Working Strategies: Books for empowerment in the workplace

22 July 2023

Amy Lindgren

Are you headed to the beach for summertime reading? This might be a good year to break with the tradition of light-hearted magazines: If the sand is going to be egg-frying hot, your leisure books might as well have some substance to them. The following titles meet that standard, with each one touching on professional empowerment and growth.

Win When They Say You Won’t, by Daphne E. Jones, McGraw Hill, 2023, $27. This book sets the new standard for empowerment at work. As a Black woman who experienced any number of sexist and racist setbacks on her path to Fortune 50 executive roles, Jones knows a lot about self-empowerment. Even better, she knows how to translate affirmations and awareness into actions that move the needle.

The core of Jones’ approach is a four-part process she calls EDIT, for Envision, Design, Iterate and Transform. In essence, she creates a paradigm where individual workers start with themselves in developing a vision and plan, then create the process for becoming their new selves.

My favorite chapter is “From Unstuck to Stuck.” Here she provides measured, useful steps for scenarios ranging from managing internal politics to responding in meetings when someone takes your ideas. Like the best books in this genre, “Win When They Say You Won’t” targets a specific audience — Black women — but manages to apply universally to any worker who wants to move forward.

Arrive and Thrive: 7 impactful practices for women navigating leadership, by Susan MacKenty Brady, Janet Foutty, Lynn Perry Wooten, McGraw Hill, 2022, $28. Staying with the women in the workplace theme, this title was written by a team of three academics and executives with an emphasis on women’s high-level leadership.

Although it’s a lighter and quicker read than Jones’ book, “Arrive and Thrive” covers some key areas for personal development as a leader: authenticity, courage, resilience, for example, as well as steps for investing in oneself and creating a healthy team environment. A robust index and extensive set of references adds value and the opportunity for further exploration.

Power to the Middle: Why managers hold the keys to the future of work, by Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, Emily Field, Harvard Business Review Press, 2023, $32. Here’s a radical question: Why do we assume middle management is full of people who couldn’t get any farther in their careers? Even more radical: What would happen without middle managers?

In “Power to the Middle,” authors Schaninger, Hancock and Field tackle our spoken and unspoken biases about middle management, while firmly establishing this level as its own valuable professional arena. Writing for both the managers and their senior leaders, the authors trace the roots of the middle management role while making the case for respecting and investing in workers at this level.

By encouraging new thinking about middle management, this book challenges our collective image of a corporate pyramid, with everyone supposedly scrambling for top positions. Instead, it argues for the inherent purpose of roles in the middle, and even provides advice for turning down promotions when they don’t feel right.

At the same time, the authors acknowledge that some managers may need demotions, based on having been promoted without aptitude for the role. As always, when it comes to work there are few easy answers. But there’s a nifty mantra in this case, which the authors share: “The talent of management is the management of talent.”

The Anxious Achiever: Turn your biggest fears into your leadership superpower, by Morra Aarons-Mele, Harvard Business Review Press, 2023, $30. Do you struggle with anxiety and other mental health barriers that hold you back at work? If so, start your reading with this book. This is the level of empowerment you need to make full use of the advice offered elsewhere.

Introducing herself as “a leader with chronic, clinical anxiety,” Aarons-Mele writes from her personal and professional experience in presidential politics, corporate America and tech startups — anxiety-producing workplaces by any measure. As she marches the reader through appalling statistics revealing workplace anxiety as a global and rising epidemic, the question arises: Why isn’t this discussed more? Her answer: Shame. It’s not something most people feel they can talk about, particularly at work.

As the host of “The Anxious Achiever” podcast, the author has been on a one-person crusade to change that dynamic. In this book by the same title, she has collected anecdotes, research and survival tips to help the reader break the cycle of anxiety and shame. What could be more empowering?

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Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at [email protected].

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