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

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