Whether they are literally engaged in heavy lifting at a shipping facility, examining spreadsheets and account ledgers on computer screens in a manufacturing plant, or interfacing with customers at a health care provider, most American workers have busy work days. There are few moments for water cooler conversations, let alone deep reflection about their work. In such environments, it may seem counterintuitive—and a little bit naive—to ask employees to read. Not manuals on improving customer service or pamphlets on compliance with governmental regulations, but books. Real books. Weighty books with universal themes of love and loss, betrayal and acceptance, youth and aging. Books that have nothing to do with work.
Or do they?
The truth is that literature—whether a classic play or a contemporary novel—has everything to do with work. And given the chance to read and discuss books in seminars led by university professors, employees will make those connections explicit. Literature can be a lens for wrestling with tough ethical choices and for exploring attributes of successful managers and leaders, as Professor Joseph L. Badaracco has shown through his courses at Harvard Business School.
But literature has a place for employees at all levels of an organization—to share ideas and to find both common and diverse themes and perspectives. Our experience at Books@Work, a non-profit that brings professor-led literature seminars to the workplace, confirms that the power of literature as a tool for reflecting on work extends to all levels of an organization, from the custodian to the CEO. The literature, together with a thoughtful discussion, facilitates transformations of personal connectedness, respect, critical dialogue, and trust, both within and beyond the workplace.
In one case, reading About a Boy by Nick Hornby spurred a conversation about parenting that allowed group members to understand the experiences of a colleague with an autistic son. In another case, a white participant deepened her relationship with an African-American neighbor by sharing her copy of and inviting discussion about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
Reading literature in a group setting can also lead to a greater acceptance and appreciation of diversity, changing both attitudes and behavior, and leveling the playing field as participants at all hierarchical levels encounter a book for the first time. In one case, a participant who lived in a town with a large Afghan refugee population was transformed by the experience of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Whereas before, he reported viewing the Afghans in his community as taking government resources, he came to have more compassion for the plight of refugees through reading literature. In another case, participants found that reading Latin American short stories—texts with which both well-read and less well-read colleagues were unfamiliar—offered a way of breaking down organizational hierarchies and promoted respectful dialogue among all group members.
In other cases, works of literature allow for discussion and reflection about the work experience itself. A few unlikely titles have spurred deep conversation about workers' place in a company, the nature of the work those employees perform, and how to improve the experience of work for all.
For example, readers at a company that had recently acquired another organization read Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. The text offered a different way to reflect on the challenges of integrating two different cultures. The PEN/Faulkner Award-winning book tells the story of the community of San Piedro Island, near the Puget Sound, in the 1950s. Using the backdrop of a murder trial as a means of relating personal narratives of love, racism, and loss in the aftermath of the Japanese internment during World War II, the book explores the notion of "the other" from multiple perspectives, exposing fault lines and the potential for reconciliation in a community composed of culturally distinct groups subject to their own histories, biases, and interests, along with unequal power to shape their environments. While employees and leaders of both organizations that were merging had been asked to share their perspectives and guide leadership in making the integration successful, the book created a platform to share profound feelings of not being understood or appreciated in a non-confrontational way.
In another case, William Shakespeare's tragedy, Othello, became the unlikely space through which employees at a Cleveland-area company could examine their own work experience. When they were asked to consider what form a contemporary staging of Othello might assume, a number of participants chose the office. In this telling, the conniving Iago became a backstabbing co-worker, lying for personal gain. Othello was transformed from a Venetian military general to a modern-day boss, unable to figure out which advisor offered him the best information, and—tragically—willing to pursue Iago's implicit accusations to their logical end. The play offered readers a way to discuss ethical behavior in the workplace, leadership, and integrity in deeper ways than those typically permitted through workplace training on ethical decision-making.
Whether books are classical, popular, or somewhere in-between, the discussion of literature is more than a diversion from work. Instead, it offers a pathway for serious reflection on simmering issues at a particular worksite, on relationships with colleagues, and on ways to create a more cohesive, committed work environment for all involved. Companies hold the key for unlocking some of that potential for their employees, but books offer employees themselves a space for using their experience—as readers, workers, and people—as a form of expertise. Literature enables other sorts of conversations—the types of conversations that successful companies need to have.