By Barbara Bentley, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Almost two years ago, I joined the Next Big Idea Club, a box subscription book club where four authors, Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Adam Grant, and Daniel Pink, read and select two thought-provoking non-fiction books each quarter for our community of lifelong learners. While the insights are many, here are five that have made the greatest impact on my professional and personal growth. Perhaps these will speak to you, too.
1. Understanding Bias Can Alleviate Misunderstanding
While the idea of unconscious or implicit bias has become more widely known, Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD delves deep into the science underlying bias and Uncensored by Zachary R. Wood is a memoir that illustrates why it’s important “that people make an effort to use dialogue and disagreement to test their assumptions, to build understanding, and hopefully to cultivate greater empathy.”
While we can take comfort in realizing how the science of recognition, categorization, and selective attention affects all of us, we must take the next step to intentionally listen and talk to each other. As Dr. Eberhardt noted, “...living with diversity means getting comfortable with people who might not always think like you, people who don’t have the same experiences or perspectives. The process can be challenging. But it might also be an opportunity to expand your horizons and examine your own buried bias.”
Wood reminds us that context matters and that “we gain nothing from running and hiding from controversy or pretending that we can censor people we don’t want to hear from.”
When meeting someone new, have you asked yourself “what I can learn from them?”
2. Joyful Cultures Foster Joyful People (and vice versa)
In Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, he researched successful groups and found that their cultures were created by three specific skills:
- Build Safety
- Share Vulnerability
- Establish Purpose
To build safety, incorporate “belonging cues” that “consist of a steady pulse of interactions within a social relationship” – these send the message you care. Share vulnerability through “vulnerability loops”, where there’s a “shared exchange of openness” because “vulnerability doesn’t come after trust – it precedes it.” Purpose is powered by continual, emotional communication that reinforces “This is why we work. Here is where you should put your energy.”
In Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee’s research shows how our mood and productivity are influenced by our environment, across ten “aesthetics of joy”:
In thinking of these two books together, I’m reminded of the classic metaphor for culture: the iceberg. You’ve probably seen it, where a small portion of the iceberg is visible above the water and the larger portion is below the surface. Like the iceberg, Coyle’s and Lee’s ideas tell me that both the external and internal aspects of culture are essential to the whole and culture both acts upon us and responds to us. Rather than asking if we, or others, “fit” the culture, let’s consider how each of us can “add” to the culture.
How do you contribute to safety, shared vulnerability, purpose, and joy in your workplace?
3. Be Selectively Vulnerable to Find Balance and Success
Endure, by Alex Hutchison, uses research about the mind-body connection of ultra-athletes to teach us that we all have more potential than we realize. Hutchison says that endurance is “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop”, yet we can get comfortable with being uncomfortable because there is a difference between “apparent limits and actual limits.”
In No Hard Feelings, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy advise us to be “selectively vulnerable” by following steps like:
- figure yourself out
- regulate your emotions
- address your feelings without becoming emotionally leaky.
Leaders must weigh how much transparency is effective and must adopt a “vulnerability + path forward” approach in order to be realistic and optimistic.
In The CEO Next Door, Elena Botelho and Kim Powell share how their analysis of 17,000 leadership assessments led to four key behaviors that make great leaders:
- engage for impact
- relentless reliability
- adapt boldly
Engaging for impact must encompass selective vulnerability if we are to nurture effective relationships.
When’s the last time you saw a leader be vulnerable and did it inspire trust?
4. Transformation Lies at the Intersection of Idea, Power, and Decision
Loonshots by Safi Bachall, New Power by Jeremy Heiman and Henry Tims , and Farsighted by Steven Johnson offer lessons in how to nurture crazy ideas (a loonshot), spread ideas through the “participation premium” (a phenomenon of the new power platform of today’s connected world), and make better complex decisions (by applying skills that extend our vision). In my mind, they converge to fuel transformation.
How? Each is grounded in the diversity of thought. Johnson touts “a network of diverse perspectives” in several small groups to see situations as they truly are and to develop possible options. Heiman and Tims show us how ideas spread when they are “actionable, connected, and extensible”, building momentum through the new power of participation. Bachall offers example after example where “small shifts in structure, rather than culture…can transform a rigid team” and we need both “artists” and “soldiers” to succeed. These thought leaders illustrate that the power of individual and the power of the group can not only co-exist but can enable each other.
What “loonshot” idea do you have that’s worth spreading and are you farsighted enough for your vision to flourish?
5. Learning Really Is Lifelong
While the Next Big Idea Club is made up of a very diverse collection of individuals, our common thread is a love of learning. How do we become lifelong learners? Bradley R. Staats lays it out in his book, aptly titled, Never Stop Learning:
- learn from failure
- focus on process, not outcome
- ask questions
- recharge and reflect
- be yourself
- play to your strengths; don’t fixate on weaknesses
- embrace both specialization and variety
- learn from others
When we do this, Staats says we can become a “T-shaped person”, skilled in a broad range of things and expert in a specialty.
David Epstein, author of Range, would probably agree. In his book, Epstein makes a compelling argument for the value of being a generalist who samples many topics and experiences and that the very nature of doing so bolsters whatever specialty may be chosen.
What did you learn last week, however profound or mundane, and how has it changed you?
I’ve always considered Human Resources to be a diverse profession, requiring a range of interests and talents, where I can aspire to be a trusted advisor, a business partner, and a leader. My experience with the Next Big Idea Club not only furthers my professional relevance, it enriches my personal growth. I encourage you to step beyond your immediate sphere. You just might be pleasantly surprised.
Barbara Bentley is Chief Talent Officer at Catto & Catto LLP. Barb's 25+ year HR career has included generalist and specialist roles in a variety of industries including insurance, financial services, mutual funds, chemical manufacturing, and a law firm. She’s worked in large corporations, an ESOP, and small to mid-size companies, in Texas, Washington, and Colorado. She has served in an HR leadership role since 1999 focusing on talent acquisition, employee relations, development, and engagement & culture. Barb’s passions for excellence, love of learning, and dedication to people have been the central tenets of her career.