Taking the Window Seat: Crafting a Collective Narrative at Work
March 7, 2018 | Ann Kowal Smith
Image: Natalia Goncharova, 1913, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org
As a child and an unstoppable reader, I was irresistibly drawn to headstrong female characters. Whether Harriet M. Welsch (of Harriet the Spy fame), Claudia Kincaid (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or Anne Shirley (of the infamous Anne of Green Gables), these young women felt like friends and soulmates: impetuous, energetic and, at times, a little noisy. Their stories invited me to reflect on my own experiences and, in particular, on the young woman I was and wanted to be.
Literature enthusiasts have long extolled the virtue of narrative to engage and delight individuals in this very way. Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Man is the storytelling animal. . . his stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood.” But both the hard sciences and the social sciences confirm what a good book makes us feel: narrative powers the connections between individuals. In his inimitable way, narrative scholar Jerome Bruner describes, “Our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us.” And the business world is catching on, with new energy for the strategic value of stories and storytelling in internal and external communications.
But narrative’s power to connect runs far deeper than the way we tell our brand story or the way in which we persuade others. One of the most powerful discoveries of Books@Work is the way in which literary narratives invite and encourage participants to share their personal stories and co-create a collective narrative that builds upon their shared experiences. Whether they see themselves in a character (as I did in those strong-willed girls of my childhood) or they find poignancy in a sentiment or a literary relationship, the text launches a joint exploration of three narratives at once: the literary narrative, the personal narrative and the collective narrative.For one group, this vibration between the three narratives came to life. A constantly-traveling global sales team read an excerpt of Helen McDonald’s lovely memoir H is for Hawk. Her focus on slowing down, on appreciating the captivating beauty of wild goshawks and the natural world they inhabit, surfaced a tension within the team about how to balance work and personal reflection during long hours of travel. The book gave them permission to explore this idea in ways they had never articulated. They discussed their personal use of time on long-haul flights and whether they needed to work or relax, mindful that the team’s leader always worked while flying. They agreed on the importance of “sitting in the window seat,” of taking time to think, refresh and recenter. The window seat became a shared metaphor within the team to “look at the world” or “take your time.”
Inspired by McDonald’s story, this particular team explored personal preferences and forged a collective story within the space of a single conversation. As reflected in recent narrative research, “Life draws on narrative for resources to imagine our identity and to interpret others, situations and the ‘real’ world.”
I ask myself often how this literary window into the real world contributes to a strong collective narrative, and I suspect that the answer lies in the indirect nature of its path. As John Kay writes in his recent book Obliquity, sometimes our most challenging issues are best solved when we approach them indirectly. This indirect approach requires you to see a problem or a challenge in a new way.
The members of this global sales team had personally felt, but never discussed, the delicate balance of personal and work time. McDonald’s story presented the opportunity to see this balance in an oblique way. In sharing their viewpoints, they found some allies but some colleagues with different perspectives. But they jointly concluded that even the hardest workers need time for reflection and rejuvenation. The team’s collective narrative became a part of their connective tissue, allowing them to develop both a shared language and a shared value: to carve out time for themselves and “take the window seat.”