To Build a Better Workplace, Tell Star Trek Stories

by Ted Burnham

If you want to build a better culture in your workplace, you need more Star Trek. And no, we don’t mean hosting binge-watching parties with your team. (Although we’d totally show up with Spock ears on if you did.) We mean you should tell stories the way Star Trek tells stories.

Your organization can benefit from being more like the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Sure, teleporters would help with the commute and we’re not going to pretend we haven’t wished for a phaser every now and again, but Star Trek’s real value in your workplace is its ability to tackle immensely challenging topics by wrapping them in stories. 

It’s easy to forget, but when Star Trek first aired, it had a remarkably diverse cast and addressed concepts like racism, poverty, and war – at the time, very daring for a mainstream television program. By couching them in science fiction, Star Trek allowed viewers to consider these ideas in a safe and accessible way. And you can do the same thing at your company.

Representation matters

The original Star Trek TV series debuted in 1966. The civil rights movement was at its peak, Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were heating up, and second-wave feminism was bringing new attention to the way women were treated in all areas of life.

In the face of all that turmoil, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to help build a world where women are equal in the workplace, where people of color are looked up to as leaders, and where people of all nationalities can unite in common cause. And he decided that the first step was to tell stories that showed a world where those things were normal.

 

Roddenberry lobbied for half of the Enterprise crew to be women (after studio pushback he settled for a third) and staffed the bridge with a black woman comms officer, a Japanese-American helmsman, and a Russian ensign… not to mention a certain pointy-eared alien. He and his writing team then began telling stories that challenged viewer’s preconceptions about who those characters were, whether they belonged in their roles, and how they could work together to resolve society’s most pressing problems.

Roddenberry understood the power of representation in storytelling to help reframe attitudes and shift cultural norms – and it’s just as powerful in the workplace.

If you want your organization to be a place where every employee feels like they belong, you need to make sure they feel represented by the stories your team shares and the people your team celebrates.

In many organizations, the best-known stories are those of the founders, CEOs, or other executives – groups that skew toward white men. And while employee recognition programs can elevate a broader base of stories, the nomination process is often vulnerable to unconscious bias along gender lines, role type, and other factors.

The solution is to be proactive and inclusive. Start with an open platform where every employee is invited to share their story and where stories are on equal footing. Then, be intentional about who you cast in lead roles – meaning not just who you hire and prompt, but also the people whose stories get highlighted during onboarding, in marketing campaigns, at company-wide events and the like.

Ready to explore your organization’s stories? Our StoryApp makes it easy for anyone with a tricorder (or a smartphone) to tap into the power of workplace storytelling. Join us for a virtual town hall or schedule a 1-on-1 demo to learn more.

When those stories represent the actual diversity of your workplace and the sense of inclusion and belonging you want to create, it’s kind of like hitting the warp drive on your organization’s culture.

Stories help us process the big issues

For over 50 years, across 8 TV series, more than a dozen films, and countless books, video games, and other media, Star Trek has tackled the thorniest problems facing society. Part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision was to help people change outmoded attitudes and see that solutions were possible – even when it meant venturing into uncomfortable territory.

The most famous example is the 1968 kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura – TV’s first high-profile interracial kiss, and just a year after the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized interracial marriage. The studio expected audience reaction to be so negative that they considered airing a different version of the episode in some regions. But in fact, the episode generated more positive fan mail than the show had ever received before.

Over the decades, Star Trek has also tackled the futility of nuclear standoffs, the ethics of military occupations, sexuality and gender identity, questions of personhood, and other notoriously thorny topics. And always with the assumption that we can expand our notions of justice and our sense of empathy and compassion for other beings.

Of course the franchise has never been perfect, and recent iterations of Star Trek have met with racist, sexist backlash. When you tackle complex and sensitive topics, you’re inevitably going to say the wrong thing, ruffle feathers, and trigger challenging conversations. But what makes Star Trek so admirable is its willingness to boldly go into those uncomfortable frontiers – it’s often the only way to make progress.

Beaming ourselves back to the workplace, you too can use stories to help your team process big issues and difficult topics.

Feeling friction after a difficult merger or downsizing? Encourage employees to share stories that remind them they can still feel a deep sense of connection to each other, and that shift their focus toward the new possibilities that are emerging.

Experiencing a trust gap between leaders and front-line employees? Storytelling can humanize colleagues who you’ve only known by their title, and helps both sides bridge the gap by finding common ground.

Struggling with diversity & inclusion? Stories can help reveal how racism, sexism, ableism, and other biases are alive within your organization. Inviting employees to share about these experiences is also key to building the empathy and understanding your team needs for true change to take root.

It may feel uncomfortable to share these stories, but that’s the point. It wasn’t always easy for Kirk & co. to “seek out new life and new civilizations”, but they never retreated to the familiar comfort of Earth. Navigating into discomfort will help your team chart a course through their challenges and co-create a new story in the space that lies beyond.

Your workplace: the final frontier

The ethos of Star Trek is often summed up in a line of Vulcan philosophy: “Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

That’s a pretty good description of the stories that employees are living out each day within your organization, too. There are countless constellations of people, experiences, ideas and learnings you can tap into through storytelling.

You just have to make it your “five-year mission” to go out and discover them.

 

—Ted Burnham, Avanoo Lead Content Marketer

About Ted

Ted Burnham loves the power of words – to tell stories, explain big ideas, and help people connect. He is a writer, editor, multimedia producer, storyteller, and “professional combobulator”. Ted’s work has appeared on NPR, Popular Science, and elsewhere.

About Avanoo

Avanoo brings together the world’s oldest artform – storytelling – and the world’s newest technologies – AI, machine learning – to support teams in experiencing more connection, belonging, and performance. Our app makes it easy for employees to share and listen to each other’s stories wherever they are, and our insights dashboard makes it easy for leaders to understand where and how stories create lasting impact on their teams. Learn more: Avanoo.com
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