Truth Is, Business Books Need More Fiction

If empathy is the business buzzword, literature is the guidebook.

06/07/2016 6:30 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST
Justin Case
Lunch-time book club, anyone?

The titles of traditional business books are enough to make me want to have a cup of tea, a piece of toast and a little lie down. Smarter Faster Better; Grit; Winning; and Extreme Ownership are just some of the most popular titles listed on Amazon. No, traditional business books are not for the faint-hearted.

So I was surprised to read the Forbes list of the best business books of 2015. One was about the battle to save a beloved CEO; another focused on how loyalty can save a business and the planet. Others were about communication, conversation and psychology.

One was titled Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family, about US manufacturing company Barry-Wehmiller and its revolutionary approach to managing staff, focusing on loyalty and treating employees with dignity and respect. All of this points to a new emphasis on empathy in the workplace, improving both morale and business.

The importance of empathy in the workplace was highlighted in a Harvard Business Review study of almost 1,900 business executives, which identified the leadership skills business executives deemed the most important. Number one was empathy.

Researcher Ernest Wilson said he had not expected participants to rate a "soft" skill so highly. "Frankly, when empathy kept coming up in our research, I was surprised. All of the people we interviewed were serious business executives. Empathy was not the first virtue I associated with the rough and tumble of today's highly competitive business world."

And although the focus on empathy in the workplace and the new breed of business books is heartening, I wonder whether non-fiction is the best place for business managers and leaders to gain an understanding of empathy. I believe that Cloudstreet, Animal Farm or Harry Potter could be a better place to start.

Fine-tuning the ability to empathise is one of the greatest gifts that fiction can offer, enabling readers to step into the shoes of other people with lifestyles, beliefs and experiences that are different to their own. Fiction doesn't lecture the reader, or give bullet point instructions, but invites them to experience and understand differences through narrative.

Neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon University in the US have explored the capacity of literature to help the reader empathise with characters. They found that reading taps into the same brain networks as real life experience. Brain mapping revealed that when reading a fictional story, at a neurobiological level the brain is living vicariously through the characters, with the same regions of the brain that would be involved in watching someone moving in the real world lighting up. So, reading fiction involves flexing your imagination in a way that is very similar to the visualisation an athlete uses to activate the muscle memory.

While science may have confirmed this effect, writer John Connolly instinctively understood the power of reading fiction. "Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways ... It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being."

But, while business managers might prefer to relax with a light read, if they are hoping to improve their ability to empathise with staff and clients, they need to be a bit more selective.

A study published in Science revealed that popular fiction or non-fiction did not improve the reader's ability to empathise in the same way that literary fiction did. In the study, researchers gave participants different reading assignments and then tested their ability to infer and understand other people's thoughts and emotions. When study participants read non-fiction or popular fiction, their results were unimpressive, while when they read literary fiction, their results improved significantly.

Researcher David Kidd said he believed the difference between literary and popular fiction lay in the representation of personalities and behaviours in the two genres. In popular fiction, characters tend to be internally consistent and predictable, while the circumstances they might be responding to might be exceptional. This predictability does not challenge readers' expectations of others.

In literary fiction, characters tend to have more complex inner worlds, which is more consistent with the complexity and ambiguity of real life. "Often those characters' minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we're forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations," Kidd said. This encourages the reader to imagine the characters' inner dialogues, creating a greater psychological awareness of other people, or empathy.

So what can we make of all of this? How can we encourage employers and employees to read more novels? Perhaps in creating our modern workspaces, we should consider installing bookshelves stocked with literary fiction. Or we could set up a book exchange for employees to bring their used books and swap them for others. A lunch-time book club could have the dual benefit of building closer relationships between employees and fostering empathy. Or we could even take as small a step as including book recommendations in the weekly newsletter.

And fiction could be a recognised tool in educating the business and government leaders of the future, alongside both traditional and more progressive business literature.

Anything to encourage reading would increase the opportunity for workers to improve their empathy skills, which not only makes the workplace a happier place, but, in the experience of Barry-Wehmiller and other companies following its lead, also makes business sense.

For more on books and reading, visit Readability books blog.

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