What is the link between self-orientation and trustworthiness?

I’ve been lucky this year to learn from people who are skilled at talent coaching, design thinking, change communications, organizational effectiveness and more.

They all share one personality trait: Low self-orientation.

They work to avoid making any part of the process about themselves. In fact, their actions are almost hidden as they guide others to a solution.

This article looks at self-orientation, which is a part of the trust equation in The Trusted Advisor. When “your level of self-orientation is low, you can pay attention to someone else. If you pay attention to someone, they experience that as caring. If someone thinks you care about them, they are likely to trust you.”

So simple.

Yet, it can be easy to fall into high self-orientation mode where “your attention is focused on yourself and others become acutely aware of it and infer that you do not care about them. Rightly or wrongly, they then decide you are untrustworthy.”

As (one version) of the old saying goes, “be interested, not interesting.”

Northwestern University research

My Master’s Capstone project has been approved. It’s about business leaders and storytelling.

Specifically, I’m examining how senior leaders (director level and above) view strategic storytelling when communicating about change.

I am looking to interview change management and/or change communications leaders to get their perspective on using storytelling to driving business results. Is that you? Is that someone you know? Email me at chad@chadgraham.com. 

Here’s why change management and change communications pros should care about this topic: A growing body of research reveals that storytelling can guide modern change efforts in an increasingly complex and ambiguous business world. Storytelling, as part of a leadership change communications strategy, can spark employee action, strengthen team trust, deepen knowledge sharing and help employees better visualize the future (Denning, 2006). Stories provide a way for leaders to help employees make sense of change by bridging the future state laid out in a communications change plan with current-state reality, (Reissner, 2011). Senior leaders who use storytelling techniques, methodically and intentionally, can shape the future of an organization, especially in rallying others around a shared purpose (Boal & Schultz, 2007).

Yet, for all indications that strategic leadership storytelling should be universally embraced, questions remain if that is happening during change efforts. Researchers continue to study why some senior leaders avoid storytelling as part of a deliberate change communications strategy.

This gap forms the basis of my project.

colorful books

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Boal, K., & Schultz, P. (2007). Storytelling, time, and evolution: The role of strategic leadership in complex adaptive systems. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 411-428. 
Denning, S. (2006). Effective storytelling: Strategic business narrative techniques. Strategy and Leadership, 34(1), 42-48.
Reissner, S. (2011). Patterns of stories of organisational change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(5), 593-609.

Big things I’ve learned about change in the past year (a checklist for media orgs)

I am excited to present this week at the Daily Iowan’s 150th anniversary celebration. As a University of Iowa undergrad, the DI was my first training ground in how to be a reporter and a newsroom manager. It remains an incredible experience for students.

I’ll be speaking about change management, focusing on media organizations. It’s been a year since I left my job as a digital director at a TV station to return to school and head down a new career path in change management. I’ve had plenty of “aha” moments from incredible mentors connected with Northwestern University’s MSLOC program about why organizational change can be so difficult and how to help make it a smoother process.

Plenty of news organizations continue to scramble just to get their product out, find new revenue streams and navigate ever-changing consumer behavior. It’s a tough business and the past decade has been a roller-coaster ride. I also remain deeply concerned that news companies still aren’t paying enough attention to building and growing internal change capability. There’s plenty of “we need to change” talk, but the “how” of the change — the boots-on-the-ground, step-by-step implementation that gets broad buy-in — loses steam. Many are failing to continually train new leaders or set up systems to create, share and scale knowledge in engaging ways. Some don’t have the know-how to create successful and sustainable teams, HR is buried in logistics paperwork, the emotional impact of historic industry disruption on employees is ignored and so on.

Meanwhile, business is only getting more complex. Check out this Industry 4.0 site from Deloitte.

If you work for a media organization, here are a few tactics to consider when navigating change:

Try to stay in the problem. Picture it: You’re in a meeting and a problem is brought to everyone’s attention. It’s the first time most participants in the room have heard of this problem. What does everyone do? They start suggesting solutions. Not so fast. While that behavior is rewarded around deadline-driven news coverage, it may not work best with internal, organizational strategy. Ask the room: Have we really identified that this is the problem? How do we know? Have we tested these assumptions?

Ask questions. Then ask more questions and then ask more questions. How many times do we pretend to listen to others, but are actually simultaneously formulating a response in our minds? This Harvard Business Review article has a different tactic. There is power in asking follow-up questions, which can make a participant feel respected and involved in a change process. Questions can be as much about building rapport and gaining support for an initiative as they are about getting answers. Here’s a challenge: Could you go an entire work day mostly asking questions? You do work in the communications business, after all. Take a page from journalism and avoid “yes” or “no” questions, capitalize on silence and allow the other person to expand on their comments and take care not to interrupt.

Know yourself at work. Do you know your work style? How do you react during times of stress? Can you read a room and adjust your style accordingly? Taking assessments can provide a better sense of how to be more effective in the workplace. Two of my favorites are the CliftonStrengths assessment and the Hogan assessments. Here’s more information on assessments.

Know your team at work. Did you know that teams with more than 8-10 people may not function well? Or, how about that most teams go through four distinct phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing? Have you ever considered writing a team charter so that every member is clear on how the team operates, member roles and goals? Knowing how a team works is just as important as ensuring that the team reaches its goals.

Build narrative intelligence. Organizational storytelling is the focus of my Master’s thesis and I am convinced that company leaders (especially) should continue to build skills in this area. Being able to tell the right story at the right time to the right audience to spark action will become even more critical to drive change. Storytelling can be a powerful way to steer through ambiguity.

And, please incorporate story arc, current state and future state into your presentations. This TED Talk from Nancy Duarte should be required watching for anyone creating a PowerPoint:

Learn design thinking. “This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges,” according to the experts at IDEO. This method can be rolled out across the enterprise as a key way to build ideas and test solutions. It works for planning news content, discovering revenue solutions, transforming talent management and more.

To be sure, this is just a starter list. I’d love to hear from my fellow change management practitioners and media leaders on their solutions.

Simple tactics that leaders can use to build a culture of innovation


The world of work has changed and leaders need to become champions of innovation and create a work environment that fosters creativity, ideation and experimentation. How can that happen? It’s not easy.

Stephanie Waite, Amy Buck and Andee Harris joined me to discuss their tips and tactics. I especially loved their takes on how leaders can use the power of questions and reading the room/body language to adjust their messages.

Stakeholder interviews, part two: Feedback that improves design

Note: I’m Working Out Loud to document my learning journey around developing a digital learning course for the Master’s in Learning & Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. 

We conducted six, one-on-one interviews with MSLOC students who have a wide variety of experience in creating and maintaining a digital portfolio. Overall, there was very positive feedback. Interviewees generally found it easy to navigate the modules and felt that the structure was not overwhelming. That was a key hope, that this self-paced course wasn’t overwhelming for time-strapped students.

In a part one of this post, I identified the stakeholder interview process. This time, my favorite question was: Tell me what this section is asking you to do? It was valuable to get user’s descriptions to determine if their expectations met our intentions.

Our focus group identified key takeaways that will greatly improve the design. These included:

  • Adding in more context about what will be accomplished in each module, i.e. “at the end of this section, you will know how to do XX, XX and XX.”
  • Develop a FAQ for the resource page, making sure to add that there are no grades, address the time to complete the course and explain the “reading” tasks of each module and the “creating within WordPress” tasks of each module. 
  • Create badges that are awarded at the end of each module and ensure that they are fun and align with the MSLOC brand
  • Include more examples of WordPress best practices and explain why those examples were selected
  • Explain the pros and cons of purchasing a separate domain name and integrating it into a digital portfolio
  • Offer a “mark as done” feature so that they can track progress, most students will complete this course in small time windows, as they have the ability

Feedback was consistent that the sites should be as visually welcoming as possible and we’re working with Northwestern learning technology experts to determine what is possible in Canvas to add features. These might include:

  • Responsive banner images
  • In-page navigation tabs
  • Icons for special directions for specific cohorts
  • Tabs for additional information, including examples and resources.

A primary benefit to using these design elements is to continue to simplify the experience for users. We do not want lengthy blocks of text or lack of images or too many links to distract and discourage them from creating a digital portfolio.

Wireframe designs have been submitted and we’ll see what’s possible.


DisruptHR Chicago Podcast: Ellen Steele Kapoor on the value of public speaking

The May podcast is here! Ellen Steele Kapoor reflects on her 2016 DisruptHR Chicago talk on the topic of inclusion and diversity. Implementing diversity and inclusion in an organization can be difficult. Make people included can be even more difficult.

“A lot of people have been feeling excluded,” she said. “A lot of people in many parts of society, in many parts of the country, in ages, a lot of people have been feeling like they’re not part of something bigger. When you don’t feel like you’re part of something bigger, the one thing that connects people pretty quickly is fear.”