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.


The Librarian’s Day

Here is a story about my wife, who manages a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The other day, Melissa woke up early and in good spirits. She went to visit the nice podiatrist who gave her a big, scary cortisone shot in her foot. He said it would start to feel sore in a few hours. Then Melissa went to work where she quickly made two discoveries. She first noted that the building was very warm and found that the air conditioning system was not working. Worse yet, she found that all the plants from her Harry Potter Herbology program had been vandalized. Then, just like the nice podiatrist said, her foot started getting very, very sore.

Melissa was sad. All the kids at the library could see this. So, some of them got together and wrote the story of Melissa’s day. And they made sure it had an especially happy ending.


The end.

Libraries have “had their day”? My log will have something to say about this.


Srsly, is there any way Margaret the Log Lady wasn’t a retired librarian?

Titles in Library Leadership: Random Notes

I’ve been looking through some notes lately on readings from Olson and Singer’s Winning with Library Leadership and Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp’s Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. Each offers some insightful suggestions about the nature of the relationships among colleagues. I’ve always had some interest not only in the ways in which humans interact with each other, whether in the mundane workplace or elsewhere, but also in the analyses made of behaviors among people who interact on a regular basis. I’ll be interested to read further into Fisher’s evaluation of these behaviors and how they are accepted or rejected. I will say that there is a lot going on in this book. That’s to say that the authors clearly have a great many notions and suggestions about behaviors in the workplace—far too many to get into here. In fact, I’ve tried to keep track of the finer points and reasoning suggested in Getting It Done, but I’ve abandoned my traditional system of note-taking on this one. I suspect the ideas may reveal themselves to me with greater clarity through discussion and suggest that readers take cues from the book a la carte.

In Winning with Library Leadership, Olson and Singer offer some truly valuable and practical perspectives on contributing and collaborating and dealing with great change as a leader or as the person in charge of a library environment. The authors, as well as Fisher, instill in the reader the motivation to be constantly engaged with her team, providing adequate feedback in the forms of advice and consistent positive reinforcement. Now toss in Fisher’s system of project enactment, another concept that should prove invaluable in a library role. Preparing, acting, and reviewing progress helps individuals and collaborative groups keep moving while avoiding past mistakes.

Moreover, in a society given to typing and labeling, the popular and dubious Myers-Briggs type testing is illuminating and useful to many people in leadership and supervisory roles. (Incidentally, I produced borderline scores on every section of the equivocal MBTI.) At the very least, a firm grasp of the attitudes, strengths, and personalities of one’s staff is essential to productive collaboration and team engagement.

These readings may inspire one to analyze himself in terms of attitudes and leadership capabilities and as a peer. To some extent, they’ve given me pause to consider my future as not only a leader, but as a collaborator and as one who can lead laterally. Lateral leading, or lateral coaching, is a subject well worth exploring and is given significant treatment in both Getting It Done and in Robert Garmston’s The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. The ability to coach up and to help one’s colleagues without supervisory status is essential. To do it without bothering the boss is truly an underappreciated skill.

Some personalities will shy away from advising colleagues or commenting on another’s work in any form. Others will always be en garde and wield more than a few points of contention regarding a colleague’s performance. But by taking cues from the lessons in these readings, these vastly different personalities can learn the real values of constructive lateral coaching—how and when to assume a leadership role and when to be hands-off.

Poll: Most Valuable Areas of Study

I suspect no graduate program is without its critics. That can be both good and bad. On one hand, institutional criticism suggests students and new professionals are eager for challenging study in the most relevant applicable areas. Unfortunately, it often suggests that graduate programs are deficient in too many important areas. Perhaps no professional degree is met with as much scrutiny from its own candidates as the graduate library degree. Particularly in the last few years, as the field has negotiated tremendous issues of technological applications, Google, ebooks, and funding crises, current and former library students have created a patchwork of curricular assessment that seems to hang in the ether over Libraryland like a giant storm system. Whether anonymous complaints or constructive collaboration of blogsites like Hack Library School, there seems to be no shortage of suggested alterations to the accepted library school course catalog.

Some areas of knowledge and skill I find particularly useful to current librarians:

  • Social media and public profiles
  • Usability
  • Marketing
  • Programs, partnerships, and outreach
  • Fundamentals of semantic web
  • Instruction
  • Research methods and information evaluation
  • Print and digital collections

There are other great assets, for sure–writing skill, management savvy, special collections, and digital media tools, to name a few. But given the way most programs are currently structured, I’m interested to see what people think are the most valuable areas. Which courses should be required of the MLIS and which should be left to the student’s election?

What’s In Your Window?

Passing through Wicker Park the other day, I spotted a pair of large window clings, displayed prominently on the main windows of an independent shop. One window bears a large Facebook logo, the store’s Facebook URL printed beneath. A similar Twitter cling, seen here, invites passersby to follow the shop on Twitter.

Now, maybe I don’t get out as much as I used to, but I simply haven’t seen these window clings anywhere else. Particularly, I haven’t seen them in my travels to libraries in the greater Chicagoland area. And at an estimated two feet in width, they’re fairly hard to miss. I may have spotted a small Foursquare or Yelp decal somewhere, but I really couldn’t say for sure. And while Twitter and Foursquare are still gaining momentum among popular social media sites, Facebook is, well, Facebook. Now that I’ve seen these, I can’t imagine not having my library’s Facebook URL displayed on at least one high-traffic window.

It occurs to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Signs are a staple form of promotion. Man’s benchmark for alerting the world of his existence, seemingly since the ancients developed means of written communication, has been to simply put up a sign.

Has your community been slow to acknowledge your library’s presence on social media outlets? Where Twitter and Foursquare are concerned, it’s quite possible that patrons simply aren’t yet using those applications. Now, say my library serves a community of 40,000. My Facebook page shows 27 friends and one of them is my mother. In this scenario, it’s a safe bet that my patrons don’t know the library is there. So, how can I let library users and passersby know where they can find the library on social networks? Apparently, I can put it in the window. Big and blue, bearing our URL, for all to read from the sidewalk or from their seat on the bus.

Evolving Hurdles: Collection Development

I was talking with a friend the other day about how the problems of one library often are not the problems of another. Case in point: funding. In our world of haves and have nots, all libraries were not blessed with the same financial resources or political champions. In fact, just today, Chicago’s City Council voted unanimously to pass the mayor’s proposed budget, including severe reductions in funding and staff at a library that, until recently, has been revered as something of a sacred calf. Time will tell the outcome, but as history always repeats itself, one may suspect that Chicago will ultimately follow New York and Florida en route to full funding restoration. But I digress.

Libraries all being libraries, there are among them even more commonalities than differences. Libraries have classically claimed a variety of challenges to collection development and development planning, depending on the institution’s size and type. Outsourced development firms can homogenize a collection. Where development staff are unfamiliar with the demographics of a local usership, a library may incur a wealth of items doomed to be sight unseen, while omitting from its collection materials that are truly valuable to its patrons. Academic research libraries, while attempting to address the information explosion and provide access to increasing research publications, face escalating material costs and associated headaches. Add now fluctuations in the publisher-library relationship, inherent contractual issues regarding downloads, and debate over whether student interest justifies huge expenditures tied to digital collections. It’s at once interesting, concerning, and necessary to look at the varied barriers to collection development and to evaluate how these obstacles have evolved.

My questions are several. What are the greatest impediments to collection development today? How have challenges to collection development planning changed and how have they remained the same? Consortia and regional library systems have long shared materials to reduce costs and increase access. In what other ways are we overcoming barriers to growth and diversification?