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.
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.”
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?
As a child and an unstoppable reader, I was irresistibly drawn to strong and headstrong female characters. Whether Harriet M. Welsch (of Harriet the Spy fame), Claudia Kincaid (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or Anne Shirley (of the infamous Anne of Green Gables), these young women felt like friends and soulmates: impetuous, energetic and, at times, a little noisy. Their stories invited me to reflect on my own experiences and, in particular, on the young woman I was and wanted to be.
Literature enthusiasts have long extolled the virtue of narrative to engage and delight individuals in this very way. Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Man is the storytelling animal. . . his stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood.” But both the hard sciences and the social sciences confirm what a good book makes us feel: narrative powers the connections between individuals. In his inimitable way, narrative scholar Jerome Bruner describes, “Our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us.” And the business world is catching on, with new energy for the strategic value of stories and storytelling in internal and external communications.
But does narrative’s power to connect run deeper than the way we tell our brand story or the way in which we persuade others to a cause?
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?
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.”
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?
When I joined McKinsey & Company some time ago, my first day coincided with an office conference on innovation and business in the new economy, the very area in which I was hired to contribute. How fortuitous! But to say that I understood about half of what people were saying is ambitious; truthfully, despite my years as a corporate lawyer and deep exposure to business and innovation, McKinsey spoke a language I had simply never heard.
Thankfully, I am a quick study, and over the years I became fluent in that language – and long after leaving the firm, I confess to still using certain expressions that just work. But more important than the words themselves, I learned two important things: first, that this common language was a phenomenal unifier – part of a shared culture that bound thousands of professionals who rarely spent time in the office and whose work took them to all corners of the globe; and second, they had invented it themselves.
If a piece of art explores a universal idea, a specific detail often exposes the particular, redirecting a viewer’s emotions to a more personal connection and creating an opportunity for deeper reflection on beauty, love, loss or other ideas. So does the power of detail bring us each closer to an otherwise daunting piece of art.
But the visual arts have not cornered this space. Good literature also has the power to use detail to catapult us back into our own lives, to render personal even the most distant stories.