We all love a good story. As a child, way past my bedtime I would sneak and strain my eyes using the streetlight shining through my bedroom window to continue my adventures – whether it was opening the wardrobe to the land of Narnia, sadly discovering where the red fern grows or winning a golden ticket to a chocolate factory with Charlie and Grandpa Joe. (For the record, mom, this is not the reason I eventually needed eyeglasses.)
Stories have a profound impact on us – they inspire us, change the way we think and feel, expand our imaginations, and drive empathy and understanding of other people and cultures.
There is science behind this. Storytelling may not seem like a hard-hitting business method, but it is. Research shows storytelling is one of the most underutilized, yet best approaches for change management. Something happens to our brains when we listen to stories. We can be transported into the characters themselves. We feel what they feel – joy, fear, embarrassment. This is known as neural coupling – a learning technique we humans used to survive by learning from other humans’ experiences.
Applying this science, the first-ever “human library” was created in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000 as a safe space for conversations that challenged stereotypes. It used a library analogy of lending people – rather than books – giving patrons an opportunity to talk to those they would not normally meet. We at Union Pacific borrowed this idea, flipped it, built a virtual platform and made it our very own.
Launched this summer, Union Pacific’s Living Library is like a regular library where books have been replaced by employees who have generously agreed to speak about their experiences. UP employees can scroll through a webpage searching for “human books” by name or theme. Topics include disability, family/parenting, immigration, LGBT+, mental health, race/ethnicity, traumatic experience, unique hobbies and passions, and veteran/military.
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Once a human book is selected, an online appointment app allows readers to schedule a 30-minute live, virtual meeting. An approved question guide is used during their meeting. If the human book allows for more open discussion, the reader can ask additional questions. When the reader is finished meeting with the book, they can return it and check out another.
Over 3,200 employees have engaged with the Living Library since its launch. More employees have stepped up to be a human book, and new releases are on the way. Fifty-four books are currently available for check out; some released just this month. And the project was honored with an Innovations in Diversity and Inclusion Award by Profiles in Diversity Journal.
The human books have been overwhelmed by the support received from fellow railroaders. Many experienced an enhanced feeling of belonging, finding it therapeutic to share their personal stories. The readers have enjoyed getting to know other railroaders across the system and have grown their cultural competency in a way they would not have thought possible in the workplace.
The Living Library creates an avenue for employees to make genuine and real connections with other employees at Union Pacific, bridging differences and building empathy.
Everybody has a story. The Living Library provides a way to share those stories – and you don’t have to stay up past your bedtime to do it.