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How a Well-Crafted Folktale Conveys the Value of Inclusion in the Workplace

Executive Summary

Business storytelling coach Paul Smith offers insight into approaching the challenging topic of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

  • Addressing the tension-filled and sometimes painful topics of diversity and inclusion may feel daunting, but they are vital to your team's health and morale.
  • Using folktales is a great way to get your employees to consider the wisdom in valuing those who are different from them.
  • The first step to cultivating inclusion in the workplace is to get your people talking.  

Assembling and leading a team of people tasked with such an important but delicate task can be daunting.

It’s situations like these that gave rise to the idiom, “You can’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs.”

You won’t make any progress until people start talking about painful and deeply personal topics. When you need people in your organization to get together and discuss a topic like diversity, you’ll need some way to get them out of their shell.

There’s no better way to accomplish that—and get them to start thinking about the topic at hand—than to have them tell their own stories of crisis or conflict with people different from themselves.

Top 10 Reasons Why Storytelling Works in the Workplace

FOSTERING INCLUSION WITH FOLKTALES

Another kind of story that can illustrate the value of inclusion in the workplace is a well-crafted folktale. Folktales are wonderfully designed to show people the wisdom in valuing diversity, and encourage them to do so. By nature, these stories don’t describe anyone in particular, so they can apply to everyone by extension. It’s easy for people to see themselves in the mythical characters, and apply the lessons learned to their own life.

Given the tension-filled nature of the topic, stories about real people are often dismissed because “that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not like the guy in that story. I would never do that.” Below is a folktale you can use that just about everyone will find wisdom in. It’s my adaptation of an old West African story called “The Traveler.” The following text is from a speech I gave to a group of about 500 where I work. I share this version to illustrate how a folktale like this can be used in a real context.

Once there was a wise, elderly man who spent his days just outside his village sitting under a shady tree where he would think. One day, a traveler came up to him and said, “Old man, I have traveled far. I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me, if I go into this village, what kind of people will I meet there?” The wise man replied, “Yes, I’d be happy to tell you. But first, tell me what kind of people you’ve met in your travels so far.” The traveler responded, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. I have met the most awful people! People who are selfish and unkind to strangers. People who don’t care for themselves or one another. I’ve met foolish young people I could learn nothing from, and old people whose lack of hope depresses everyone they meet.”

 As the traveler spoke, a look of sadness grew in the wise man’s eyes as he nodded in a knowing way. “Yes,” he said. “I believe I know exactly the kind of people you speak of. And I’m sorry to tell you, but if you go into my village, I’m afraid that’s exactly the kind of people you will meet.” “I knew it!” the traveler scoffed. “It’s always the same.” He kicked the dirt under his feet and stormed off down the road, without ever bothering to stop in the village.

 A few hours later, another traveler came upon the wise man. “Kind sir,” he said, “I have traveled far. I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me, if I go into this village, what kind of people will I meet there?” The wise man replied, “Yes, I’d be happy to tell you. But first, tell me what kind of people you’ve met in your travels so far.” The traveler responded, “Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. I have met the most amazing people! People who are kind and generous to strangers; people who care for one another like family. I’ve met young people with a wisdom beyond their years, and I’ve met older people with a youthful passion for life that brings joy to everyone they meet. And I have learned much from all of them.”

As the traveler spoke, the wise man smiled brightly as he nodded in a knowing way. “Yes,” he said. “I believe I know exactly the kind of people you speak of. And I’m happy to tell you, if you go into my village, I’m certain that’s exactly the kind of people you will meet.” “Come then,” said the traveler, “and introduce me to them.”

The lesson, of course, is that what we see in people is determined, in large part, by what we expect to find. So when you go back to your office tomorrow to work with your direct reports, your peers, your business partners, your boss, look for in them the traits you’d most like to see, and I believe that’s exactly what you’ll find.

Fostering inclusion in the workplace may feel like a daunting task, but it’s not an impossible one. The most important thing is that you get your people talking. In all my years of leadership, I have found no better way to approach such a sensitive topic than to lead with a story.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith is a dedicated father of two and an expert trainer in leadership and storytelling techniques. As the author of the popular Lead with a Story, he has seen his work featured in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, Success, and Investor's Business Daily, among others.

 

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