Friday, December 9, 2011

When the going gets tough...

With one exception, I never walked away from a fight when I was growing up. On the other hand, I never actually got into a fight, either. I didn't back down, I didn't escalate, I didn't try to make peace, I didn't bluff. I simply...stayed put. And the people who were trying to figure out if they wanted to fight decided I wasn't going to give them the kind of fight they wanted, after all.


I still don't have a permanent job. (I do have a temp job in the audit department of a mortgage company, which I am enjoying a lot, and for which I had to do a lot of persuasion about actually really truly wanting it.) The most interesting feedback I've gotten from interviewers was some concern about my readiness to deal with negativity and conflict in the workplace. I can see where they are coming from, because I generally talk about transparency and compassion and humility and achieving effectiveness and efficiency through mutual respect. Plus, I default to enthusiasm and cheerfulness and geekiness. So, yeah, when people first get to know me, they meet a peace-lovin', easy-goin' kinda guy.

But peace is not the absence of conflict, and when I talk about compassion and humility and respect, I'm not talking about everybody agreeing with each other or even liking each other. In fact, these behaviors are the most important when there is negativity and conflict. I speak from long, painful experience. In no particular order, here are some things I have dealt with at one or more of the libraries I've managed:

--Furious neighbors who want to stop the library from expanding.
--Staff suing the funding agency.
--Disputes over who the actual governing body is.
--Budget cuts and hiring freezes.
--Intense mistrust over health insurance changes.
--Accusations of racism.
--Persistent staff complaints about each other.
--Conspiracy theories.
--Resentment over salary freezes.
--A general belief that Things Are Going To Hell In A Handbasket.

Often I inherited a mess when I arrived, since I started three out of four positions as an interim. Other crises hit on my watch. In each case, I found out that I am good at stabilizing volatile situations and quietly improving them. I got used to seeing a peculiar expression pass across people's faces as they surprised themselves by enjoying their work and their co-workers again, sort of a puzzled "oh wait, it's okay for me to do this?" look.

I can't claim that I did anything special to get these results. In fact, I think it was the lack of special response that was important. "Stuff happens," I modeled for my teams. "Good stuff, bad stuff, exciting stuff, boring stuff, the works. When it happens, we will acknowledge it, and then we will return to our focus on our mission, our goals, and our desired outcomes." We stayed put.

I don't know how to communicate that determination, that fierceness, in the setting of a job interview. The only adequate word I have for it is "love," a word that is neither professional nor precise. I love organizations and their inevitably imperfect structures, policies and procedures. I love my colleagues, whether I am officially responsible for all of them or not. Above all, I love communities, those intersecting networks of individuals and groups that libraries variously call customers, patrons, clients or service populations.

No, I don't go looking for professional fights, but I don't back down from them, either. As a consequence, I haven't had to have very many. The few that I have had, I haven't lost. I will not allow staff or the library to disrespect patrons; I will not allow staff or patrons to disrespect the library; I will not allow patrons or the library to disrespect staff. I stand in the middle with all of my enthusiasm, cheerfulness, geekiness, humility, compassion, transparency, respect, effectiveness and efficiency--and if anybody wants to cause problems, they have to go through me.

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