Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

Storytelling for HR

By Martin Couzins on June 20, 2022


Humans have an emotive response to stories that begins when we are young, they stretch and test the imagination. They helping people bring to life a situation and communicate its significance. Developing the capability to tell stories effectively is an important way for HR to influence and motivate.


HR is a very complex, nuanced subject because it deals with human relationships in the workplace, and it is difficult to bring down to black and white bullet points. Storytelling is a very effective way to explain complex and nuanced issues to people because we can all relate to them

Too much of our communication is based on the rational and not the emotional. Effective story telling works on both levels.

Storytelling can help HR effectively sell ideas or opportunity to the business and bring HR data to life.

Ultimately, storytelling will help HR connect with the business and build its influence. HR struggles to get its message across at senior level and research has shown it  is often not valued highly as a function by the top team.  Developing the ability to ‘story tell’ effectively would help to solve this issue.  Story telling is also a great tool that that can be used to engage people with initiatives that may initially be unpopular. 


What are the core components of your solution and how are they interrelated?  (Provide as much detail as possible). What, exactly, are you proposing needs to change in traditional HR practices or processes?

Good stories require a narrative that is compelling throughout. It also requires confident and passionate delivery. Too much of HR practice is fixed on the ordinary and mundane, our agendas are not compelling and our passion for what we do is missing. By learning to tell the story, through whatever means, we will learn to focus on the areas that excite and prioritise those.

We feel that storytelling should be a necessary part of the craft of becoming a competent practitioner in HR/OD/L+D etc. Learning to structure a narrative to make it compelling and to effectively present business problems using a storytelling structure will enable better relationships and cohesion across organisations.

HR also needs to better at articulating why things need to be done - including some of the boring processes. Good storytelling can explain this to staff, line management and make it memorable and relevant to them.

This mini hack is about giving HR practitoners the skills, confidence and a sense of what can be achieved through using storytelling in their roles. As well as what we can achieve wit this mini-hack (see first steps) in the short term, there should be more emphasis in initial training of HR practitioners on influencing skills – plus ongoing development on the practical techniques of storytelling.  There are some great people out there who do this really well.

Practical impact

In practice, HR practitioners would develop the skills and confidence to communicate their vision and purpose in a way that excites and compels, they would tailor their vision and purpose to the areas that do this. HR would be a focal point of compelling narrative, it would become the must read thriller, not the process manual.

This is about airing and sharing. How can colleagues and peers understand what you do/know/learn if you cannot articulate that in an interesting way? This is about helping to do that - on a personal/professional/organizational and peer group level. (MC)

Role modeling is critical.  If someone starts doing this in an organisaiton and gets great results others will follow.


The challenges are:

  • The lack of capability in the HR teams. The considerable change from current practice.
  • Noise from and trendiness of focus on data
  • Incorrect belief that it isn’t a commercial approach
  • Lack of bravery/courage to attempt new things
  • Perception that soft skills don’t bring hard results
  • Finding a voice, practical skills, confidence
  • Fear of legal implications often gets in the way of HR voicing an opinion or putting their head above the parapet

In terms of overcoming these challenges, it’s about the courage to start...we all have anecdotes that we may tell between ourselves (other HR professionals). We just need to aim the right stories at the right people.

How many times have we said “I remember in my last company we had a case where...” or “I’ve encountered this situation before, it was during the last reorganisation, and what happened was...” At its most basic, that is storytelling.

See also the next section . . .

First steps

Our approach is to start small and build up, role modeling along the way. It has little cost apart from time.

First, we will get a bunch of HR leaders  to tell their story in writing in a shared space for others to see. What is it they are trying to deliver in their organisations and how can others help them develop their story through editing.

We will create a shared space online (site) where colleagues/peers can share their stories. We propose supporting this with a Twitter profile and hashtag to provide a focus and support. We will compile storytelling resources on the site.

If these ideas work we would like to build on them with workshops asking HR leaders for stories. We will work with HR leaders to help them shape stories and ask them to share stories with teams or more openly (stand in the canteen! run storytelling lunches).

We would aim to publish a book  of the stories. Circulate a recommended format. Encourage teams to create and share their own. All of this could be achieved at almost zero cost.

By the time of the CIPD’s centenary conference we would expect to have some stories to share and would like to do that at the event – and record and share them on our site . . . and get more people to try out storytelling. You get the picture.

This is about a change of style. We all tell our own story every day and everytime we talk to someone - we need to use that same technique to talk about HR. Everytime someone says “I get it now” is a result.

HR process being hacked:Organizational Development

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Dear All - apologies for my tardy reply.... I can offer nothing but excuses although graduation has been hectic and very enjoyable!! I have set up a google account - here are the details... I guess this might link me to the hack now and I'll have a read and put some comments on by the end of Wednesday.
Best wishes, Fran

Hi all

I hope you don't mind but I'm going to take a decision on the tech we use for collaborating. Frances suggested Skype, which is a great tool. The only drawback is that in order to have video calls one of us has to be a premium member. The second is that you then have to extract content out of Skype if we want to share it. My feeling is that we have here a great opportunity to model some behaviours around storytelling and in order to do that I think we should be openly narrating this hack. If we want or need private conversations then we can do that too. i suggest we use Google because it is free and will enable us to collaborate on shared documents, privately on email and by video, which we can record and publish on Youtube. Google also offers other features through Google Plus which could provide us with a place to share links to benefit the mini-hack and the wider community.

If we are happy to go Google then please send me your Google email address - I am at martincouzins@gmail.com and I will set up a shared Google doc and invite you to it. If you need to set up a Google email address, go to www.gmail.com where you will be prompted to sign up.

simon-jones's picture

Sorry to be very tardy with this - am happy with google as medium of communication (it may help me get my head round Google+ too!). One question - to misquote Marshall McLuhan - is our mini hack about the medium (the way HR communicates) or the message (what story we are telling). I can see elements of both being important but it could become way too big a topic!

Hi Simon
As you say, it is going to be a bit of both but I don't see this hack getting lost in what technologies to use, more a general approach. I guess it is up to us to decide. If you look at the Google Doc I have shared you will see the template for our hack. When you have the time go and add your thoughts under each heading. By us all doing this we will shape the hack. Does that help? Keep asking questions if not, that's what I'm here for!

clayton-glen's picture

Hi Martin - I am at claytonglen1@gmail.com on Gmail.



clayton-glen's picture

Hi Martin - this is a mini hack that definitely needs a spirited wind behind it, and I would love to participate and learn. I like to think the main drivers for authentic HR story-telling (about itself and its contribution) are:

1. we (people-people) have identified a set of clearly articulated constraints (eg. limited commercial advantages, leadership succession and so on ...) or opportunities (eg. attractiveness, technological / market competitive advantages, and so on...);
2. we clearly understand (and/or have researched) the economic/business drivers of these constraints and/or opportunities, and are not bluffing that we understand them or simply repeating (paying lip service to) them;
3. we are confident as leaders, communicators and coaches/facilitators to share our evidence, and ideally how HR already adds direct value, or is getting there - the 'so what?' - to resolve these constraints or leverage the advantages;
4. we are brave and willing to go out on a limb in telling stories that are likely to have real impact ... particularly where this may be cross-current, and where constraints (business and HR's) outweigh clear advantages - ie. most businesses;
5. we take the time to familiarise ourselves with and become expert at leveraging some of the social technologies that help us build and share our HR stories, ever more creatively;
6. better still, we carve out significant boxes of time to tell stories face-to-face;
7. we are energetic, creative and consistent in our story telling, (not weighed down by our considerable day-to-day priorities) - and our commercial sensitivities and behaviours match;
8. ideally our stories clearly define the link between individual behaviours and commercial / service success - perhaps we add some numbers to explain;
9. ideally, a trusted HR identity (brand maybe ?) evolves that can be trusted for all of its decisions; including tough ones;
10. finally, we ask for feedback, and identify what we can and cannot adjust ... we will always have more constraints, and should be clear what these are, so we don't set ourselves up or mislead.

Developing broader HR community behaviours (skills?) to make this sing is the challenge that greatly interest me; and particularly learning fresh approaches from younger, or perhaps less constrained, HR professionals.

I have a few direct experiences in automotive, e-commerce and mobile technology / entertainment that I hope I can share, (particularly storytelling under significant constraints), though I expect that there will be many more and much better examples.

(Sorry for the length of this post - I should have added point 11. be economical in telling your story :-))

(Sorry also - missed the fact that this Hack team is already 'full' ... nevertheless, I look forward to following)


Hi Clayton

Many thanks for your thoughts. A lot to think about here so really appreciate you sharing this. I'm not that concerned about rules so would be happy to include you in this mini-hack if you'd like to be. I see this as a way for us hackers to model some behaviours here so if you are keen, then I'd say join in.

clayton-glen's picture

Hi Martin - thanks for your refreshing message. :-) I will be delighted to participate in this mini-hack. Regards. Clayton

neil-morrison's picture

Happy to use Google, Skype etc. Whatever is easiest for the group. If at any stage we want to meet IRL (and I don't know where people are based geographically) then I'm more than happy to organise space at our offices in London.

Other than that suggest we get going online and see what magic happens.


Thanks all for contributions here and for the kind offer of a meeting space, Neil. I look forward to hearing from Erika and Simon on tools. My feeling is to use something that is accessible to other others so they can see our thinking and chip in too.
Enjoy the sun if it is shining where you are :)

Hi everyone- sorry to be late on parade! Happy to use whichever medium suits the majority best. I'm not on Google yet but have been meaning to sign up for some time so this would give me a reason to do it!

Dear fellow team members, Thinking about a hangout for us, I have signed up to Skype, I don't profess by any means to be an expert, but from some YouTube info, I can see it is possible to see several people all at once. Perhaps if anyone has an actual working knowledge, or proof of concept :-) this might be an option for us? I do think us using some form of social media to communicate through is really important, it doesn't need to be the only way, but if it is something that we are suggesting HR teams and organisations needs to grasp in order to use to maximum advantage, somehow I just feel we should be setting a good example. Of course, for me I can reflect on the experience and use that as a story :-). The weather in Yorkshire looks set for another glorious day, I hope you enjoy your weekend. Best wishes Fran

Nice to hear Yorkshire is being shined upon. Google hangouts are good for sharing info and having multiple contributors. I prefer them marginally to Skype. Likewise Google docs make it easy to work on documentation collaboratively. As long as everyone is prepared to sign up for a Google account it doesn't take any more effort than that to be good to go for both. Have a great weekend.

We have a team! Thankyou Simon, Neil, Erika, Frances and David for getting involved :)

neil-morrison's picture

What a great bunch of people....I could get quite excited about this! Next steps Mr. Couzins? :)

I agree! Thankyou all for joining in. Yes, next steps - well, we need to have a place to come together. I can organise that BUT it would be good to get a feel for how we want to do this. So, this is an open invitation to share how you would like to do this - I'm keen for us to have an open and accessible conversation as I see modelling behaviour as really important. Shared Google Document, Twitter chats with out own hastags, Google Plus . . . those are some of the tools we could use. Or could we do it in this platform (I need to check it out!)

Have a think over the weekend and I'll aim to organise something on Sunday evening, maybe for next week. This sound OK to everyone?

Hello everyone, great to see the group growing! What do I think we could do to help? Well, I don't think it's an issue that can be solved overnight, but maybe a good first step would be for there to be more emphasis in the training and on-going development of HR folk on how they can use social tools in general to support their work. Not just for personal profile raising - but to support engagement issues, make performance management conversations more 'immediate' etc etc. Once people get more comfortable with the medium in general and come to see it as a positive thing, they are more likely to use it to start to share best practice and talk about what's working well for them.

My other comment would be that there is training around in 'how to do social media' - but a lot of it focuses on the tools rather than the messages. I think HR people need support in how to craft a message/story - and in fact not just on social media, but for other communication channels too. 'Telling the story' is often seen as something that should sit with the marketing/PR people - but I actually think it's a really important skill for HR too.

Great points, Erika. I agree about the 'how to' bit and finding a voice and having confidence to use it. I think we can model this in our mini-hack . . . !

Hi Martin,
Thanks for the warm welcome! The MIX is amongst my first ventures to the virtual world although I've taken to an occasional Twitter and LinkedIn message.... I feel a little like I'm talking to myself so please, if anyone else is reading this, do join in - there is strength in numbers and more ideas help the mix!

I'm signed up too, you are not alone!

Great news, David. Thankyou for signing up and welcome aboard. I'll be sorting out a get together soon . . . more to come shortly.

Well done, Fran. I admire you for stepping into this. I hope we can help others follow you too. You're talking to me BTW, not just yourself!. Believe it! I'm sat at my desk in Bath, Somerset. Maybe the others in this hack will say hi too.

I realise I have to organise a get together so better sort that soon!

Doh, just noticed Erika and Fran have joined the team. Sorry! Welcome aboard all and thankyou for joining me in this . . .

Dear All
I understand the value of 'storytelling' in an honest and professional way to help others understand our message; it is, for me, a way of sharing a message in a non-threatening and yet still adventurous way which is really inspiring. I think the idea of turning this concept into a mini-hack is a great one; I'm with Erika on the challenges of finding a (social media) voice - this is my attempt to over come my own doubts!

That's just excellent, so thankyou for taking the time to comment. Is this your first attempt at overcoming those doubts? Well done indeed :) Would you like to be involved in shaping this - sounds like you have ideas!

I think one of the key things getting in the way of HR people telling their story is there is still a huge fear of/reluctance to use social media. There are a few high profile HR people doing it really well --- but the majority are still very wary. We need to find ways of helping HR people get more comfortable with the concept.

Hi Erika

I think your comment sums up well why I think this is a useful mini-hack. I'm hoping we can come up with ways of helping people get more comfortable with sharing what they know and think. Agree with Neil . . . be keen to hear your ideas.


neil-morrison's picture


I completely agree that this is a great way of telling the story.....there is a massive fear around social media use in HR mainly driven by listening to too many lawyers! People are also afraid of putting themselves "out there" don't you think? How would you suggest we could help them?


Hi Neil

Thanks for your comment and for agreeing to help out with the hack. I'm delighted - you are an HR director who is actually doing this. Exciting!


neil-morrison's picture


You know this is close to my heart, in more ways than one. Developing a narrative and not spinning, being human and not management. This isn't about the elevator pitch or the sell, but about telling the story.

Spot on.


keith-gulliver's picture

I agree. This is one of the key skills for HR Professionals in today's world of work Martin.

As an extension, perhaps this mini-hack should also consider what the HR Professional as a whole should look like in the adaptable organization: the Adaptable HR Professional perhaps?!

Thanks again for sharing. Good thinking.


Hi Keith

Thanks for the comment and I like your thinking. Not sure how 'contained' these mini-hacks should be which is why I majored on storytelling ie it is one skill of the adaptable HR professional. I agree that this is about adaptable HR pros so yes to your idea from me.

HR professionals will be the ones making this happen so they need the capabilities, skills, mindset to do it.