Nobody wants a book club

Jonathan Woahn

…or at least a “corporate” book club

What happened the last time someone invited you to a book club at work? Were you intrigued? Or did it feel like trying to squeeze one more thing onto an already overflowing plate?

Over the years, our team has conducted hundreds, if not thousands of conversations with people about their experiences with book clubs at work. Responses from people ran the full gamut, with some despising their experiences, and others approaching theirs with a sense of religious fervor rarely found outside that of major league sport fans.

It may not surprise you to learn that the majority of people fell somewhere in between—solidly ambivalent about their experiences.

What may surprise you, however, is why a company called “BookClub” is writing about this at all?

It’s because amidst the sea of emotions, we uncovered a valuable jewel:

Regardless of the reasons for starting the book club, nearly everyone had the same vision for their desired outcomes

And this is where the magic is.

In this article, we’ll dive into the discovery of what we learned about what people hate about your typical “corporate” book club, discuss the outcomes that people are looking to create when they start a club, and share some ideas on how you too can create a better book club at work.

What comes to mind when people think of a “corporate” book club

From our conversations, these are the top 5 response we’ve heard as to why people don’t want a book club.

1. “It feels like forced socialization”

It can be a struggle to connect with colleagues on topics outside of work in the best of circumstances. The shift to hybrid and remote work in recent years further reduced impromptu interactions. And yet it’s natural especially for young or new employees to seek connection with others at work. Book clubs may seem like the de facto answer to generate connection while also producing alignment or upskilling.

However the workplace setting presents drawbacks to this reasonable instinct. As friends, two or more people tend to share root nodes of a connection, whether through their background, hobbies, group activities, or other interests. 

At work, the depth of two individual’s shared connection rarely extends beyond their work responsibilities. Where the conversation during wine and books with friends can endure even if most in the book club haven’t read the book—because of their prior connection—the same ease of conversation and mutual interest in attendees doesn’t often exist in a workplace book club. As a result, exchanges and discussion can feel forced, especially on topics that aren’t directly related to work.

2. “I’m not interested in the book”

How many times have you ignored the maxim not to judge a book by its cover? (Or by its author, topic, theme?)

The first impression of a book or topic chosen by a leader is part of the “judging a book by its cover” that either generates interest or extinguishes it.

Facilitators try to avoid selecting books they believe may yield low engagement. However, they face a dilemma when deciding whether to choose a book that is relevant to their role or one that they are genuinely interested in. This decision involves balancing the tradeoffs between relatedness and connection, as well as higher-level goals such as alignment and upskilling. As a result, it can be challenging to make the right choice.

If your team or colleagues have preferences for specific genres—whether sci-fi/fantasy, self-improvement, or memoirs—there is yet another hurdle to overcome.

Books read at work have an additional “cover” to overcome and be judged upon. While the book club is at work, book club organizers tend not to want to make these settings feel like work, because an otherwise interesting book could be made less engaging precisely because it is being introduced and read in a workplace setting.

3. “This feels like homework”

We’ve often heard that reading schedules turn off interest. 

“Read to chapter 3 by next Friday and we’ll discuss.”

If that doesn’t sound like homework, we’re not sure what does.

A schedule starts to create a conversation in people’s minds: “I already have enough on my plate at work without being assigned ‘homework’”, “It’s just just not going to happen.”, “Is this for personal enjoyment or to tackle a conflict we have at work?”

Whether or not a schedule is provided, guidance on expectations related to when to read is touchy. Should the book be read during work or on an employee’s own time? There’s often an negative perception of reading at work, even when it is made clear this is an acceptable use of time. 

Some people feel guilty reading at work. Others will see their actual work as higher priority and put off reading until just before the book club meeting. If they do read at work, their concentration and attention may not be optimal to wrestle with new material in order to draw true insights.

If they are reading on their own time, the book better be interesting to them or the chances they will read it are slim to none. There’s simply too many personal life matters to take care of outside work. Even avid readers may have a few books going at once, but adding another that isn’t in their wheelhouse becomes a bit much.

4. “I don’t read physical books”

Today, there are so many ways to consume books other than the physical. The plethora of online audio book providers like Audible or Libby; digital books that can be read on the iPad or Kindle; and the many, many book summary services like FourMinuteBooks, GetAbstract and Blinkist.

This critical component to get people in your club to read the book plays a tremendous role in book reading. Some people on your team may only have “alone” time in their car on their drive to work, so audio books are critical. Others may be voracious readers, and as such have 1000 books on their Kindle which they carry everywhere so they can read all the time, and thus don’t have capacity for physical books.

If the book club doesn’t meet the people where they are, the odds of them reading and participating drops dramatically. Even if your company has a reimbursement policy for book purchases of any format, it’s just another hurdle they have to jump in order to get the book.

5. Uhhh, why are we doing this?”

Perhaps most important of all for engagement is communicating why. Why this book? Why right now? Why are we using a book club format to address and discuss it?

We heard about teams receiving a book and thinking it was a gift, but didn’t realize their leader who sent it believed the book was mission critical and wanted everyone on their team to read it. This simple miscommunication can completely derail the conversation before it even leaves the station.

Failing to articulate the Why means alignment won’t happen and operationalizing the ideas in the book cannot happen.

The desired outcome of book clubs at work

So if these are the types of reactions so common, why do people even try to do a book club at work?

Through our conversations, regardless of role or tenure, we found that nearly every person we talked to who had started or participated in a club had similar reasons for doing so, or what they hoped it would create/deliver. These are the top 3 that stood out:

1. Build connections

Far and away, this is one of the most consistent themes—teams are looking for ways to build stronger connections with each other. They’re looking for ways to improve communication skills like agile thinking and active listening, build common interests, and gain empathy for their colleagues way of thinking and experiences. 

And for good reason, they choose a book club to do this. Through our conversations, we’ve heard stories of teams that started book clubs that completely transformed how they work together.

Through earnest conversations and sharing of personal experiences, teams were able to become more vulnerable, build trust and reliance on one another in a way that would have been difficult-to-impossible had they not set aside the time for the deliberate discussion.

When a team is in sync on vision, mission, and immediate project goals, individual contributors on those teams can make better real time decisions efficiently. Book clubs create an atmosphere of conversation that organically contributes to stronger bonds and connections. 

2. Operationalize key ideas

Oftentimes an individual on a team will read a book on their own for personal reasons, where a key idea (or multiple ideas) resonate with a challenge they’re facing at work. The thought process always follows something along these lines:

“Wow, this book exactly describes the situation I’m facing with my team! If I could get everyone on my team to read this book, I think we could solve this issue!”

So what’s the natural reaction? Book club! Let’s read the book, and discuss it!

When leaders know there are 2-3 key ideas embedded or explicit in a particular book, those concepts can be discussed and operationalized swiftly through a book club setting where the preparation, face to face interaction, and real time conversation allow ideas to be synthesized and to properly sink into individual team members’ daily approach to their work.

3. Address challenges

At times, teams run across challenges they aren’t sure how to take on. Perhaps they’re struggling with team unity, trust, or empathetic communication. Perhaps the company has done layoffs, and people are worried about their jobs. Perhaps the team is under pressure to deliver, and they aren’t sure how to do what has been asked of them.

For nearly every challenge out there, some expert on the topic has likely written a book for it. In these types of situations, books can provide a sort of “pseudo-therapy” for teams, and play a “third party” to help provide guidance on how to navigate the issue. 

The book helps to create common language and shared understanding around the key ideas, that gives the team the tools to be able to discuss and tackle challenges more effectively. The book club creates a natural forum to conduct those discussions.

How to run an effective book club at work

The reasons for wanting to start a book club are powerful—truly transformative when properly applied. At the same time, the challenges preventing most book clubs from being effective are real and constant. So, how can you generate the desired outcomes without running into the same challenges?

Here’s how we’d attack the previous challenges, in reverse order.

5. “Why this book?”—Tell them why!

The first thing you have to decide is the purpose for your book club. Odds are the purpose of the book club is not to read the book, but likely something more elevated, like the 3 desired outcomes listed above.

Once that is clear, then your next step is to communicate the reason for wanting to read a particular book. Make it clear, make it personal, make it relatable. People need to feel the urgency associated with a book, and clearly understand what you hope will be different after having read the book.

An effective “Why” will typically touch on the following key points:

  • Clearly outline the vision. What is the one think you hope will be different after having read this book?
  • Provide context. Why now? Why this book? If you’ve read the book previously, what impact did the book have on you?
  • Share your expectations. Talk about the purpose of the book club, and what your care most about. Make it personal.
  • Referencable. While delivering your “why” in person can be inspiring, make sure it’s documented in a way that people (and yourself) can refer back to it, either in written text or video.

By clarifying the why, the first step of purposeful engagement with your teams can be met.

4. “I don’t read physical books”—Let them choose

Often times individuals aren’t given an option on how to engage. Leaders buy copies of the book, and send it to everyone on the team. So here’s a crazy idea—what if you let people choose how they want to engage? Let them choose physical copies if they want it, or audio, or digital.

You could even provide options like book summaries from GetAbstract, Blinkist or Four Minute Books. Want to get even crazier? Don’t require them to read the book.

Heresy you say? Maybe. But you need to remember the “Why”, or objective for the book club. Is the goal to read a book, or is the goal to create a specific outcome or change in your business or team? Make sure your actions align to your priorities. If people don’t want to read the book in any format, then provide them with the resources that can help them to be successful and participate in the experience regardless.

This may look like sharing key points, summarizing specific chapters, or equipping them with a few questions to think about on their own before engaging in conversations. What’s most important is you get everyone talking and thinking in the same direction—and you can get creative on how to get everyone involved.

3. “This feels like homework”—Remove the requirements

Set expectations for participation. Let members know how much time you’d like to see dedicated to the book club every week. Especially if you provide them options on how to consume the content, as described previously, it helps empower team members to work those expectations into their schedules.

In our conversations, the part of a book club that creates the largest impact is the conversation. The most interesting part? Most of the time, the conversation isn’t about the book. 

It’s usually about the ideas in the book, or tangential ideas to the book.

So if you help your team members to understand that the main requirement is participation in the conversation, suddenly the bar for expectations is very different than a prescribed reading schedule.

Set up the conversation schedule in advance. If you want to put some structure to it, share the goals of what you want to discuss in each conversation, and provide some guidance on key ideas or chapters from the book that could help provide some context for the conversation for those who wish to prepare beforehand.

But what’s important is you want engagement, you want participation, you want everyone to feel like they’re a part of the conversation, and one of the best ways to do that is to change where you focus your energies on in the club.

That said, is it helpful when everyone reads the book? Undoubtedly. It allows the conversations to get much more tactical and specific, and more quickly helps everyone build common language and shared understanding even faster. However, don’t let that requirement become an obstacle—in our experience, it’s just not worth it.

2. “I’m not interested in the book”—Spark their curiosity

Even if a book is typically not something team members would normally read, igniting a bit of interest at the beginning by carefully articulating the why plants the seed for alignment and upskilling as well as sets the tone for the purpose of the book club.

There are multiple ways you can do this, here are some suggestions:

  • Create your “hook”. Like a movie trailer, what can you do to spark interest? Start with a compelling anecdote from the book. Tease a cliffhanger story. Use a compelling image representing the story, a framework, a video, or fan content that your team can relate to.
  • Take feedback. Ask them what books / topics they would be interested in. Have your team make recommendations and help provide input. One way is to create a rotation of who selects the book, and then set the expectation around participation (and again, not necessarily reading). 
  • Shift the focus. Align the book to a challenge in the business, and then make the focus of the club about problem solving instead of directly about the book. We’ve found the highest level of engagement usually occur when it’s aligned with a topic that everyone in the business can relate to.

1. “It feels like forced socialization”—Don’t make it a social experience

While fiction books in the workplace can be a lot of fun, sci-fi, fantasy and romance novels typically have pretty niche interests, and when workplace book clubs are focused on these types of books, it can definitely lend and air of forced socialization. So unless the express purpose of the club is around one of these genres, or a title has direct relevance to the business, it’s probably best to avoid these genres.

If you make the book club more focused on organizational goals, building connections, or solving workplace challenges, then it starts feeling less like a social experience, and more like a targeted problem solving session. And everyone on your team has a perspective on challenges, and you can use the content and ideas from the book to help guide and direct your conversation towards more actionable outcomes.

What people actually want is BookClub

We’ve examined the top reasons why people don’t want a book club at work, the desired outcomes nearly everyone has when they start a book club at work, as well as some suggested tactics on how to run an effective book club at work.

That said, if you’ve read this far, then it turns out what you’re actually looking for is BookClub. You’re looking to create the desired outcomes of help your team build skills, operationalize key ideas and address your biggest challenges based on the thought leadership from the worlds best thinkers—all without having to take on the headaches associated with your traditional “book club”.

This is precisely why we have built BookClub. We help teams and leaders leverage big ideas from the best books to create experiences and conversations that help teams practice the power skills the unlock exceptional teams.

If you’d be interested in learning more, contact us and let’s talk more about what BookClub can do for you.

About the author

Jonathan Woahn is a results-driven professional with extensive experience in leadership, strategy, and startups. As the Cofounder and CXO at BookClub, he excels in driving customer satisfaction and creating additional value. Jonathan has a proven track record of establishing and growing demand generation functions, resulting in significant business growth. With a background in venture fundraising and commercial partnerships, he brings a wealth of experience in building successful ventures. Prior to this, Jonathan served as Chief of Staff to the CEO in multiple ventures, providing strategic planning and operational leadership. He also has a strong background in management consulting, where he led strategic initiatives for prominent clients, delivering impressive results in cost savings and operational excellence. Jonathan holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is fluent in English and Spanish. His exceptional leadership skills, strategic mindset, and dedication to excellence make him a valuable asset in any organization.

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