At Books@Work, we find books and short stories that generate meaningful discussion and encourage colleagues to share more of themselves. As one participant shared, a good book “makes it easier to break down people’s issues and have difficult conversations, because it’s hidden behind the cloak of the material.”
For many groups, a “good book” is a novel with dynamic characters and ethical dilemmas. For others, it might be a nonfiction narrative like Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which often resonates with engineers and manufacturing employees. But some books, like James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water, find success and provoke powerful discussions with groups across the board.
What is the book about?
On November 1, 2017, we gathered with veterans at the VA Domiciliary in Cleveland, Ohio to discuss Chinua Achebe’s short story, “Dead Men’s Path.” The VA Domiciliary – called the “Dom” – is a residential treatment facility for veterans. We were thrilled to facilitate a Big Read as the kickoff to our second Books@Work program with this group.
Our executive director began to read aloud, and the room fell silent after a few last murmurs. The rustling of paper, creaking of chairs, the scratch of Styrofoam coffee cups and Ann’s clear voice filled the room of over 60 veterans – of all ages – listening intently. As she arrived at the end of the first page, I heard the sweet swoosh of pages turning in unison and knew this session would be special.
Navigating our differences in the workplace is not easy. Learning to recognize and appreciate our diversity is even harder – especially when employees have few outlets to display their true selves at work.
A Harvard Business Review piece published in March explored this very idea with black women in the workplace. “A lot of women told me that they code-switched,” wrote author Maura Cheeks, “which involves embracing the dominant culture or vernacular among certain groups (like co-workers, for example) and switching to a more authentic self when around friends and family.”
How can companies create space for colleagues to unmask and discuss their unique experiences and differences?
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?
The media is abuzz this week with Starbucks’ commitment to erase bias and foster inclusion within its ranks. This profoundly important step serves as a potent reminder that the majority of workplaces – even those that have begun to seriously address diversity – have not cracked the code on true inclusion. Sophisticated algorithms replace (flawed) human judgment to diversify hiring, and a wave of research on unconscious bias has created sufficient awareness to create pause before decision makers rush to judgment. Most companies would agree, however, that they have yet to find a good and scalable approach to create a culture of inclusion.
We designed Books@Work to help address this critical challenge. We define inclusion in the broadest sense: we encourage not only divergent gender, race and cultural perspectives, but also the unique belief-sets driven by our upbringing or the fact that we now are engineers, accountants, marketers or IT professionals. For Books@Work, inclusion is about creating and nurturing a culture that fosters mutual respect and invites the whole person to the table. But how exactly do we do that?
Happy Friday! We’ve compiled our favorite articles and essays from the last month for you to browse and enjoy over Memorial Day weekend.
Most conversations about diversity & inclusion lump the two concepts together – so much so that they become indistinguishable. A recent piece from Big Think, part of a series on D&I sponsored by Amway, stresses the importance of identifying and verbalizing the difference between the two:
“In the workplace, [diversity is] about giving equal opportunity to all individuals, regardless of the social groups they belong to. ‘It’s easy to measure diversity: It’s a simple matter of headcount,’ say Laura Sherbin and Ripa Rashid in their article in Harvard Business Review.” So how does that relate to inclusion?
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.
Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to consider your reactions to and assumptions about the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Grab a friend, family member or colleague to read, share and discuss together.
A prolific author of novels, nonfiction books, short stories, screenplays and more, Dave Eggers was raised in Lake Forest, Illinois. At age 21, he withdrew from college to care for his 8-year-old brother after losing both parents to cancer, events that are chronicled in his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His narrative essay “The Man at the River” appeared in Granta Magazine and tells the story of an American tourist in Sudan who is faced with a choice when he’s asked to wade across a river.
As you read “The Man at the River,” consider the many ways we navigate cultural difference and barriers to understanding.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a flood of women have come forward to shed light on another serious challenge they face at work: the “boys’ club” culture that exists across many industries. It permeates traders in the stock market, chefs in the restaurant industry and programmers in Silicon Valley. It’s in the advertising industry, where 180 female executives have launched a new initiative to bridge a glaring gender gap. And it’s in the music industry, where one female songwriter says that opportunities for women to develop are few and far between.
Recently at the 90th Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand concluded her acceptance speech with a directive for Hollywood executives: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Hiring more women is a crucial first step. But the authentic inclusion of women necessitates taking a hard look at a general corporate culture that makes 81% of women feel some form of exclusion at work.