Image: Frans Snyders, Concert of Birds, 1629-1630, Prado, Madrid [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Over the last several years, we have shared the Books@Work idea with many people in a wide variety of organizations across the country. Over and over, a single question consistently emerges: isn’t Books@Work just a book club?
The answer is a resounding no. Here are four reasons why not:
The professor. In the book clubs I have experienced, the conversation is a bit of a free for all, often starting with a quick head count of who liked and didn’t like the book. Besides being one of the most limiting ways to start a book discussion, the question of liking or disliking a book has the magical effect of quashing further conversation about why it might have elicited a negative response. Often, the stories people struggle with tee up the most engaging and memorable conversations.
Through skillful open-ended questions, the professor sets the stage for a good conversation. The professor also encourages provocative discussions – the topics that bring a story to life, but may be a little outside your comfort zone. This facilitation engages participants to reflect at a deeper, more personal level – to tread places they might not tread alone. The professor brings an informed perspective on the literature, but it isn’t quite a college literature seminar either. Books@Work professors invite and encourage the group to use the text as a springboard to make the discussion their own, to find the universal story occasioned by a particular piece of literature.
The books. Often book club members take turns suggesting books, bringing to the group a book they have heard about and have a hankering to read. At Books@Work, the literature selection process is more detailed. We start with the genre preferences of the group (usually quite broad and diverse), add in the interests and passion of the professor and our own expertise in what lends itself to good discussion. This cocktail of insights helps us generate a set of choices, and, in the majority of programs, the participants (as a group or by majority rule) select the book. Participants tell us frequently that this process generates a book that they would not likely have picked up on their own, introducing them to an author, a genre or simply a title that becomes, in and of itself, a pleasant surprise.
The participants. Most book clubs are self-selecting; its members are either already friends or friends of friends. In this day and age when we tend to gravitate toward others who share our views and perspectives, the book club discussion can become an echo chamber for our own reactions and perspectives. But Books@Work is different: whether within a natural team or across hierarchies and functions, a Books@Work group is nearly guaranteed to have someone who doesn’t think like you, who sees the world through a very different set of eyes.
The context. Book clubs mostly exist for fun and relaxation – and the occasional glass of wine with friends. Books@Work (admittedly without the wine) develops the high-quality social connections that have been shown to nurture deeper engagement and productivity. We do not read business books or self-help books, but we carefully select and curate the literature to tee up the human issues related to the workplace – be it community well-being, diversity and inclusion, interpersonal dynamics within or across teams, leadership or culture change. As one company president recently described, “the stuff of work is the stuff of people, the stuff of characters, the stuff of personalities. It’s what’s happening inside a person, in their mind, what’s happening when the individuals get together and are working together on a specific business issue.” By exploring this humanity with colleagues, Books@Work drives some of the most important levers for workplace success: confidence, collaboration, trust, authentic listening and critical thinking – without sacrificing the fun.