Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

Books@Work Board Member Karen Nestor reflects on the ways in which recognition fosters personal growth as well as positive outcomes in the workplace. Karen is a longtime educator, having taught every single grade level from kindergarten to graduate school and has deep experience as a researcher, often employing a biographical approach.

In everyday conversation about the state of the world, we often hear folks lament that some people want to learn while lots of people are just not interested in growing or advancing their education. Books@Work believes that this assumption is faulty and that a spark of learning exists in most people. Now that hundreds of workers have participated in Books@Work seminars, it has become increasingly clear that the spark of learning becomes a flame (or even a fire!) when individuals of all backgrounds and job categories come together to discuss important ideas through literature. And the results have helped illuminate the importance of recognition as an element not only of personal growth, but also of positive outcomes in the workplace.

Often we think that recognition comes from rewards or pats on the back, but research has shown us that real recognition comes when people engage in experiences that promote self-confidence and self-respect as well as mutual respect for others. The ability to grow as a person begins when individual members of a community feel that their value as a human being has been acknowledged. One recent research study concluded that people recognize what they can accomplish in the world when they can “stand up and look one another in the eye [and] feel in a basic way that [they are] equal to everyone else.”  That is exactly what seems to happen to many participants in Books@Work.

Once individuals experience genuine recognition in this way, many see their role in the workplace through new eyes. A group of design engineers at a major manufacturing facility, for example, participated reluctantly at first, but then realized that their relationships changed because of the literature discussions and new levels of collaboration transferred into their work. They broadened the program to the shop floor and found that all levels of the organization benefited from sharing diverse points of view and developing more respectful – and productive  – relationships. At a warehouse facility, Books@Work participants relied on their newfound confidence and stepped up to fill a void in the sudden absence of their supervisor.

Edvard Munch, Eye-in-Eye, 1894, Munch Museum, Oslo, [Public Domain] via Wikiart

Edvard Munch, Eye-in-Eye, 1894, Munch Museum, Oslo, [Public Domain] via Wikiart

We have seen that the seminars enhance self-respect and mutual respect.  One participant working at a regional health center recalled,

“I really learned from people and it didn’t matter what our titles were, as far as our job. We were all people learning together, understanding how people can get along and how people can be misinformed as well as misunderstood.”

Another described recognizing a coworker with new respect:

“You see someone at different levels and you make assumptions about them. When many of us were struggling with the stories, one of the ladies—not a highly educated person—took that story and explained it in a way that was spot on. It was amazing to see someone who could pick up so much from her life experience. It was neat for us to see her in a different way.”

At the same time, participants report feeling boosts in their self-confidence after a seminar. “I feel like I’m so smart now” a participant said after reading and understanding a challenging book. A number of participants have begun to see themselves as lifelong learners and are seeking more formal education, professional development or on-the-job training.

The game-changing outcomes of Books@Work come not from praise or superficial affirmation, but rather from meaningful conversations that demonstrate a person’s ability to contribute in a unique and substantive way to the ethos of the workplace or the community. Across the country, people in Books@Work programs are talking to people they have never known. They are gaining insights into the life experiences of their coworkers. They are seeing that some of the assumptions they made about each other are not accurate. They are recognizing that each person has a unique contribution to make to the workplace and to the larger community.   

Image: René Magritte, Infinite Recognition, Belgium, 1963 [Public Domain] via Wikiart

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.