by Celia Hales
Note: These reflections are designed for individuals in the work force who have an affinity for A Course in Miracles. The examples are from the profession of library science, because that is my profession, but the conclusions should work for any position. The ideas are applicable to current students who are preparing for the work force, those who are changing jobs and want to get off on the “right foot,” and others who may be currently having political problems at work.
I should note at the outset that every work setting is different in regard to social climate, and each type of work environment has its own challenges. These comments are written from the vantage point of 22 years as a reference librarian and bibliographer in libraries at two different universities, and to some extent draw upon previous, disparate settings of my work history inside and outside libraries. The most important point that I want to make is that most basically social interaction is necessary in any work setting, social interaction matters, and one cannot look to the job professionally as a solo player.
The nature of work demands cooperation and teamwork, and if one does not find a congenial “home” with her colleagues, she will be at a distinct disadvantage professionally, regardless of objectively how good her work is. In fact, her work will normally not be considered objectively at all; this is the strength of the social. We will take a look at communication among colleagues, the pitfalls to avoid if one is “new,” human nature factors that impinge upon the daily work, the role of competition in the workplace, and, finally, the all-important merit review and its role in improving performance in one’s work.
Communication among Colleagues
One of the primary problems which individuals in my library have noted is the breakdown of communication top to bottom as well as horizontally. And this despite a flood of electronic mail that come our way every day. I have come to believe that people do not want communication so much as simply being listened to and being made to feel that their opinions are valued by their colleagues at every level and that these opinions are duly considered in decisions. This is the largest definition of “communication,” and it is far beneath the surface issue of whether or not one actually knows “what” is going on in a given library.
In my library, I have learned that a certain amount of self-disclosure makes others more trusting of my opinions; they know “where I am coming from,” and they are not therefore so much trying to read meanings into what I am saying–because I have given the context. I do not mean inappropriate or unprofessional self-disclosure, of the type that might take place in counseling sessions–just a willingness to talk openly and to show that one is human with human faults (and assets) and carries the basic idea of the long-ago bestseller, I’m OK, You’re OK. Saying what one wants to say with genuine goodwill and a smile mean a lot; there is an old folk saying that is applicable: “One can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
There will be time, if one is high-spirited or has a temper, that one will speak in anger or provoke discord, and then regret it later. It is never too late to apologize, and ti is not a sign of weakness to do so. Smooth interactions keep people happier on the job, and a happy worker is much more likely to be a productive one. It is self-evident that fuming and fretting and agonizing take time away from the actual content of a job well done. If one needs to do so, reconsider your actions, express regret for the action or word, and then quietly put the matter to rest. Forget it as quickly as possible, for with a clear conscience you have done all that you can. In fact, practice forgetting the irritations of the daily work as you leave the office at night. If you do take work home, tackle it after having as relaxing a meal as possible, and approach the task as the start of a fresh project, no longer looking back to any animosity that might have developed from the earlier part of the day.
Noticing the Possible Pitfalls
The emotional tone, the tenor, of various work settings is profoundly different, and this difference varies from individual to individual because people react differently to the same or similar stimuli. What works fine for one doesn’t for another, as we all know. But perhaps we are too eager to get a given job to take the emotional tenor into account during the interview. We do need a job, of course, but we need one that we can stay with for a reasonable period, and we can intuitively grasp some of the intangibles during the interview if we are open to seeing them. Most of us refer to this emotional tenor as the “vibes” of the place, and I believe that this is more important to success, for a given individual, than almost anything else–including ability. If one does not fit into a given environment, the work will not be longstanding, or, if longstanding, will not be pleasant.
It is not easy to sort through the feelings that one has on an interview, especially if this job, on the surface, seems like your dream job. But do try to be open to the pace of the interview, interact with as many people as you can, and stop to react to their responses to you. Do they seem competitive? Are they a bit withdrawn with you? Do they seem to take themselves (and their work) too seriously (and that is possible)? Do they genuinely seem to “like” you? First impressions can be and often are misleading, but a false impression will nevertheless be the starting point for future interaction until you know the people very, very well. This is the time to listen to your sixth sense.
Let us say that the interview went well, you felt at ho me with these people, and now you are on the job. How do you proceed in those all-important first days? I would counsel that you take your cue from the reactions of others to your initial responses to their questions. Do they seem eager to hear your opinions, or do they seem to believe that they know the situation better than you as the “new authority”? If the latter, they, of course, may be right. But even if they aren’t, and you do know much better ways of handling a given procedure, it might be wiser to delay introducing your concept. On the other hand, if your new colleagues actively ask for your advice and suggestions, do not feel shy about giving them a kind, but honest, opinion. I have been in both situations in different workplaces. One setting didn’t welcome input, but as a reference librarian, I did not see this until too late, and it colored my whole tenor on the job. The other setting was looking for change, bringing in new people for their new ideas, and wanted to hear from us. I even heard another colleague mildly criticized for not saying very much at all/ So the climate of these two places was not compatible with each other, and the reaction expected from me was totally different. Such differences exist across the board, and it is a wise worker who reads the signs and adjusts communication behavior accordingly.
Human Nature–Lubricant or Irritant?
Much has been made of “Monday mornings” on the job. We are all supposed to be typically irritable and down in spirits. But this negativity can strike at any time, and is more a function of personalities rubbing against each other than of the change from free time to ordered time. There will always be people with whom we work smoothly, and those with whom we find it difficult to accept and to appreciate. This should not deter us from working for a humane environment in every case.
The differences in personality types, whether we take the Myers-Briggs or the “Type A” vs. “Type B” categories, or something else entirely, are a fact of working life. We are thrown in together with an assortment of ;people who stem from varying backgrounds and have hidden agendas, and only over time do we learn where we stand with any of them. We need to be sensitive to the personality quirks that we observe. Does Melanie seem upset when approached first thing in the morning? Maybe she needs a moment or two to collect her thoughts as she moves from family duties and fixing breakfast for her young child to thinking about librarianship. This particular example is an easy one to remedy: Simply wait 15 minutes to approach her next time. Try to get your hidden agendas out of the way as much as you can. You have certain needs to get work accomplished, but work is an inanimate object, and human beings vary, and, moreover, they get the work done in a more efficient way if we work around their problems and not add to them by being insensitive to their work habits.
There will always be people who are more neurotic than others part of the time, and even all of the time. People have another life outside work, and most frequently they are not going to tell you of a nagging worry that they should visit a physician for a “small” symptom, and, as another frequent example, they are not going to tell you when they fear that their marriage is failing. If work seems to be suffering, that is a matter for the library administration to handle, while we as peers are reluctant to criticize and more helpful if we, insofar as possible, work around the problems. If you feel that you are the only one hampered by a given person’s strange actions, please know that you are not–you very likely have plenty of company, but in the interests of good working relationships, most people don’t comment on each other. (I do acknowledge that some working environments are more gossip-prone than others, but a professional setting is normally very accommodating.)
Finally, let us consider the real personality problems, the colleagues who make life miserable for themselves and others at the same time. Consider this a chance to shine your halo, because such fantasies may be all that get you through a day without ruining it for yourself. Do remember that the real neurotic is making herself far more unhappy than she is making you–though this may be hard to believe in the heat of the moment. A sense of humor is a saving grace in many life situations, and neurotic behavior certainly qualifies. And try to forgive the unfairness of it all; life does not handle well the keeping of a grudge, one against the other. bitterness is one way to spoil one’s own emotional and physical health.
The Bugaboo Competition
Work settings differ dramatically in how competitive they are, but virtually all settings will turn negative against you personally if your drive to succeed is perceived as an attempt to outdo everybody else. In academic libraries, especially, the vast majority of librarians (and library assistants) are extremely hardworking, and they do not take kindly to the implication that other people may outshine them. Academic settings, in fact, are especially bad in this regard, because the people who work here are intellectually oriented, usually they were good students in years past, and they carry off part of that achievement motivation into the present environment. Reference settings are wonderful training grounds for cooperative work, for rarely does anything in a reference setting get done unless a group of people agree on how the task will proceed. In the instance of competition or lack thereof, therefore, reference work is a particularly good place to evaluate one’s own propensity to compete.
The best settings are those in which everybody tries hard to work together in a cooperative fashion to provide a reference service that succeeds for library users. Being congenial with one’s colleagues is a particularly prized quality, because the negativism that can engulf a reference unit frequently spreads from one person to another. The best type of competition, therefore is competition with one’s self, trying to improve with each passing month and year. Backbiting, it goes without saying, is a negative that helps no one, and is extremely detrimental to the functioning of an optimal reference unit. If it did not matter so much how one interacted with another, then reference social interaction would not be of major concern at all. Faculty in individual classrooms can function very autonomously, but reference staff have to swap desk times, work together on committees that help the library to do its daily work, and frequently as well work together to team-teach library skills.
Pride is a factor that normally goes hand in hand with competition. Even the best librarians can be guilty of intellectual pride in their work, and it is not always easy to separate healthy pride and unhealthy. Certainly we all want to do a good job, but how we talk about our work can present problems if we appear to call attention to our great deeds in a braggadocio way. Modesty is a value more respected in the workplace than is pride, and one much more conducive to the better side of competition. Do your best, but take care that you aren’t always talking about it. To do so is to invite the unhealthy envy that disrupts reference units and causes animosity that will undermine the greater good.
If you find yourself in an especially competitive situation, and particularly if you now recognize that you have made wrong decisions that brought out an unhealthy competition in yourself, it is, nevertheless, not appropriate in a reference unit to withdraw and try to do one’s work, as best one can, alone. Even if the other staff members turn negative or even hostile, it is still part of one’s job responsibility to work cooperatively. If everybody worked in a solitary fashion, the best service could not emerge; this is contrary to the classroom, where faculty can disregard hostile politics and be alone with their students, to produce the best teaching that they can. In a reference service, the staff members need each other; working together gets the job done, and working alone does not. So try to use one’s best manners and act well even if met sometimes with hostility.
There is one place to take exception to these suggested rules–in the annual merit review and in performance appraisals that lead to tenure or to continuous appointment. And in that situation one is compelled to put her best foot forward, and not to be shy about touting accomplishments. We discuss this aspect just below.
Merit Review–Bane or Opportunity?
The most important advice that I would like to give any newcomer to the field, or even any veteran who still worries about an annual review, is my own truth that the only important rating is the one that you give yourself. Anything else, even if that “anything” involves the very retention of the position itself, is secondary. If one goes through life quaking at authority (when administrators assume the role of stand-in parental figures) or peer evaluation (a concept that will bring back the awful need to belong that characterized our teen years), then the life on the job does not fully belong to you, and if one is to achieve one’s best, that life should be personally owned. Before you write your part of the merit review, ask yourself a few very basic questions: Have I grown in my knowledge of library science, and thus in my career, this year? Have I endeavored to keep current, though computerization is a moving target? Have I tried to assist my colleagues in their work whenever possible, being cooperative and helpful and occasionally walking the extra mile? If you can truthfully answer “yes” to these questions, I would suggest that you have succeeded in the last year, whether or not you receive the highest rating that you might wish.
It is good to recognize that even under the best of circumstances, ratings are subjective and often very political. One needs to achieve, but not too much, or envy will mean that peer evaluations are not the best. One needs to accomplish a great deal of work, or the quantity will not impress higher-ups (quality in this ear of lean and mean work setting is not perhaps given its fair due). In my own case, I received my best ratings from an administrator who clearly liked me personally, and I have received my lowest ratings when politically I was not fitting into the climate of the workplace. And there are all kinds of variation in between. As the years go by, an attitude is developed about you as an employee, and if this attitude should become negative, then the perception will color the rating to the degree that superhuman efforts might not amend. So it is always wise to keep a level head, and not to bend to the negative whims of either administrators or peers. Conversely, there is a halo effect that will follow you everywhere if you are well-liked, and also happen to develop into the career worker that is well-respected in your given environment. This halo effect is certainly not a bad thing, because then you receive kudos in good years and bad, and certainly as your career develops, you will have some of both.
So back to my first point–keep your own rating as the most important. Aside from this, there are pointers available for making the best impression as a worker. Keep good documentation, and see that your accomplishments are showcased each year. It is best to keep a running tally of what you accomplish each day or week, because otherwise it is virtually impossible to retain in memory the myriad of details that makes a report outstanding. Often the administrators reading your report will not have first-hand knowledge of your work, but only impressions, and these impressions will be influenced by the presentation of your work record in a readable and cogent fashion. Don’t make your report too lengthy, or it will be simply scanned–to your detriment. Try very diligently to fulfill all of the goals and objectives set the previous year; after all, you and your supervisor agreed upon these goals, and it does behoove you to take them seriously. Carefully point out if the failure to achieve a given goal was taken out of your hands by a change of programmatic policy by a higher-up. Otherwise, the failure to achieve a goal will look like a personal failing. It is very likely that the evaluation written by your superior(s) will be written rapidly and under duress. She has many other reviews to write at the same time. If yours is clear, well-written, and appears to fulfill your goals without too many excuses, you will fare better in her review, as well as in he rating.
An important point to keep in mind is that ratings are linked to the merit money, and higher administrators are actually rewarded for keeping salary savings high. So it is wise to look at one’s final rating with a jaundiced eye; if a higher-up lowers your supervisor’s rating of you, it may have absolutely nothing to do with your merit in her eyes, and everything to do with statistics. Administrators try to give out very few top ratings, and in the library science profession, these normally go to other administrators, who are perceived to be carrying forth the greatest weight of the library’s well-being.
Thus we have reflected on the communal nature of the reference position, and I hope that you have come to see that getting a long with others on the job–the social interaction itself–is vitally important to your success. Other reflections have emphasized the communicative aspects of the workplace, but I hope that you have seen that social interaction has advantages that go far beyond simple communication. A humane work environment can make all the difference in the success or the failure of an enterprise, a non-profit library being no exception. It is helpful to let your colleagues and administrators know what you feel about various issues that arise, to make statements that contribute to the common goal of excellent library service. If one tries too hard to stand out from her peers, competition can be a two-edged sword; it may win great superiority in performance, but in reference that is not the only factor controlling success–being a team player counts for much as well. There is simply no way, as we have seen, to do your job well in a vacuum; the skills that we gain from interacting with others in a productive way can be tremendously life-enhancing for us as well as for our common mission in the library. Sometimes one must move slowly when new in the position, lest we be accused of being “new authority,” and therefore being perceived as someone who as yet does not know the scoop; not listening to the thoughts of others can easily lead one to recommend courses of action that have been tried and have been seen to fail. Ultimately, though, in the reference position as in life, the grade (or rating) that one gives one’s self is the most important. Don’t give your power away by trying to please in order to get the highest merit rating; you may lose yourself in the process, not being true to one’s self, and even lose the high rating as well. Self-respect requires that we do what we consider our best; other opinions should always remain secondary in our own minds. “To thine own self be true,” has been the Shakespearian wisdom of the ages.
Consequently, if one wishes to excel in reference librarianship, don’t lose sight of the big picture, and the way that one interacts with other people in that picture. In a classroom, one can operate in a solo fashion, but this simply cannot happen with reference work, and in the end this is one of its greatest advantages, personally as well as professionally. You will find in your daily work that two heads really are better than one in a problem-solving work environment.