Would you like to boost employee confidence? Improve empathy? How about encouraging curiosity and critical thinking across all levels of your organization? What if, in doing so, you could also foster a new sense of community and engagement? Now, imagine if I told you all you needed to do was to have them read books to do that?
It sounds crazy – but an organization called Books@Work is doing just that and seeing measurable results. Books@Work is still small enough that they are able to talk to each of the hundreds of participants (and the organizations for which they work) in their programs directly, one-on-one and get feedback. They’re small now, but they’re growing and they’re ambitious. They hope to engage 100,000 participants a year by 2023 and in doing so to take an active role in “fundamentally changing the national dialogue on learning and critical thinking.”1 How does an organization founded in 2009 hope to achieve that kind of an impact?
The idea is simple: Get people together in an informal setting that encourages critical thinking and learning. As people become comfortable talking to one-another and challenging each other’s ideas about a book none of them has read – an equal playing field – artificial barriers between work colleagues should begin to disappear, opening up greater opportunities for collaboration and engagement. From a Harvard Business Review with Books@Work’s Executive Director, Ann Kowal Smith, that’s precisely what’s happening. “While it is early days, we have seen quite a few cases already of supervisors telling us that they’ve seen people more willing to speak up, to share an idea, to disagree – it’s a lot more comfortable to practice in the seminar and then in the workplace, especially if it’s very hierarchical.”2
The program does more than just level the playing field and foster open discussion. That was just the first of the three lessons Books@Work learned and described in their annual report. The second lesson was that the impact of the program extends beyond the organization. The books tend to get passed around to family and friends and connections made in seminars and discussions tend to forge relationships that extend outside the group. Third, they discovered that people want to be challenged. Given a choice participants gravitated toward the most demanding titles, improving the chances of learning and growth from participation.1
That all sounds great, but what if you’re not ready for that kind of commitment? Can you get the same benefits from encouraging reading or starting a book club? Reading is always good, but independent enrichment doesn’t net you the collaborative benefits that you get from group discussion. Book clubs, though, can certainly help. Books@Work touts their faculty discussion facilitators who select books based on input from participants. These facilitators, who come from across a variety of disciplines, help the participants to discover insights about the works, the world, their coworkers and themselves, over the course of the sessions. If you have someone who can effectively lead a discussion, then a book club might be a perfect fit. No doubt it’s great to have those people available, but they may not be entirely necessary. Blogger Lisa Crocco wrote about a book club started at her company and saw many of the same benefits coming out of that group’s informal discussions.3
If you think a book club might benefit your organization, most sites recommend starting by gauging participant interest.4 After that, there are several websites that recommend resources for starting them and successfully running them – including the American Library Association.5 In the end, you have to figure out what works best for you and your colleagues, as every reading group takes on a life of its own and develops a personality unique to the people who are part of it.
Do you have a book club at your office? Are you trying to start one? Message us below if you have recommendations on great books or experiences you’d like to share!