suit. The power becomes generative.

The exciting news is that this is low-hanging fruit for most management teams. The team doesn’t have to look for more investors to make it happen. You don’t need ideal market conditions. All you have to do is make the commitment to mine this extra fertile turf. The true power comes from the authentic connection of your team.

Barry Kaplan and Jeff Manchester are partners at executive coaching provider Shift 180 and co-authors of “The Power of Vulnerability: How To Create A Team Of Leaders By Shifting INward.” They can be reached at