What can business leaders learn from poetry?
The utility of poetry – and of literature and the humanities in general – is under scrutiny on a near daily basis. As our executive director Ann Kowal Smith noted in a recent post, many universities across the country are proposing cuts to their humanities offerings; one University of Wisconsin campus proposed the near-total discontinuation of its English department. If university administrators and faculty struggle to see value in poetry, does it have a place in regular society – let alone the business world?
The media is abuzz this week with Starbucks’ commitment to erase bias and foster inclusion within its ranks. This profoundly important step serves as a potent reminder that the majority of workplaces – even those that have begun to seriously address diversity – have not cracked the code on true inclusion. Sophisticated algorithms replace (flawed) human judgment to diversify hiring, and a wave of research on unconscious bias has created sufficient awareness to create pause before decision makers rush to judgment. Most companies would agree, however, that they have yet to find a good and scalable approach to create a culture of inclusion.
We designed Books@Work to help address this critical challenge. We define inclusion in the broadest sense: we encourage not only divergent gender, race and cultural perspectives, but also the unique belief-sets driven by our upbringing or the fact that we now are engineers, accountants, marketers or IT professionals. For Books@Work, inclusion is about creating and nurturing a culture that fosters mutual respect and invites the whole person to the table. But how exactly do we do that?
Sometimes complex human questions become clearer when we go back to our roots – even our childhood roots. University of Chicago Laboratory School teacher and MacArthur Genius Vivian Paley addressed the universal human experience of feeling excluded after forty years of observing children in nursery school and kindergarten. Despite its unlikely source, Paley’s inclusion rule (and the title of her most popular book), “You can’t say you can’t play,” may be an important reflection for organizational leaders who have learned that hiring a more diverse workforce is only a baby step toward creating a culture of inclusion in which all individuals can flourish.
We aren’t advocating a return to preschool, or even the legislation of human interaction with a set of childhood “rules.” But there are important things to learn from the evolution of human nature – ideas and behaviors that have been hardwired into us since before our earliest sentient moments.
As is my custom, I recently devoured a new podcast from Gimlet Media called The Habitat during a long and un-airconditioned road trip to Florida.
The Habitat follows a simulated mission-to-Mars research project called HI-SEAS. As space travel to Mars becomes more likely, researchers are tasked with perfecting equipment like “the dome,” a semi-portable living structure about the size of a two-car garage that would house six astronauts. But HI-SEAS is designed to test “a far more critical piece of equipment: humans.”
For a year, six “human guinea pigs” agree to spend every waking and sleeping moment together in a dome on a Hawaiian volcano, a stand-in for the red planet. HI-SEAS seeks to determine what these conditions will do to their astronauts. Poring through 200 hours of the crew’s audio diaries, The Habitat host Lyn Levy shadows the experiment from day one. “It’s like the premise of a space age reality show,” she says.
The news is an adventure these days: cyber insecurity, racially-motivated violence, sexual imposition, the redirection of public funds for personal gains – the list goes on and on. Confronted with these varied and frequent stories, can we help but wonder if we aren’t experiencing a serious collapse in our collective moral judgment?
Philosopher and entrepreneur Damon Horowitz argues that our technologically-driven society has provided us with so much power that we have neglected the processes we need to deal with that power – to weigh its strengths and its weaknesses, differentiate between right and wrong and ultimately make effective decisions. In his compelling TED talk, “We Need a Moral Operating System”, he demonstrates that “we have stronger opinions about our handheld devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.”
The best things I learn in life often come from unexpected places. There’s nothing more satisfying than suddenly seeing something in a startling new way. The pure pleasure when I have said the words “I never thought of it like that!” reminds me of the happy surprise on a young child’s face who has learned something new and exciting. It occurs to me that this feeling of recognition may be what engages us to be lifelong learners, beginning as little tots and continuing into old age.
One such experience came for me around that very word: recognition.
In the recent March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., organized by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, student leader Emma González took to the stage to deliver a speech. After a short opening statement, she stopped speaking altogether and gazed ahead into an eager crowd of thousands. She spent the next six minutes in complete silence as the disoriented crowd cheered and clapped to fill the void. Despite where you fall on the political spectrum, González’s speech (or lack thereof) embodied a powerful truth: uncomfortable silence is an incubator for introspection – whether we like it or not.
Words and gestures and body language mean different things to different cultures – as does silence. “Anglophones tend to be most uncomfortable with long gaps in a discussion,” writes Lennox Morrison in a fascinating piece for BBC. “Even among sign language speakers, studies show that typically we leave just a fraction of a second between taking turns to talk.” A 2015 study of Japanese communication found that Japanese people in business meetings “were happy with silences of 8.2 seconds – nearly twice as long as in Americans’ meetings.” Another study comparing silence in Japanese and Finnish culture found that in Finland, “silence is tolerated and in certain social scenes it is preferred to idle or small talk.”
So how can we use silence as a learning tool in the workplace?
In our our Weekend Reading post last week, we highlighted a fascinating article by Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth professor of philosophy, physics and astronomy, on teaching at the intersection of two increasingly distinct academic “cultures” – the sciences and the humanities. At a time when universities are shrinking their humanistic offerings in favor of science and technology, Gleiser comments on the weakness of an education that favors one over the other.
“We all stand to lose from this gulf between the sciences and the humanities,” Gleiser writes. “The sciences run the risk of being decontextualized from their moral and social consequences, pursuing technologies that should be regulated and scrutinized. . . On the other hand, the humanities run the risk of becoming disconnected from the pace of scientific discoveries and myopic to how they are effectively transforming the world we live in.”
So how science fiction help to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities?
Books@Work participants tell us over and over that the sessions are a “great way to get to know your colleagues, your peers, on a totally different level” as well as “de-stress.” They highlight that the program “brings us all together in a different way.” Because I have such a varied work history – in food service, office jobs, caring for handicapped adults – I resonate with our participants when they tell us how valuable getting to know your colleagues is and how they look forward to moments of refreshment in the midst of a busy and demanding day.
Because of this, it has been a special pleasure to participate in Books@Work myself. I first participated in 2014, with the classified staff of a Cleveland-area school. I was struck by how, at first, it was difficult for people to express their thoughts. It seemed like they were all searching for a “right” answer and participants were hesitant to hazard their opinion. But after a few weeks, people started to trust that they had something meaningful to say and that the group was interested in their ideas. After people found their voices, the conversations became more engaging. When we read John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” we disagreed about our interpretations, and some people told really personal stories. In the end we respected the unique perspective of each person in the room. The opportunity to share and reflect gave those staff members a chance to see each other as people instead of a job title, like bus driver or teacher’s aide.
Knowing the benefits, why not participate in Books@Work as a staff?