On Kindness, Libraries & the Big Picture – A TTW Guest Post by Kate Sheehan 10

Corporations have The No A**hole Rule, but the motivation and measurement in a for-profit is always the bottom line. The a**hole in the office makes a lot of money, but holds everyone else back with toxic behavior. Fire him, and everyone else steps up their game and increases earnings. Profit provides a reason to hire, fire and take action. Libraries, like most non-profits, deal more in intangibles and don’t look to the balance sheet for guidance.

Michael Stephens has used the phrase “kindness audit” most publicly, and several other people have proposed the idea to me recently as well. I love the oxymoronic feel of it – the mental image of IRS agents with felt hearts pinned to their lapels, clutching clipboards and red pens.

Kindness may seem soft and fuzzy and a silly thing to be talking about with respect to the workplace. But that’s the point of The No A**hole Rule. A jerk who does his job well still hurts the whole company. We’re in the kindness business – public service. It’s not a switch we can just flip. If our organizational culture is unkind, how well are we really serving our patrons?

So, yes, a kindness audit asks us to do a little self reflection, to think about how we interact with people. It’s more personal, but it could make for a better workplace and improved service to our users. But what’s in a kindness audit? How to quantify the unquantifiable? What’s on that clipboard?

Here’s where I’d start, but I’m looking for input:

  • Listen. Even to the people who drive you crazy
  • Open door policies are great, but not only do they have to be meaningful, we have to meet each other where we are. Just like our patrons, our coworkers don’t always communicate in exactly the way we’d like them to. Hearing those who operate differently is hard, but worth it.

    Double X recently posted a short article with a scenario that’s supposed to indicate how angry the reader is. If you have a meeting scheduled on a Wednesday and you are told that the meeting has been moved up two days, is the meeting now on Monday or Friday? I’m not sure I buy the anger aspect of this exercise (wait, does that make me sound angry?) but what struck me about the piece, the comments and the responses of everyone I’ve posed the question to is the initial inability to see how anyone could think the meeting is on the other day. Monday people can’t imagine anyone would think the meeting is now on Friday and Friday people are just as gobsmacked by the Monday people.

    What’s the lesson? First of all, just say what day you’re moving meetings to when you do it. Secondly, everyone approaches life (and the workplace) in their own way and those differing perspectives have value and meaning. It’s awfully tempting to dismiss the people who would have missed your moved meeting, but teaming up with people whose minds work differently can be powerfully effective.

  • Focus on the positive
  • Management experts suggest this one frequently, but it applies to patron interactions, projects with coworkers and really, just about everything. We’re all bad at things, we all have our own foibles and faults. That’s not the whole of anyone’s being, though. Personally, I’m very fortunate to work with someone who is brilliant at extracting the silver lining from the cloudiest of situations. I turn to her when I’m struggling to see the bright side.

  • Create safe spaces
  • This probably sounds silly, but as anyone who has spent time working with the public can attest, one of the biggest differences between an office job and a public facing job is the different levels of professionalism. Librarians have a public face that they need a break from when they get into the back office. The occasional flip comment or frustrated exclamation are inevitable and forgivable.

  • Keep looking at the big picture
  • This one goes for everyone. Front lines staff can get absorbed in the daily grind and forget about the view from the top. Big picture people can forget that the crisis they just caught wind of might not be such a big deal just because they know about it. Ultimately, we’re running libraries. It’s not rocket surgery and our mistakes and problems are aggravating, but generally speaking, no kittens will die.

  • Respect boundaries
  • When people come in looking for help learning to use the mouse, we don’t try to teach them to use Facebook. This goes hand in hand with focusing on the positive. We don’t need everyone to be good at everything and while it’s good for people to push their boundaries and learn new things, they should be able to do it on their own terms. We come to work as whole people and very few of us are able to divest our personalities when we walk through the door.

    I don’t think this is a complete list, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m looking for input. What would you audit, if you were working for the kindness IRS? Comment here or at Loose Cannon Librarian or send me an email (kate at loosecannonlibrarian dot net). I want to create something useful for our libraries; a tool we can use to push our organizations and ourselves. This should be a group effort, so send me your ideas!

    Kate Sheehan writes at Loose Cannon Librarian and ALA TechSource | Cross posted here: http://loosecannonlibrarian.net/?p=214

    10 thoughts on “On Kindness, Libraries & the Big Picture – A TTW Guest Post by Kate Sheehan

    • Andy Burkhardt

      I agree very much that kindness is important in the workplace, but not just kindness to customers (which is very important) but also kindness to co-workers.

      At our library the staff tries to remember our unofficial motto which is “all fun, all the time.” Work is so much more productive and rewarding when you’re having fun with your co-workers. This fun that we have shows and makes the library a happier place to be. Kindness or even just a smile can be infectious. It takes a little work but you can make kindness “go viral.”

      Another thing I remember hearing at a conference from a woman named Anne Washburne is that you should “own your work environment.” You have the power to bring about change in the workplace and it depends on your decisions. Choose kindness and it’ll happen.

    • Kiyomi


      I was very interested to read your post. I recently wrote a similar post but approached this topic from the angle of respect. Looking at the similarities and differences between what we both wrote I think that respect and kindness go hand in hand, if you aren’t respectful you aren’t kind but being genuinely respectful enables kindness. Please feel free to use any of my ideas or examples that you feel are relevant. I am new to librarianship but have a long work history as a environmental chemist and I think that the skills needed to build a good work environment for employees and patrons/customers are the same.


    • Tasha

      At our library, we did a code of conduct that every employee had to sign. It was about how we treat one another in the library. Our staff had gotten into the habit of being quite toxic with one another. Refusing to reply when greeted, ignoring staff who worked at lower levels in the hierarchy, making caustic remarks both to people’s face and behind their backs, etc.

      The code reminded everyone what was expected of them. Professionalism, kindness, respect and care. Now a few years later, there is no need for the code because everyone just naturally follows it. No need to remind either. It’s like working in a different library!

    • kate

      Thanks, Joe! I’m sure this all comes naturally to you!

      Andy, that is the best motto ever! It’s all related in libraries – I don’t know too many people who can work in a negative or nasty environment in the back and just magically be service oriented and kind to patrons when they’re public-facing. Most people don’t operate that way.

      You’re right, respect is so important to kindness, Kiyomi. Otherwise, it’s too easy to slip into being patronizing. It’s important no matter where you work, lab or library (I have a dear friend who is a scientist and I think there are some interesting lab-library parallels, though. You’ll have to let us all know what you observe.)

      Tasha, wow! Like Stacks, I’d love to see that code of conduct! I’m really impressed that it worked so well. Do you think it was just having it in writing or did management set an example or were people self-policing? There’s an article in your library’s experience for sure.

    • Ann

      I have been taking a blame inventory lately. It is sometimes when systems break down or there are just problems, when it is hardest to be kind. It is in these moments when we are so quick to blame others even for the littlest things both at work in our non work lives. At work, blame undermines trust in each other and keeps people from putting energy into finding solutions.

      Sometimes, you need to gain valuable information about the cause of a problem in order to find a solution. But, getting caught up in assigning blame only ends up being a distraction in the short term and in the long term damages relations between people and departments.

      I think that part of being kinder is letting go of the need to find and assign blame. Kindness can free us from the cycle of blame, help us support a coworker who might need help with a project and keep lines of communication open and trustful.

      I love the idea of a code of conduct. It’s simple and effective and holistic and inclusive. Love it.

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