One needn’t look too hard to find evidence that diverse workplaces are more innovative and tend attract a broader pool of new potential hires. And recent McKinsey research demonstrates that companies with diverse workforces perform better financially as well.
But, in a recent Books@Work session, a participant’s comment left me thinking about the inadequacies of diversity by itself. “Proximity is not inclusion” he said, referring to a story by Chinua Achebe, “Dead Men’s Path.” Reflecting on the story’s depiction of a spectacular failure of communication, he challenged the assembled group: If we can’t find ways to share our discomfort, challenge our assumptions, and open our apertures to the ideas and experiences of others, can we truly capitalize on diversity and move forward together?
The sudden flash of insight that comes in an aha moment brings a sense of satisfaction that humans have valued since mythic times, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” after discovering a solution to a real-world problem. Such moments change individual lives and also provide breakthroughs in the world of work. St. Paul reinvented his life when he was knocked off his horse. Sir Isaac Newton theorized gravity when he saw an apple fall. Tchaikovsky said, “Generally, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.”
So how do we create the perfect conditions for these flashes of creativity in the workplace?
In December 2017, the Jo Cox Commission released a report calling for the appointment of a minister to combat social isolation and loneliness in the United Kingdom. Loneliness, the report declared, is harmful to human health, particularly among the country’s nine million elderly who say that they are “often or always lonely.”
Over the last few years, the Commission has invested in a national strategy to address what they see as an epidemic – and thus Homeshare UK was born, an organization that pairs an isolated elderly person looking for companionship with a younger person in need of low-cost housing. 95-year-old Florence and her 27-year-old student housemate are two participants – but can two people with a near 70-year age difference find commonality?
It is not only a simple cliché but also a cultural meme, that at the beginning of a new year, like the Roman god Janus, we reflect on the past and make plans for a different future. This meme represents a fundamental human urge to learn, change and develop new ways of being in the world. Essentially, it is an annual opportunity to focus on possibilities and to say, “That can be me.”
University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that two key questions guide our efforts to pursue what we can be: What are we actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities do we have to pursue our goals?
I have long been a fan of TED. A TED talk distracts you for 18 minutes with a cool “idea worth spreading,” satisfying the yen for a distraction but somehow alleviating the guilt associated with procrastination: like a particularly toothsome snack unaccompanied by the guilt of empty calories. Like many of you, I’ve watched my share over the years, admiring the interlocutory skill, the messaging and the clarity of thought they often represent. And, while I have a few favorites, the one I have watched and recommended more often than any other is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story.
Adichie is a skilled writer, whose book Americanah numbers among my recent favorites. In The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie shares a cautionary tale – the negative power of literature (and in particular, the traditional Western canon) to weave uniform narratives about other cultures that distort and promote dangerous cultural misunderstanding. Through this “single story” tradition, literature can “open up new worlds” but can also concurrently “rob people of dignity,” dangerously emphasizing “how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
An early innovator of creative nonfiction, Norman Mailer is known for pushing the envelope and transgressing genre. His career path alone is a testament to his willingness be uncomfortable and challenge boundaries: He was a novelist, an essayist, an activist, a playwright, an actor and a filmmaker. “Every moment of one’s life is growing into more,” Mailer once said, “and retreating into less.”
But retreating into, for many, is the natural reaction when dealing with discomfort. Consider a common work situation: You’re working with a group of colleagues on a complicated project. You seem to be reaching a consensus in how to move forward until one colleague raises a new, alternative idea. Another colleague shuts it down abruptly, and awkward silence ensues. You step in with a joke to ease the tension and get the discussion back on track.
But what if that colleague’s idea was worth exploring?
Last week, my colleague, fellow researcher and Books@Work Board Member, Karen Nestor, encouraged us to rethink workplace learning for the 21st century. By separating “learning to be” from “learning about,” she reminded us that organizational learning culture requires a fundamental shift from training employees to creating regular, varied and meaningful opportunities for individual learning.
But how does a focus on individual learning benefit the organization?
For many decades as an educator, I have struggled to describe the kind of lifelong learning that leads to a satisfying and productive life – and the kind of learning that supports institutions and organizations to build a satisfied and productive society. And then this week, a Books@Work participant provided a description that captures what I have attempted to articulate:
“I just think that every employer everywhere [sh]ould say, ‘Wait a minute, I want my employees learning all the time and I don’t care how they’re learning or what they’re learning because eventually that learning will help us.’ As long as you have a workforce that’s learning and growing and expanding their knowledge, it will benefit [everyone]. . . The act of learning is essential to everything we do.”
Do contemporary workplaces embrace this type of continual learning?
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell explores why finding the right words to convey an idea is so difficult. Language, he writes, is “full of bad habits.” Looking at five examples of writing from various pamphlets and newspapers, Orwell finds that all five passages share two common mistakes:
“The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”
How often do we lack precision in our spoken and written words – at home, at school, or at work?