If I asked you to recommend a book to improve my business skills, what would you suggest? Would it be one of Dale Carnegie’s many sales strategy bibles or even an ode to the most sought-after business skill of all time — productivity? Perhaps you would lean into some autobiographical wisdom from Nike co-founder Phil Knight instead?
Whichever legendary business tome you would eagerly press into my waiting hands, I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t be a work of fiction. Made-up stories have no place in the world of business. An imaginary world couldn’t possibly hold any valuable lessons. In reality, though, those last two statements may well be the actual works of fiction.
Why Do We Read?
You might be tempted to contextualize the motive behind your literary consumption in terms of the type of book you are reading. Nonfiction is for learning, and fiction is for escapism. On the surface, this may be true, but there is one overriding reason we read both categories: to experience another person’s perspective.
In its rawest sense, any book is really a cumulation of perspectives on a given topic, whether the information around it is fact-based or fictional. Even the most research-heavy nonfiction books are crafted around the author’s view of that subject. With this perspective the great leveler, the line between which books are and are not “suitable” for business reading suddenly becomes a little more blurred.
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What Does It Take to Succeed in Business?
While factual knowledge of your industry, its market, and competitors is invaluable in achieving the business success you seek, it is only part of the equation. Many of the failures organizations experience have their roots in some element of human interaction. Poor communication, unhappy employees, substandard performance, and disconnected teams are all often the slow rot that eventually destroys a promising business. Honing in on literary content can help advance the more elusive “soft” skills.
Research suggests that reading fiction can help improve skills in three vitally important areas: empathy, critical thinking, and theory of mind. In addition, no matter what you’re reading, the very act of doing so, if done actively, helps tone our cognitive muscles. In the 20 years I spent in the corporate world and the last three I have spent as a creative entrepreneur, I cannot think of a single team that would not have benefited from a higher overall EQ, regardless of their cumulatively above-average IQs.
So exactly how can you use works of fiction to help develop you and your team?
Structured Vs Unstructured Engagement
How you approach introducing fiction reading to your team may depend on how much value you see in the dual bottom line. If you measure your organization’s success predominantly by your income statement, then you may go with an unstructured approach — share the idea with your team and let them decide if they want to pick up a novel over the weekend.
If you define success in equal measure by financial results and the happiness and health of your team, then a structured approach is the way to go.
You can either have your team vote on which books they think will be thought-provoking, or you can decide on an objective — for example, increasing empathy or exploring other cultures — and find a book that will facilitate that discussion. Short stories are a great place to start as they often have very clear themes and will be less intimidating to infrequent readers.
Short stories that will help your team focus on themes such as the ethics of care, responsibility, group attitudes and behaviors, and empathy include:
- The Man in the Well by Ira Sher. A group of children come across a man stuck in a well and, instead of coming to his aid, are drawn into a macabre game centered on taunting him with visits.
- As the North Wind Howled by Yu Hua. After being mistaken for the friend of a dying man, the narrator agonizes over the wisdom of revealing the truth to the grief-stricken family.
A few novels that include powerful themes of empathy, understanding others’ lived experiences, and critical thinking, include:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It may well have been on your reading list in high school or college, but it’s well worth a reread as an adult and especially when you are actively seeking out its valuable themes.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This tale of a father and son who share little more than genetics presents important talking points about how we see our differences with others.
Talk It Out: Facilitator-Led Discussion
While simply exposing ourselves to the themes of these books helps, your team will really strike gold if you discuss them as a group. When they are given permission to start conversations about fictional characters and situations, this helps facilitate discussions about themselves and their work that would have been difficult to initiate otherwise.
Even with a facilitator present to lead the discussion, to make it an authentic sharing experience, allow the group’s thoughts to go where they may, within reason. This is when the real nuggets are going to be produced. Smaller groups are easier to manage and ensure participation from everyone.
Reader, Come Home
Perhaps ironically, I’m going to suggest a nonfiction book to ground you on this fiction reading journey because, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer a little more science to back this up. Cognitive scientist and author Maryanne Wolf’s book Reader, Come Home draws on neuroscience, education, literature, philosophy, and technology to explain exactly why reading, especially fiction, is so valuable for our minds and our humanity.
Wolf’s resounding argument is that “the quality of our reading” is “an index to the quality of our thought.” If we want our own thoughts and those of our team members to be elevated, then we need to start thinking about what we are putting in to reflect what we would like to get out.