Conflict Negotiation and Library Leadership

In my travels in and out of the LIS community, I try to pay special attention to various attitudes regarding supervisory and management roles. Personally, I like a rather democratic culture in which participation is encouraged and all voices are considered. Still, a cursory look around the LIS blogosphere reveals that these attitudes differ considerably from person to person. Different strokes, right? And so I’ve been moved lately to revisit some literature on collaboration and management styles and sift through some notes I’ve made on the topic, with particular focus on readings from Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups and Roger Fisher’s Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge, two fairly popular titles from which I’ve taken numerous cues.

Garmston’s “Adaptive School” is a philosophical framework for meeting the challenges of today while helping prepare leaders for the potential hazards of tomorrow. At the heart of an adaptive environment are collaboration, participation, and reciprocation. There is much more to collaboration than holding meetings and discussions for the sake of holding meetings and discussions. Conferences and all collaborative groups should practice certain behaviors and roles in order to achieve maximal production and efficiency.

Still, collaboration can breed conflict. Among the most compelling elements of The Adaptive School is the way it incorporates conflict negotiation. Garmston and, to some extent, Fisher, illustrate ways in which conflict is born, can escalate or be remedied, and can be productive. Librarians in and out of supervisory roles could certainly take some cues from the authors in preparation for the inevitable clashes that occur among colleagues. Garmston gives five different definitions of conflict. While one or two of these strike me as somewhat empty, if not just plain silly, I would agree, in principle, with his third definition, in which “conflict draws attention to both dimensions [danger and opportunity]… Opportunities emerge when issues and possible solutions remain the focus of disagreement.”

Many people have been citizens of what Garmston terms a counterfeit community. The primary goal of the counterfeit is to get along with one another. Some people are unable to maintain healthy working relationships due largely to stress and circumstance, rather than opposing personalities. That same pressure and stress may bring others in a group together. They may will themselves to find a clique and keep it tight. I’ve been a member of this type of group–one based on a mutual understanding that, given neither autonomy, nor authority, it’s very convenient to create a small, exclusive team that makes conflict avoidance a high-level priority.

In healthier professional environments, many practices proposed in The Adaptive School can be applied to create a much more open, more pliable culture, fit to deal with conflict as defined above. In Chapter 9, it seems the authors have attempted to address every situation of tension or crisis of even the most remote potential. Learning to “fight gracefully” is not just a compelling topic, but an essential skill. For many, it’s natural and perfectly sensible to always avoid conflict. But understanding that conflict does happen and is often unavoidable is more sensible and far more realistic. I tend to concur with Garmston that there is plainly such a thing as healthy disagreement–that there can be benefits to conflict. I might term this concept something like productive disagreement. Disagreement is meant to display opposing perspectives, which can certainly end in a stalemate. But the points of contention and argument can also prove illuminating to the participants and lead to more effective outcomes and more productive meetings and discussions.

Garmston suggests that conflict is, in fact, necessary for a community to function at peak level–that there is inherent value in negotiating productive conflict over conflict avoidance. Sometimes it’s preferable to circumvent conflict whenever possible–put a band aid on it and go back to work. But we have to know that the quick fix is neither permanent, nor totally healthful. As Garmston suggests, it’s just as important to understand the inevitability of conflict as it is to know how to deal with conflict. We must always be prepared for conflict because, sooner or later, personalities, needs, and wants will collide.

To take the concept of inevitability of conflict a step further, I’d suggest that we must also keep in mind that conflict cannot always be remedied. Sometimes, opposing participants may have to accept a stalemate, or compromise. However, in preparation for conflict, we must know that some fires cannot and will not be extinguished. In such cases, it’s often in the best interest of both team and dissident to part ways. And while it’s essential to understand that dissident doesn’t necessarily equal malcontent, groups simply do not have the time or energy to spend on mending seemingly unsalvageable relationships. After all, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Speaking of insanity, the graduate classroom is another interesting study. Given opportunities to operate as a team member and to participate in provocative group discourse, I’ve learned a number of things about human nature as it relates to adult students. While different people think and act differently, it’s important to note that very similar people may also have sharply opposite views and attitudes regarding specific topics and philosophies. They have contrastive motivations and react differently to stimuli. I’ve found the psychological culture of the graduate LIS classroom is vastly more complex and tenuous than I would have imagined. Perhaps it stands to reason that collaborative groups in the library environment operate in a similar culture—that different minds and personalities commonly clash where some people might never see the potential for conflict. Moving forward, it should move us all to be aware of the existence of these differences and the possibilities they imply and to be ready to negotiate conflict in situations that, on the surface, may seem thoroughly benign.

Side Notes on Garmston and The Adaptive School

I don’t know what comprises Garmston’s affiliation with world cultures, but his allusions to Eastern and African practices and social morays are clever and somewhat absorbing. His use of Akido to illustrate a tenet of the Adaptive School is surprising and borderline fabulous. I can appreciate his decision to seriously consider the basic premises of Akido as they may be applicable to school and business conflict resolution. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed the sample dialog—in one case, the conflict between the school principal and Ralph the maintenance guy. The way the two “dance with the energy” of conflict negotiation may enlighten your sensibilities on the topic. If not, it should, at least, inspire you to read on.

In Chapter 11, Garmston discusses professional communities and interconnectivity. He alludes to Eastern philosophy to illustrate communal connectedness as a principle of the Adaptive School. Connectedness is not a complex concept and can be exceedingly useful where relationships are concerned. Certainly, it poses a challenge for those professionals who are not so willing to be connected, but who prefer to operate autonomously and independently. I’ve long thought that if people could accept interconnectedness, we would all get along much better. Idyllic or bucolic, if we can trust Garmston’s framework, this simple theory may be readily applied to the school and professional communities, as well. It just takes some willingness to understand—to be less defensive and to be willing to be connected.

In the final section of Chapter 11, Garmston goes on to illustrate the communal dance of West African villagers as a metaphor for collaboration. To read the allusion is actually quite satisfying. In fact, I can’t disagree with a word of it. Initially, I believed Garmston could have published this final section by itself. But that really would be understating the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge and perspective on the subjects discussed throughout the text.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

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