Shame in the Low-Morale Experience

[This content was originally published on November 14, 2017 at The Ink On The Page.]

I’ve read my low-morale study (and the qualitative data associated with it) several times since its submission and publication. One thing that I’d like to take a closer look at is the link between the cognitive impact of perfectionism and the affective impact of shame that some participants had as a result of their experience. Both are discussed in the study, and I began more active consideration of these links about a month ago – noted on my Facebook account (which I often use as a sort of public Rolodex/note-to-self archive).

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Earlier this month, Meredith Farkas – who has publicly noted her recovery from low-morale – published an American Libraries column about burnout and the need for librarians to deny resilience narratives in order to regain a sense of well-being and professional balance. Within her discussion, Farkas quickly describes her reaction to being to unable to advocate for herself to her manager: 

“Library workers need to feel comfortable talking about the negative aspects of our work. We need to reject narratives in this profession that suggest we can do more with less, and we must feel safe advocating for our own well-being in the workplace. I remember once trying to tell a manager that I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on a new responsibility and feeling intense shame about it. We should never be embarrassed to advocate for ourselves.”

Burnout was implied in my study – participants recalled being asked to fill in the gaps as campus administrators began library employee attrition maneuvers or slashed resources budgets; doing good work but then being told it was worthless; being asked to do a task and then berated when the task was completed or if they tried to question or ethically refuse the directive(s); being threatened with less pay because they wanted to take time off; etc. 

Similar to my study results that library administrators and managers are usually the perpetrators of low-morale, Farkas also notes the need for administrators to recognize their roles in these experiences of burnout.

Incidentally, not long after this study was accepted for publication, I ended up attending a talk by shame researcher Brené Brown. I decided to read her book, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), in which she discusses links between shame and perfectionism. Within this context, Dr. Brown reviews three ways people disconnect and place shame screens in order to avoid feeling shame. Brown credits the formation of these responses to Dr. Linda Hartling, a Relational-Cultural theorist focusing on Human Dignity studies. The responses are:

  • move away (“withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, keeping secrets”)
  • move toward (“seeking to appease and please”)
  • move against (“trying to gain power over others, being aggressive, and using shame to fight shame”)  (p.89)

These shame responses were certainly reported by the low-morale study participants, as evidenced in cognitive responses of self-censorship, a conscious reduction of work-loads, reducing outreach initiatives, reducing professional engagement (move away) and perfectionism, “staying despite/sticking it out,” or giving up autonomy (move toward). And as you know from my earlier post about this study, I think there is probably a likelihood of “move against” responses as well.

BTW, Farkas also discusses Fobazi Ettarh’s concept of vocational awe, which I think is totally amazing and also maps – devastatingly – to the low-morale experience. More on that soon.

If you have dealt with low-morale or burnout, was shame part of your experience? How did you respond?

Works Cited

Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Making the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” New York: Gotham Books.

Ettarh, F. (2017, May 30). Vocational awe? Retrieved from https://fobaziettarh.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/vocational-awe/

Farkas, M. (2017, November 1). Less is not more: Rejecting resilience narratives for library workers. American Libraries.  Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2hdznul 

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Further Thoughts: The Low Morale Study

[This content was originally published on November 6, 2017 at The Ink On The Page.]

A few days ago, my latest article – “The low morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study” – was assigned to its Journal of Library Administration (JLA) issue after being in pre-print for a bit over seven weeks. During the pre-print window, the article garnered over 6,600 views, over 100 tweets, and it’s also been added to a few Mendeley libraries. Currently, it’s also the most read article of 2017 in the Libary and Information Science (LIS) discipline at Taylor & Francis, the publishers of JLA.

If you’d like to read it, it will be available open access until December 2017.

In addition to these stats, I’ve received several calls or emails referencing the study and thanking me for producing the work. Within some of those emails are details outlining the writers’ experiences of low morale; others have sent emails asking questions about aspects of the study for clarification or in the hopes that I will expand the study in various ways.

Soon I will be leading a two-part webinar series for the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). The webinars will focus on the study and identifying and responding to low morale, respectively.

This is all wonderful; however, Twitter’s @MrDys said it best:

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When I began this study and requested invitations for participants, I thought I would learn about how my colleagues were dealing with what we all probably think about when we think about low morale: under compensation, maybe issues stemming from opaque or uncommunicative leadership, and in this day and age of consistent staffing and resource budget cuts, the stress of being asked to do more with less. I even expected to hear about issues and conflicts with teaching faculty, or the difficulties surrounding librarians’ integration into the curriculum via information literacy. 

But that was not the case.

From each of my original 21 participants (one eventually abstained from the study), I heard in-depth narratives of workplace abuse. Mostly emotional, and a lot verbal, written, and systemic (something horrible being done TO a victim). All made worse by negligence (nothing positive or mitigating being done FOR a victim).

As I consider the reactions to the article, several things come to mind:

  • negligence is not readily recognized or identified as a form of abuse in workplace environments. Is this because employees, to some degree, have come to expect that leaders will be slow or flat out refuse to acknowledge traditional (and narrow) markers of “low morale” (low pay, nebulous job descriptions, lack of continuing education, etc.)? And worse, that these leaders will allow incivility, bullying, and toxicity to continue in service to an organization’s financial success?
  • the emotional conflict librarians experience when they are exposed to protracted workplace abuse cannot be overstated. Librarian perceptions and stereotypes, and the double-smack down of dealing with abusive library and college administrators – combined with affected librarians’ desire to stay the course in abusive workplaces because they believe in the value of their profession – result in a uniquely debilitating cluster of doubt, anger, and disillusion.
  • although not emergent in the study, consideration must be given to another real possibility of low-morale contagion: the victim-turned-offender in the same workplace. Those who are abused may begin to abuse others – and keep in mind that such actions do not negate they are experiencing low morale.

What do you think? I’d like to hear your constructive thoughts about these ideas or your collegial questions about or responses to my study, in general.

I  can’t say I’m happy that this work has resonated with so many colleagues. I am honored to hear that the study is helping people understand what they have gone through or make sense of what they are currently facing. That, in any case, was my goal, and once again, I thank my participants for sharing their experiences with me.

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A Purpose.

Welcome to Renewals, a blog supporting my original research on workplace morale. If you are interested in:

  • preventing workplace toxicity and incivility (including bullying and mobbing),
  • increasing authentic collegiality and civility,
  • cultivating humane/empathetic leadership, and
  • supporting/re-centering the positive links of workplace wellness and career/job satisfaction –

in North American workplaces – welcome! This space also serves as a point of reference and resource for many of these topics, which are frequently discussed in research literature, spheres of commentary, and on social media platforms.

Participant data in my study revealed that low morale is the result of repeated and protracted exposure to emotional, verbal/written, and system abuse or neglect in the workplace. While my original study focuses on academic libraries, the response to my research has alerted me that the trajectory and outcomes of the experience may also apply to other library and workplace environments. As a result, I have expanded my research to public libraries, and general North American workplaces. I hope this outlet is helpful to anyone familiar with the experience.

My first few blogs reflect content I originally published at The Ink On The Page, a project I began in 2017. As this space develops, I will include original content focusing on my workplace morale-related research projects and other ideas and activities that spring from these efforts.

I have also created an online community (Renewers) for library employees who are familiar with low morale and who are interested in increasing balance and engagement at work and clarity in their careers.  You may also find Renewals/Renewers connections on Twitter and Instagram. Additionally, I am offering professional development opportunities for employees or organizations who are committed to promoting and supporting the goal to reduce or eradicate workplace abuse and neglect. Along with this blog, I hope Renewers in all kinds of careers can able to recognize, reduce, and resolve their experiences, return to a fuller sense of joy, and recapture purpose in their careers and workplaces. Moreover, I’d like to offer this space for sustained constructive dialogue on this important topic – let’s connect, create strategies, and fulfill positive outcomes for the long-term improvement of our professions.

All Best,

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P.S. Learn more about my broader mission and activities here!