A few years ago, an online debate broke out about relatability and its artistic value. After attending a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “This American Life” host Ira Glass tweeted about the play’s “fantastic acting” and humor – and yet his biggest takeaway was that “Shakespeare is not relatable.” In a scathing response, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead took issue with what she called the “scourge of relatability” and its recent critical influence. To demand that a work be relatable sets a troubling expectation, Mead wrote, “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.”
How much much do we need to relate to a text – or to people, new ideas, or even colleagues in the workplace – in order to accept and appreciate them?
At the beginning of his popular book on collaboration, Adam Kahane repeats a joke he heard on his first trip to Cape Town. He writes that when faced with overwhelming problems, “we have two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option is for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option is that we work things through together.”
While this joke has a humorous truth to it, it actually doesn’t require a miracle to work things through in business. Evidence shows that you can’t successfully solve problems through collaboration unless you have first prepared an ecology of mutual respect. Right now, summer gardens are bursting into color – but we must not forget that this growth is the result of nourishment and care. Successful collaboration in organizations may feel miraculous, but it comes out of a carefully-crafted environment that nurtures creative problem-solving. So how do we create that environment?
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 your career, you’ve worked with numerous companies on cultural transformation. Is there anything about Books@Work that is new for you? Is there anything different in how the program nurtures individuals and the community?”
There are several dimensions that are different. In my McKinsey days, the cultural transformation was always embedded in a business transformation and a performance imperative. We would ask what role culture played in achieving tangible business goals, whether that is sales growth, cost reduction, responsiveness, whatever it is.
I was initially skeptical about Books@Work because it did not tie directly to a business outcome. How would I know that I was actually making progress?
It is not only a simple cliché but also a cultural meme, that at the beginning of a new year, like the Roman god Janus, we reflect on the past and make plans for a different future. This meme represents a fundamental human urge to learn, change and develop new ways of being in the world. Essentially, it is an annual opportunity to focus on possibilities and to say, “That can be me.”
University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that two key questions guide our efforts to pursue what we can be: What are we actually able to do and to be? What real opportunities do we have to pursue our goals?
It’s hard to pick up a business journal without reading something on the importance of workplace culture, whether linked to productivity, employee contribution, creativity and innovation, or even physical workspaces. But how to create a strong, inclusive culture remains elusive, and the “right” starting point – more mysterious still! Should it be top down? We know that leaders are important models of desired behaviors. Or should it be bottom up? If we want every employee to consider his/her role in the culture of the organization, owning the challenge becomes critical. How should we organize our workplaces?
We are thrilled to include the voices of individuals who have experienced the Books@Work program. Today’s post was written by Kevin Williams, a Senior Service Supervisor at Fairbanks Morse Engine:
“Books@Work (B@W) is using a small piece of writing to foster easy conversation between team members to gain some mutual understanding of how we as individuals think and perceive different situations. We use stories and characters to trigger random conversations about similarities to our own experience, or point of view. We might explore alternate choices characters might have made, or maybe alternate endings. It’s always fun and interesting to see where the conversations go. A participant might just be having fun talking about a character or something, meanwhile the rest of us are learning a little about how to better interact with them.” Learn more about how Kevin’s Books@Work experience has helped him build better working relationships with his colleagues.
In a recent article for the New York Times, Charles Duhigg takes a close look at Project Aristotle, a Google initiative that sought the answer to one burning question: what makes a good team? As Duhigg explains – and employees everywhere know – modern worklife is a series of collaborations and interactions. Your ability to work on a team can make or break your success in an organization, while team productivity directly affects companies’ ability to deliver on their goals.
According to Duhigg, employees in Google’s People Analytics division sifted through decades worth of research on team productivity, while analyzing 180 teams throughout their organization.
We are delighted to unveil our newest project: a short film introducing Books@Work in multiple voices, especially those of our partners and participants. This video captures the enthusiasm we see every day, helping us to share the Books@Work model, why our company partners choose to work with us and the experience of Books@Work from a participant’s perspective.