Empathetic organizations

(Perhaps someone with more humanities background will tell me whether this title is right, or whether I should have gone with “empathic,” instead. On the other hand, I read too much Anne McCaffrey at too young an age to use the word “empathic,” when another option is available.)

I have three blog posts started, no joke; when it rains, it pours. But I just read this amazing post by Whitney Hess and wanted to comment on it right away. Seriously, go read it. I’ll wait.

Excellent, right?

I know I’m doing that “everything I read is secretly about libraries” thing, but in this case, it definitely applies. I had a giant basket moment, while reading it.

I feel like it’s too easy for a library staff to become apathetic to each other and to our patrons; I’ve experienced some really apathetic library staffs, in the past, and I’ve seen both sides of the apathy/empathy contagion, in my current workplace. (Spoiler: We’re doing super well, right now.) I think this is always going to be a battle for us, as a profession, because the people drawn to work in libraries, by and large, are rules followers; we like for things to be orderly, and we each have a clear definition in our head of what that means. Quite a few of us have an over-developed sense of right and wrong, and we apply it in places where we probably shouldn’t—this has been a struggle for me over the past few years, but it’s getting easier with practice.

I was going to talk about bending the rules for patrons, here, but 1) it seems obvious to me that we should do this, and 2) I think you’ve got to fix an organization from the inside out to be effective. Empathy between coworkers directly improves the service you provide to your patrons. (You can be empathic to patrons without being empathic to coworkers, but that leads you down a bad organizational road. You end up with different factions warring against each other, nominally for the good of the patrons, but without actually finding the common ground needed to make decisions and improve services.)

I’m not sure if this is universal, or if it’s something about the personality types drawn to librarianship, but here’s an observation: we find it easy to shut down our compassion, to focus on right and wrong, and to point fingers, especially when the person we are finding fault with is a coworker. We feel like coworkers “should know better,” right? Who hasn’t heard the declaration that (for instance) front-line staff are prima donnas, or back of the house staff are not customer service oriented? People give serious, for-real conference talks about the fundamental, irreparable differences between IT professionals and librarians. (Excuse me? I’m both, thankyouverymuch, and it’s not that wide a gulf.) As a profession we seem to draw battle lines where are none are needed, and we focus on what our colleagues are doing wrong, or what frustrates us about them, rather than trying to see things from their side. As far as I can tell, we’re all guilty of this, to some extent. And probably a little bit of blowing off steam is normal and healthy, as long as you remember to step back and try to understand, afterward. I just think we tend to leave out that second step.

We’ve probably all been on one side or the other of this dialog (maybe both!):
“I have to teach an instruction session tomorrow, and [whatever] is not working.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t guarantee it will be working by tomorrow. I’ll do my best.”

Both people have legitimate constraints, and both are trying to do their job as well as they possibly can. But how often does this dialog end in anger, on both sides? Pretty often, if both ends aren’t working to be compassionate. Or empathetic, in Hess’s terms.

Applying this to my primary responsibility, the library website (and being more honest than maybe I should, in writing): the website is, understandably, a contentious issue. In trying to follow principles of user-centric design in the library environment, I find myself having good and bad moments, on this empathy/apathy spectrum. In bad moments I get frustrated to the point of tears that everyone in the library feels qualified to tell me how to do my job (but, I grumble, nobody seems to want my input on theirs); I feel insulted that people don’t trust my judgment, or my knowledge of website design, user centricity, etc. In short, I get very wrapped up in my own view of things, and I slide away from empathy for my coworkers. But at good times—and I am developing the discipline to make these times far outnumber the bad—I am cool and happy and empathetic, remembering that we are all just trying to create the best website and best library we can; I focus on the value of letting people have their say; of hearing thoughts/suggestions I hadn’t considered; of getting buy-in on issues that are important to me; of presenting, discussing, and analyzing ideas; and of building relationships (and hopefully trust) over time. I remember that people feel threatened by change, that they are worried they will not do their jobs as well if certain changes occur. I realize that change can be iterative, and we can go with what feels to me like the “wrong” answer in the short term, but we can still consider the “right” one—or something even better that we haven’t yet thought of—later. On these good days, I have a tremendous amount of empathy for my coworkers, and it shows.

Here’s the thing I’ve noticed: when I am able to make that empathy visible, showing that I understand people’s constraints and concerns (if not all of the specifics, then at least that they have constraints and concerns, which I am willing to try to understand), that I am interested in discussing their ideas, and that I, in short, care about working collaboratively with them, then I feel like we all come out feeling better about our jobs. I also reap concrete benefits: when I have been able to display empathy, for instance in an all-library meeting about the website, then I find that more of my coworkers display empathy back to me. People are generally kinder and more open-minded, and they will tend to use a gentler approach when offering critiques and ideas, the next time we meet. It’s a big, happy spiral.

I should make it clear that this isn’t me patting myself on the back: frankly, my own empathy is far easier to hold on to when others are being empathetic in return. It is hard for me to value the dialog and think about buy-in when I feel that I am being attacked; and when people give unkind, non-constructive feedback I have a hard time not becoming defensive. I’m working on learning to stop, take a deep breath, quell the defensive/apathetic impulse, find out what the core of the person’s disagreement is (rather than stopping at the ugly frosting), and be constructive, when this happens, but I’m still a work in progress, on that front (and who isn’t?). Conversely, when people are polite, asking questions (instead of making demands), and generally approaching the discussion in a compassionate/empathetic way, it triggers my compassion and empathy, in turn. I’ve worked very hard to be mindfully empathetic (though I wouldn’t have put it that way before reading Hess’s blog post), but I wouldn’t have made the kind of progress I have without the cooperation of my coworkers. I have been an agent for positive change, but not the only one. Not even necessarily the first one; it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that I jumped on someone else’s bandwagon, with this, rather than people jumping on mine. We all probably think it was our own idea, though, and isn’t that sort of awesome?

(No, it isn’t perfect. We still have bad days and bad meetings, and there’s still frustration. But this is a better place to work, over all, than it was two years ago, without massive staff turnover or any of those other things you might want to credit for the changes. I really, truly believe it was just a few people making an effort to improve their behavior and outlook—and more people being caught in the spiral over time.)

Clearly, I believe Hess’s statement that empathy and apathy are “contagious.” I also believe that, if your library organization isn’t functioning as well as it should be, YOU have the power to change it. It will take time. It will take a couple of early adopters, whom you influence to be more empathetic/compassionate/positive (pick your term), to help you reach critical mass. But it is completely doable. And completely necessary if you want your library to show the agility and responsiveness needed to thrive over the next few decades.

So don’t complain about poor institutional culture. Fix it!

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About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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One Response to Empathetic organizations

  1. Pingback: Writing as a new [web] librarian - Web Librarian

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