Some of the best Books@Work books spur conversations about what it means to be human. These books shed light on universal issues: family, work, identity, relationships and more. But sometimes, a good Books@Work book resonates with a group because it seems to exist specifically and solely for them. One such book is Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures tells the nonfiction story of three African-American female mathematicians who operates as “human computers” at NASA during the Space Race. The women endured racial discrimination and gender barriers, often receiving little or no credit for their extraordinary contributions. These themes prompt discussions about a variety of unique issues facing Books@Work participants in the workplace.
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?
What do Books@Work participants read? The short answer: books, short stories, plays and more. Rich narratives – from literary fiction to memoirs – introduce us to new ideas, build genuine connections and foster more inclusive workplaces and communities. Before each program begins, we survey participants for their preferences, consult with professors and draw upon the knowledge and experience of Books@Work staff to choose the readings.
While some groups prefer books, others stick to one short story per session. Over time, we’ve found that certain short stories succeed with a wide variety of groups – executive leadership teams, police officers, healthcare workers and veterans alike.
One particularly successful Books@Work story is Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path,” the tale of young, energetic Michael Obi, who takes a new role as headmaster of a Nigerian school in 1949.
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?
I was stunned recently when a group of Books@Work participants zeroed in on love as a core theme in a story. The setting was powerful: a group of police officers, police academy cadets and city residents meeting in an urban day care center to discuss Langston Hughes’ story, “Thank you Ma’am.” The story centers on Luella, a large woman and a “force to be reckoned with”, who overpowers a young boy when he tries to steal her handbag. She drags him home (literally), cleans him up, feeds him, listens to him and sends him home with an experience far greater than the one he bargained for!
In short, the participants said, she showed him love. Tough love. “We have co-opted love to mean only eros,” said one participant, “but love is the most powerful force. Love grabs us by the throat,” but upholds dignity and respect and allows us to retain our voices.
Love has a long and storied history – and it’s complex. The ancient Greeks had at least four distinct words for love: Philia (fraternal love), Storge (familial love), Eros (erotic love but also the love of beauty) and Agape (divine or compassionate love). But what’s love got to do with work?
The parochial elementary school I attended did not approve of Halloween. Instead, on October 31st, they would throw a “Fall Carnival” that featured wholesome fun. My parents were not quite willing to co-sign the view that Halloween was innately evil, so my sister and I usually split our time between a Halloween party at the nearby library and the school event.
In fourth grade, I was near the apex of my once-consuming obsession with Harry Potter. That year, nothing would do but a Dumbledore costume. My mom made dress robes and we found a beard, a wig, a hat and a wand.
The people at the library were most impressed by the costume. Everyone loved having a Dumbledore there and, in fact, the whole party was Hogwarts-themed. I was surrounded by witches and wizards sprouted from J. K. Rowling’s imagination. About an hour later, I followed my sister into the school gym, flowing white hair and beard covering my head, and long robe trailing on the ground behind me. Mrs. West, the third grade teacher, wrapped me in an enormous hug and said, “Tim, what a lovely costume. You make a wonderful Moses.”
When Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition in June, interviewer Steve Inskeep posed a question about the uncertain future of artificial intelligence in the workplace: “Are you. . . scared by the prospects of AI getting out of control?”
“I don’t really worry about machines thinking like people,” Cook replied. “I worry about people thinking like machines.” The real cause for concern, he added, is the potential “absence of humanity” and “deep thought” in the corporate world.
Cook’s response immediately reminded me of Ken Liu’s “The Regular,” a short story that we have used in Books@Work programs and discussed together as a team. The premise is simple: police detectives in a not-so-distant future have been outfitted with devices that regulate their decision-making functions. If the regulator detects too much emotion behind a decision, it will nudge the brain to be more logical, no matter the consequences. In other words, what happens when people think like machines?
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?