Changing Philosophies: Creating Open and Inclusive Workplaces
July 12, 2017 | Ann Kowal Smith, Maredith Sheridan
Left: Frans Hals, Portrait of René Descartes, c. 1649, Louvre, Paris, France, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org; Right: Paul Klee, Forest Witches, 1938, Beyeler Foundation, Riehen, Switzerland, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Recent research leaves little doubt that open, connected and inclusive organizations consistently outperform peers in employee wellbeing, innovation and workplace productivity. But the culture required to maintain openness and inclusion assumes an authentically collective mindset – a mindset that differs considerably from the individual focus that dominates Western society. To achieve this mindset, we must override centuries of Western thinking and open ourselves up to new philosophies of human relationships.
In his 1637 Discourse on the Method, French philosopher René Descartes asserted his famous “cogito ergo sum”: “I think, therefore I am.” Reflecting on the certain deception of the human senses, Descartes declares his thinking self as the only certain and reliable truth, the “first principle” of Cartesian philosophy. The father of modern philosophy, Descartes’ view of the “solitary self” became the foundation of the modern systems that protect the rights of the individual, including capitalism, materialism and large portions of western religion. This focus on the individual continues to permeate western educational systems; likewise, organizational metrics – hiring, recognition and promotions – overwhelmingly reward individual success over group achievements.
In stark contrast, Eastern philosophies tend not to view the individual as separate and distinct from his or her environment, but as part of a holistic view of life and the universe. And South African Ubuntu philosophy posits that a human being is not a person merely by virtue of being born. Rather, only through a set of interdependent relationships with family and community does the person emerge over time. Bishop Desmond Tutu often cites the Zulu proverb “a person is a person through other persons:” it’s not our individual capacities that make us human – it’s the roots we establish in our communities and the relationships we build with others that define us.
To create more open and inclusive workplaces we need to find ways to foster and reward interdependence rather than independence – to encourage authentic rather than cosmetic collaboration. Participants tell us that Books@Work provides an important opportunity to practice this skill – to build and work the muscles required to nurture and support high-quality interpersonal connections that support the community as much as the individual.
Books@Work is a vehicle to see others more fully and to see yourself through others. It encourages participants to compare perspectives and to build the bonds of community. As one participant shared, “Books allow you to go on a journey without leaving your comfort zone. You take a journey to learn and to grow, but the learning increases exponentially when others travel with you. Because we all have our own perspective on how we view living life.” Another reflected, “Some people are loners, and I know that some people have come [to Books@Work] and they haven’t said a word. . . They might have not wanted to jump into the conversation, but I think that they felt good because they belonged.”
Getting to know our colleagues beyond the specific jobs they perform each day can be tough. But when we take time to read, reflect and share with each other, we start to see each other in a new light – and we reveal more of ourselves too. From there, we begin to see and to value the strength of our collective perspectives and to appreciate and recognize the power a robust community provides.
In a recent lecture at Chautauqua Institution, the Honorable James Joseph, former US Ambassador to South Africa, spoke of our need to design communities that provide space for all to co-exist and co-contribute: “it’s not ‘I think therefore I am,’” he said, “It’s ‘I am, because you are’.” Although his context was religion and international culture, his words apply poignantly to workplace cultures as well. This seemingly simple shift from “I” to “you” – and ultimately to “we” – takes work and practice. But the end result is well worth the effort.
Let’s get to work!