“I tried to please as best as I could, you know? Knowing full well, though, that no matter what I did, it would never, it would never be enough, you know? …I would be anxious about, you know, making sure that all my bases were covered, all my I’s were dotted and all my T’s were crossed, you know, and it made me focus on everything that I was doing at the same time. Well, I was probably trying to do too much. But I felt obligated to take on more …” – Low morale study participant (Male, cataloger)
The low-morale experience is impacted by numerous enabling systems, one of which is Uncertainty and Mistrust. This enabling system is particularly harsh because it appears at the start of the low-morale experience (the trigger event) and continues even if workplace abuse is completely resolved.
One of the ways participants dealt with uncertainty was trying to anticipate or meet every demand of their abuser/bully. In particular, participants who were targeted or who were on the receiving end of poor communication channels were more likely to create and implement protocols that manifested symptoms of perfectionism. The Centre for Clinical Intervention (n.d.) states that perfectionism has three key parts:
The relentless striving for extremely high standards;
Judging [one’s] self-worth based largely on [an] ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards; and
Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost [to the self].
Coping strategies include conscious and unconscious positive or negative behaviors (Kendrick 2017), and participants who experienced low-morale and gravitated to perfectionistcoping strategies noted that even though they never received validation for their work – and in some cases, were punished for it – they created even higher standards hoping to please their abuser/bully. As a result, they developed negative mental health impacts, including anxiety and depression.
Shame researcher Brenè Brown (2013) notes that perfectionism can also be contextualized within vulnerability. She notes, “It’s… a way of thinking and feeling that says this: ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, work perfect and live perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.’” Read more on my thoughts about shame and the LIS low-morale experience.
Due to a mix of external and internal factors, perfectionism in the low-morale experience can be especially difficult to overcome; however, many resources share common strategies to reducing effects:
changing negative self-talk to positive affirmations
recognizing and accepting realistic outcomes of plans and decisions
taking time to relax (including true “free-time” and physical health regimens)
Did perfectionism show up in your low-morale experience? How did it manifest? How did you reduce it?
As a lurking/functional member of social media society, I have recently come across several threads in closed and open LIS online communities that prompt the following thought:
Librarians need assertive communication training.
I remember in library school, classroom conversations about applying ethics in practice were brief – mainly covering what we’d do to ensure equitable space usage or signage opportunities for “not-so-popular” groups in our various communities. We also had discussions about dealing with difficult patrons – keeping in mind that “difficult patrons” covered everything from the lady who doesn’t want to pay her overdue fines to the guy who wants total and all-day access to the computer(s).
Issues and laws some perceive to dilute the ALA Code of Ethics – like the Children’s Internet Protection Act, for instance – also make for intriguing and awkward conversations between librarians and library users; after 9/11, the PATRIOT Act also highlights friction between the balance of intellectual freedom and expectations where the protection of public safety are involved. Add to that myriad state and local laws, and even local community customs/norms – and you quickly recognize the host of relationships librarians in all environments and specialties are concerned with forming, navigating and sustaining in order that everyone have equitable access to information, technology, community, etc.
The formation, navigation, and sustaining of these relationships – with our patrons, with our colleagues, with our stakeholders, and with law enforcement – requires us to be able not only know our purview and how it relates to these groups’ expectations – but to beable to clearly state our boundaries with confidence and an expectation of courtesy and professionalism from those to whom we relate.
I observe that librarians seem to have particular difficulties responding to areas well within their purview because they either:
a) don’t have or wrestle with which words to use in order to relay a clear message;
b) (more often the case), are concerned with how they’re feeling about the upcoming discussion; or
c) are concerned with how the listener may feel (about them personally or the library in general) as a result of the conversation; and
d) also concerned about the status of the person to whom they must talk about some unpleasant issue.
Librarians don’t want to be (perceived as) rude or inflexible (Update 1/30/2020 – See Also, Library Nice). Luckily, being assertive is neither of those things!
Check it – RMIT University’s Counseling Service offers the following definition of assertive and its associated communication style:
The term “assertive” is used to describe a communication style that is respectful of others but clear and firm in intent. Assertiveness is sometimes confused with aggressiveness – being rude, hostile, blaming, threatening, demanding, or sarcastic is not being assertive – these are all examples of aggressive communication styles. Assertive communication does mean standing up for yourself but doing so in a way that does not trespass on the rights of others and respects your own rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others.
Assertive communication is based on mutual respect for the messenger and the receiver. It uses language that stresses civil focus on the matter at hand rather than judging the people involved in the conversation. It strives to validate both parties and offer clarity on defining problems, coming to solutions, and both parties’ roles in those solutions.
In ethical spheres, being assertive means that a person’s worries about how they are being perceived does not result in unintentional breaches of professional conduct.
I mentioned my concerns about assertiveness training for librarians a few days ago, and a colleague offered some books that helped her develop her assertive communication style (thanks, Katie!).
I took an assertive communications course years before I became a librarian, and it has helped immensely when I talk or write to colleagues, administrators, employees, and library users – in positive and negative situations.
Have you attended professional development on communication? How have you developed your communication style as a LIS professional? Do you have reading or continuing education resources to share? Leave your comments.
Academic librarian and blogger La Loria Konata reflects on my low-morale study’s discussion of trigger events, maps it to the Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones’ sudden reversal on his – and his players’ – political activities, and considers the fallout. Click the image to read.
This post offers a running list of my published low-morale research. The original study (2017) and follow-up study (2019) may be behind paywalls, depending on your subscription-access to the journals. The latter studies (2021) are Open Access. Consider bookmarking this link if you’d like to follow along as my work continues. Thank you for your interest in and support of my research in this area.
It’s been about six months since the release of my original low morale study. Since then, I’ve presented a two-part ACRL webinar, and I’m gearing up to present the study results at regional and international LIS conferences.
While interacting on social media or presenting/discussing the study, I’ve asked folks to take a quick survey on their low morale concerns and experiences. My goal for creating the survey was to get a gauge on what is going on with people who may be currently experiencing this phenomenon. I also wanted to offer a place to anonymously share immediate concerns about the low-morale experience or feedback about my study.
As a reminder, my study defines low morale as the result of repeated and protracted exposure to emotional, verbal/written, and systemic abuse or negligence in the workplace (Kendrick 2017).
To date, I’ve had 56 responses. Here are the results so far:
98%of respondents have witnessed or experienced low morale in academic environments.
46%of respondents are “front-line” employees (i.e., not supervisors, managers, department heads, or administrators); 20% are managers.
73%of respondents indicate that their current workplace has low-morale issues.
As expected, there is a wide range of concerning issues and causes of low morale; the most common responses were iterations of:
Long-standing histories of toxic environments stemming from authoritarian leadership or residual/ongoing results of actions from individual persons or groups that have been allowed to (continue) contaminate(ing) the library’s culture (i.e., festering);
Administrative negligence, including not disciplining abusive middle managers/supervisors, poor library advocacy, and poor communication skills;
Emotional abuse, including micromanaging and gossiping; and
Burnout (lowered motivation to work, overwork, etc.)
The survey remains open if you’d like participate. Periodically, I’ll share updates or thoughts and ideas as more responses come in.
If you would like to hear more about my study and don’t have access to Part I or Part II of the ACRL Webinar Series (registered attendees only), I will be hosting a free North Carolina Library Association webinar next week. I will also present my findings at the Azalea Coast Library Association Conference (Wilmington, N.C.) and the British Columbia Library Association (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada) Conference in April and May, respectively.
“Authenticity is defined as the sharing of self by relating in a natural, sincere, spontaneous, open, and genuine manner. Being authentic, or genuine, involves relating personally so that expressions are spontaneous rather than contrived.” (Hepworth 2010, p. 107).
In my study on socially/politically conservative librarians, self-censorship came up as a major part of this groups’ work-life experience (Theme 7: In The Closet). Participants shared a need to suppress their opinions or recalled being told that they should not let colleagues know that they are conservative, lest they subject themselves to subtle or blatant discrimination or abuse (Kendrick & Damasco 2015).
During my current work on the low-morale experiences of racial/ethnic minority academic librarians, I’ve been thinking about self-censorship with more specificity: all the things employees from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups feel they must (not) do to avoid mistreatment at any level. Keeping in mind that in general, it’s hard to hide one’s skin color (or linguistic accent), the sort of self-censorship I’m considering is more than hiding opinions or viewpoints – I’m talking about something deeper. I’ve termed it deauthentication.
My working definition: deauthentication is a cognitive process that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) traverse to prepare for or navigate predominantly White workplace environments, resulting in decisions that hide or reduce aspects of
the influence of their ethnic, racial, or cultural identity, and
the presentation of their natural personality, language, physical and mental self-images/representations, interests, relationships, values, traditions, and more,
to avoid macro- or microaggressions, shaming, incivility, punishment or retaliation, and which results in barriers to sharing their whole selves with their colleagues and/or clients.
This idea is contrasted by what I observe as non-PoC employees’ enjoyment of what I call the Privilege of Authenticity, wherein they seem to be able to 1) display a full range of emotions, 2) share interests, opinions, personal life and health details and histories, family details, hobbies, etc. and 2) present themselves physically (hair, clothing, skin, makeup, accessories, etc.) in almost any way – and in (almost) any workplace setting – with considerably less concern about shaming, push-back, punishment/mistreatment, unsolicited interference, or undue interrogation.
Since authenticity requires vulnerability (Brown) — which many PoC feel they don’t have the luxury of enjoying (for myriad reasons) — I believe deauthentication has emotional and cognitive impacts with possible effects on physical and mental health – especially since working against authenticity often results in shame (Brown, 2005).
Exploring connections between authenticity and privilege is not new and has already been applied to the general workforce – with superficial mentions of the impact on racially marginalized groups (Painter 2013; Malfucci 2018). Additionally, the term “privilege of authenticity” shows up in other works on literature and cultural identity (Habib 1996; Louie 2015;).
I recognize this process is not unique to librarianship (in fact, even moreso in corporate worlds where, for instance, formal policies codify the supremacy of Euro-centric dress and hair norms). While I was crafting this blogpost, Buzzfeed posted an article about an art project chronicling corporate deauthentication of young African American women entering the workforce. I also recognize that deauthentication occurs within several frameworks or processes, including but not limited to colonialism, assimilation, and dehumanization. That being said, I am considering deauthentication as an inverse state and phenomenon, and I’m applying it to what I know: the (academic) library workplace/profession.
My recent interviews give the idea of deauthentication buoyancy. A female Latina participant stated that she leaves about 80% of her Self behind when she walks through the door of her job (an African-American female participant said 85 – 90%). A male Latino librarian stated that he “is very short” with answers about his personal life because his white female supervisor may later use his responses against him.
Consider all the possible ways PoC leave themSelves behind when they arrive at work (or represent themselves on-line in work capacities): internal capitulations over language, clothing and hairstyle choices, even food choices; not to mention negotiating decisions about what (not) to disclose in run-of-the-mill workplace conversations and confessions about health, family and romantic relationships, or cultural and social events and associated life meanings. Imagine the emotional labor behind these choices and actions. Moreover, consider the physical, and community impacts on the results of these choices and actions. One can easily conceive of a gamut of states and results, from self-doubt and shame all the way to enabling of workplace abuse and neglect.
Considering librarianship is a profession that, in part, tries to help people find answers for/about themSelves, it means something when those who can help guide this process — while often shouldering the burden of being the only one or very few representing various facets of their communities of identity — believe they must remove themSelves from the possibility of genuine interaction with colleagues or library users.
If you are a PoC librarian, can you think of instances you brought less than your whole Self to the workplace in an attempt to 1) hide/protect/reduce some aspect of your identity, culture, history, or life-ways 2) avoid defending/explaining yourSelf, 2) reduce or avoid subtle or blatant shaming or potential microaggressions, 3) counteract or avoid double-standard outcomes of which you would be on the short end, 4) avoid being used as ‘the example,’ or the like? Furthermore, have you done any of this in the service of American librarianship’s implicit or explicit values or ethics? How do you think deauthentication has affected your work relationships or library practice?
If you like, you can share your general thoughts and experiences anonymously.
UPDATE: You can read the initial results of the surveyhere. (The survey will remain open).
Habib, I. (1996). Interrogating cultures: Hybrid subjectivity as Third Space in R.K Narayan’s “The Guide”, V.S. Naipal’s “A House for Mr. Biswas”, and Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” Studies in the Humanities, 23(1): 28-52.
Hepworth, D.H., Rooney, R.H., Rooney, G.D., Strom-Gottfried, K., & Larsen, J. (2010). Direct social work practice: Theory and skills. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole CENGAGE Learning.
[This post republishes a significant amount of content originally published on January 22, 2018 at The Ink On The Page]
After publishing my low morale study, I came across Fobazi Ettarh’s online discussion of what she coined vocational awe:
Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession.
She discussed her idea further during a conference (view the presentation below).
As I listened to her presentation, I considered the trajectory of low morale and mapped it to vocational awe.
-“Beyond reproach”: libraries are traditionally perceived and promoted as havens of quiet and refuge; in fact, many libraries strive to become official “safe spaces” on their campuses or in their communities. Moreover, while we do celebrate modern librarian images, de facto practices of dress, activities, and even our April Fool’s spoofs show that we derive great comfort from having others believe in traditional stereotypes (even into the far, far, future). How it plays out: an abused library employee belays (or doesn’t) report the abuse because they can’t believe the abuse is happening in “a profession like ours.” In my research, this delay of or decision to not report workplace abuse was contextualized with disbelief that the abuse was happening, whom was meting out the maltreatment, disillusion with the profession, and subsequent self-blame about the abuse and its development.
In essence, library-as-refuge tropes increase the likelihood that an abused library employee will not be believed – their abuse complaint(s) a) disrupt users’ (including campus administration) perceptions of the library as a place of retreat, quiet, and serenity and/or b) reduce the stereotype of the librarian as a person who is in control of the quiet and serenity of the library (See Also, shushing).
-“Work-life balance”: Librarians should always be ready to work (more) lest their commitment to the profession be questioned. Long hours and busy-ness are badges of honor while issues of under-compensation, underemployment, and abuse are glossed over by the overvalued idea that librarianship is a calling. In the low-morale experience, you hear it in statements like “I believe I’m doing good work (often conceptualized broadly as “helping people”), so I will endure [protracted exposure to workplace abuse or negligence] [for the sake of the people I’m helping].” Participants in my study recalled verbal or emotional abuse in the context of being told that they weren’t “committed enough” when they refused overload projects, rejected working longer hours, or tried to take time off for illness or even earned vacation time. Additionally, participants wrestled with their own notions of professional commitment and sometimes acquiesced to abuse because of guilt (See Also, Martyrdom).
-“Job creep”: being asked or expected to do more with less. This sort of maltreatment (often via administrative negligence or systemic abuse) also manifests in library staff and faculty attrition trends. Often, those left in the gaps may not be trained to do the jobs that are not being filled; however, they are still expected to perform those duties well while maintaining similar or improved levels of service. Participants reported taking on new duties while being assigned to supervisors who didn’t know how to run their new departments. The results of attrition also sparked the beginning of reduced advocacy for library employees, which contributed to the negative emotional, physical, and cognitive impacts of low-morale. Moreover, if the library administrator is not respected by or has a contentious relationship with institutional administration, voiced concerns about attrition/job creep are met with institutional schadenfreude, which underscores…
-“Lack of institutional advocacy and support”: When a library employee reports workplace abuse, they may be met with responses about the library-as-place trope, that they invited the abuse due to (stereotypical or real) personality profiles, or because the ombudsman has oversimplified the work of the librarian (e.g., “But it’s always so quiet when I come in there!” or, “Did you shush someone one too many times?” or “How could you all not be getting along? All you all do is check out books and sign people onto computers!”). In other words, the rejection is: do not cancel the dream/ideal that libraries are sacred spaces of retreat and safety or that, outside of that aforementioned strict noise monitoring, librarians are docile people who are incapable of bullying and related acts.
My study reveals that the low-morale experience is in part incubated by negligent institutional administrators who undervalue or misunderstand the role of librarians on their campuses. They often rebuke reports of abuse and send affected employees back into harmful situations, regardless of the status of their relationship with library administrators, but especially if the relationship with the library leader is historically contentious.
Considering the original context of vocational awe (white supremacy/institutional oppression) – and mapping vocational awe markers to low morale – begs the question of how low morale affects librarians of color (I’m working on it!).
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).
Earlier this month, Meredith Farkas – who has publicly noted her recovery from low-morale – published an American Librariescolumn 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 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?
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.
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.
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.