Report: The Renewal Colloquia for Massachusetts Library System (October 2021)

Earlier this month I led two Renewal Colloquia for the Massachusetts Library System. The events were a follow-up from the September 2021 Renewal Presentation event I led for the same group.  One session was for library employees; and the second was for formal library leaders. There was a waitlist for the latter session.

Event attendees are offered an opportunity to take two surveys: 

  • Pre-Colloquium Questionnaire (basic demographics and impetus for joining the event)
  • Low-Morale Experience Survey (exploring basic markers of a low-morale experience)

At the end of the Colloquia, I distributed an evaluation form. Following is a selection of data from both sessions (quantitative queries show majority responses only)

STAFF SESSION DATA

Pre-Colloquium Questionnaire Highlights

  • Library Type
    • 59% Public library
  • Represented areas of practice
    • 35% Reference & Instruction
  • Career length
    • 59% 10 years or more
  • Topic Interest
    • 48% Emerging countermeasures and best practices to reduce/interrupt low morale

Goals for attending the Colloquium

  • “I’d like to disrupt the systems that allow for continual low-morale experiences.”
  • “Recovering from the stress, uncertainty, extreme rate of change, and burnout of managing and working through the pandemic, while creating a better experience for my staff.”
  • “How to help colleagues work through low-morale experiences by understanding the complexities and developing strategies for support.”
  • “…A goal for me would be leaving the colloquium with strategies for boundary setting at work while burned out/experiencing low morale. There are elements of my job that seem almost impossible to accomplish while feeling like this. I’m not sure how to manage that and keep my job.”

 Low-Morale Experience Survey Highlights 

  • Have you experienced low morale?
    • 100% Yes
  • Length of low-morale experience
    • 50% 1 – 3 years
  • Perpetrators of abuse
    • 31%  Library administrators
  • Types of workplace abuse experienced:
    • TIE: 29% Emotional; 29% Negligence
  • Feelings experienced during low morale:
    • TIE: 12% Frustration; 12% Anger
  • What contributed to low-morale experience?
    • TIE: 11% Leadership Styles; 11% Uncertainty & Mistrust; 11% Human Resources Limitations; 11% Staffing & Employment
  • Behaviors noted/considered:
    • 17% Decreased professional engagement
    • TIE: 16% A desire to change careers; Decreased professonal engagement

Colloquium Evaluation Report Highlights

Things learned or more clearly defined:

“I loved hearing more about the frameworks so I could identify them in my own workplace.”

“The concept of “recovery” from low morale. I am currently experiencing this and processing years of abuse at a previous library I worked at. Every time I attend Kaetrena’s webinars, she helps me understand more about the internal process I am experiencing as I work through these traumas and begin to move into a more healthy mindset at my current, abuse-free workplace.”

”There are words for all the things that happens around me.”

Share how attending this Colloquium may influence your daily or long-term library practice:

“Modeling behavior and being aware of any vocational awe and how to avoid it.”

“I’m thinking about talking to my boss about the increase in my workload due to the pandemic and the lack of increase in appropriate compensation.”

”I have seen Kaetrena speak a few times before. I believe thinking of how she frames low morale helped me to get out of a low morale period time myself.”

Recovery plans (personally or at work):

“Several of my colleagues are having low-morale experiences, I’d like to support them with collective care.”

“At the library I am currently at, I focus on the things I can control and change. I look for opportunities to support my colleagues and my supervisor who is obviously stressed out. I think we are at a tipping point in our department where “library nice” isn’t cutting it and people are being authentic. I would rather take messy and authentic feelings than passive-aggression and fakeness, because that isn’t clear nor is it kind. So, I try to lead by example with the time I have here without burning myself out.”

“Read all the information provided and look at what’s going on around me and interfere if necessary.”

Topics recommended for discussion/consideration:

“When we are modeling behavior or creating boundaries, etc. and we are not being followed, we are being ignored, or are continually be disrespected. How do you keep going? What can you do to encourage people to follow you when you are doing many of “the things?”

“More on collective care.”

FORMAL LEADER SESSION DATA:

Pre-Colloquium Questionnaire Highlights

  • Library Type
    • 88% Public library
  • Represented areas of practice
    • 63% Administration
  • Career length
    • 21% 10 years or more
  • Topic Interest
    • 27% Emerging countermeasures and best practices to reduce/interrupt low morale

Goals for attending the Colloquium

  • “Improved coping with the legacy/continuing toxicity of multiple groups having separate priorities for the library without burning myself out.”
  • “I became a library manager in the hopes of being able to be for others the supervisor I wished I had during my low-morale experience. With the ongoing pandemic, I find it harder to stay motivated and optimistic. As a formal leader, I want to ensure I am still showing up for my team (and myself) during these really hard times and not falling into any toxic behaviors or mindsets. Being able to name them, and to reflect on why former leaders I worked under did the things they did, goes a long way in helping me be mindful of how I am going through each day.”
  • “Recognizing warning signs of low morale and how to counter it.”

 Low-Morale Experience Survey Highlights 

  • Have you experienced low morale?
    • 84% Yes
  • Length of low-morale experience
    • 48% 1 – 3 years
  • Perpetrators of abuse
    • 22%  Library administrators
  • Types of workplace abuse experienced:
    • 31% Emotional
  • Feelings experienced during low morale:
    • 17% Frustration
  • What contributed to low-morale experience?
    • 12% Leadership Styles
  • Behaviors noted/considered:
    • 18% Decreased professional engagement
    • 17% A desire to change careers

Colloquium Evaluation Report Highlights

Things learned or more clearly defined:

“Many of the concepts named as impact factors were new to me, yet familiar from my previous experience as a library leader. I appreciate the opportunity to stop and think reflexively about the impact factors.”

“That while I don’t think of myself as an authoritarian leader there were some characteristics under that leadership style that did resonate with me.”

“How to recognize and address toxic behaviors in leaders and staff. How to encourage and support self-preservation.”

“Abuse isn’t just top-down, it can be bottom-up. That really resonated.”

Share how attending this Colloquium may influence your daily or long-term library practice:

“I struggled with describing my leadership style in one word, which kind of surprised me. Part of that may have to do with the ongoing impact on the pandemic on my perception not only of myself but of what librarianship is and may be becoming during this extended period of strain and stress. Part of it though may be my fear of taking more responsibility and taking a more confident stance in my work. Reflection time!”

“I may take [Kaetrena’s] challenge and ask my staff what they think my leadership style is. I think it’s collaborative and empathic, but I want to hear from them.”

“It made me realize how abusive my workplace is, and that as a leader I need to keep that in mind as I move forward.”

Recovery plans (personally or at work):

“I really don’t know. That’s what I’m struggling with. How do I recover from burnout? How do I resolve the guilt I have that I’m not recovering while I’m trying to do things to help others recover?”

“Improving time management would absolutely improve my quality of life, and the way I support my team.”

“I am not currently going through what I think of as my low-morale experience, which happened at a job I ended up leaving, although the pandemic has certainly put a strain on my morale. My previous experience was more traumatic, though, and I find emotions from that period of my life still coming up in surprising ways. It took me a long time to realize my supervisor during that period did not have as much power as I thought, and that she dealt with “legacy toxicity”, something I could not name until now. I want to work on forgiving her, and forgiving myself, for the ways in which we both failed to deal with what was happening.”

Topics recommended for discussion/consideration:

“I want to know more about resilience narratives.”

“I’d like to hear more about the self-preservation tools, which I understand are still emerging – so it’s totally understandable they weren’t covered more, but I will definitely be on the lookout for more information on these when more of Kaetrena’s research is published. I also want to spend more time on empathetic leadership and trauma-informed leadership. I have been learning more about trauma-informed librarianship since the pandemic began, but if there’s information about there specifically for leaders, I’d like to spend time with it.”

Thanks again to Kelly Jo Woodside, Consultant with the Massachusetts Library System, who invited me to bring these events to their service area. Kelly shares,

“Kaetrena’s Renewal Workshop and Colloquia addressed many of the issues that our consortium members have been struggling with in their libraries. Both staff and formal leaders expressed appreciation for the insight, suggestions, and resources she shared, and the feedback we received afterward will help us plan future programs and services.

Ready to host a Renewal Colloquium? Let’s plan your event!

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Red Flag: Insularity

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Photo credit: Zachary Keimig.

In my low morale studies, participants shared observations that their organization’s culture included the characteristic of insularity. Employees exhibited insularity in several ways – from being obviously suspicious of new employees (e.g., “outsiders”) to actively performing disinterest in updated practices or  promoting behaviors that invite cronyism. 

In addition to making conditions ripe for a plethora of abusive behaviors (e.g., neglect, relational aggression – “mean girls”), insularity can interrupt an organization’s attempts to improve retention. Here are illustrative data points from my studies. 

“[My coworkers] were not very welcoming to people who are not from there. They think they are; they are not…So imagine you’re going to a place where most of the people are from the state; they went to the university, they got a job here; they never left…I think it’s because they sort of functioned in a lot of ways, like a Mean Girl culture where, you know there are people who are directors; there are people who are deans; there are people who are managers. So there seemed to sort of be this core group of people who amassed this sort of sphere of influence – and not just in the library but sort of on campus. So, even though there are people who are doing creative things and doing outreach and doing their jobs. It seemed as though, regardless of what happened, everything had to go through these five people. It didn’t matter what department you were in; it didn’t matter what you were doing, but at some point, if these five people didn’t sign on, it wasn’t happening.”Low morale in BIPOC Librarians study participant (archives/instruction), circa 2018

“…all of these people know each other. From the library, to HR, to the chancellor’s office. They’re all in the same churches. You know, the children are going to the same little programs and stuff. They’re doing all these same little activities and stuff. So there’s this sort of culture there that you need to know somebody to get somewhere.  And if you are not a part of that little group, then you’re not getting in. And this is an HBCU- … and you’re just not going to get anywhere if you are not going to church with [coworker] tomorrow, or… you know what I’m saying? Or if y’all not having little dinner parties together, or selling Tupperware or whatever, there’s all these little, I guess nooks and crannies where people go to cram up and gossip and talk about each other, and plot about how they’re going to get this job and move this one out…”Leaving Low Morale study participant (administrator), circa 2020

BONUS: as you consider low morale frameworks and impact factors and enabling systems, what else comes up?

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Low-Morale Experience Trajectory

The low-morale experience is a trajectory of events that occur for most people dealing with workplace abuse or neglect (Kendrick 2017). Review the trajectory below, and if this experience is familiar to you, consider participating in any of my ongoing data collection activities.

The Trigger Event: Trigger events are unexpected and move positive or neutral workplace relationships to a negative state. The perpetrating employee is revealed as an unexpected & active threat.

Trigger Event Responses: There are immediate emotional and physiological responses to trigger events, including feelings of shock, betrayal, or confusion, and the symptoms of the fight-or-flight response (including the freeze response).

Trigger Event Impact: Trigger events introduce victims to core types of abuse and neglect: 

  • Emotional abuse
  • Verbal/written abuse
  • System abuse
  • Physical abuse (2021)
  • Negligence

Long-Term Exposure to Abuse or Neglect: Abused/neglected employees are subjected to numerous acts of the core abuse types for three months or more.

Responses to Long-Term Abuse or Neglect Exposure: Victims experience emotional, physical, and cognitive responses to long-term abuse/neglect, including, but not limited to:

  • Anger, hopelessness, sadness
  • Hypertension, migraines
  • Procrastination, hyperviligance

Impacts on Daily Work & Career Outlook: Low morale victims experience reduced interest in their work, professional development, and begin doubting or reconsidering their career choice and path.

Commencement of Coping Strategies:  Low morale victims begin engaging in positive or negative coping behaviors (yoga, overeating, mediation, binge-watching television). These behaviors do not impact the abuser(s) or the dysfunctional workplace.

Attempts to Reduce or Resolve the Experience: Victims begin to take actions to resolve or end their experience, and these actions impact the abuser and/or the workplace. Popular mitigation methods include:

  • Job searching
  • Documenting abuser behaviors
  • Reporting abuse to Human Resources
  • Creating new policies or procedures

Long-Term Impacts Revealed: Victims have sustained feelings of reduced professional confidence, mistrust of colleagues, skepticism of coworkers, and difficulties with decision-making – even at a new job with less or no dysfunction. Negative physical and mental health outcomes may also continue.

Low Morale Recovery: Recovery from long-term abuse or neglect is long-term and not guaranteed, particularly if mental and physical health is deeply compromised (e.g., PTSD, cardiovascular issues). Positive recovery efforts include therapy, counseling and engagement in professional development.

Lessons Learned from the Low-Morale Experience: Low morale victims note their experiences have increased their empathy & compassion in subsequent workplaces and spurred their development of positive leadership styles.

This trajectory has been validated for Black Indigenous, and People of Color (Kendrick & Damasco 2019), employees working in public libraries (Kendrick 2021), and employees who shared how they left a low-morale workplace. (Kendrick 2021).

Sound familiar? Share your story.

Works Cited

Kendrick, K.D. (2017). The low-morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological studyJournal of Library Administration, 57(8): 846-878.

Kendrick, K.D. (2021). Leaving the low-morale experience: A qualitative studyAlki: The Washington Library Association Journal, 37(9): 9-24.

Kendrick, K.D. & Damasco, I.T. (2019). Low morale in ethnic and racial minority academic librarians: An experiential studyLibrary Quarterly, 68(2):174-212.

Kendrick, K.D. (2021). The public librarian low-morale experience: A qualitative studyPartnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 15(2): 1-32.

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Low Morale Frameworks

While the low-morale experience is a unique phenomenon, it can be housed within several frameworks, some of which are distinctive to helping professions like librarianship, and others that are found in the general workforce. 

Ambiguous Loss – a loss that occurs without a significant likelihood of reaching emotional closure or a clear understanding. (Boss 2000; See Also, low morale and ambiguous loss during COVID-19).

Burnout – physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion due to protracted engagement in emotionally demanding environments. (Pines & Aronson 1988)

Compassion Fatigue – also known as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatization, compassion fatigue is “a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper” (Figley 2005). NOTE: Compassion fatigue is differentiated from burnout, and they can co-exist.

Congeniality and Competence Conflation – centering and/or confusing feelings of friendliness or social comfort with co-workers as signs of their professional competence (Freedman 2009).

Job Precarity – lack of fairly compensated, stable, permanent work and associated benefits. (Henninger, Brons, Riley & Yin 2019; See Also, more research being done about job precarity in library workplaces).

LIS Behavior Culture (“Library Nice” see more here from Donna Lanclos) – privileging performances of politeness over correction/discipline of toxic behaviors or recognition/amelioration of deep-seated systems of inequity, oppression, or exclusion.

Resilience Narratives – individuals are placed in charge of /blamed for organizational/system failures. (Berg, Galvan & Tewell 2018)

Vocational Awe – weaponization of LIS Values against practitioners; over-centering of work identity; resistance to field critique (Ettarh 2017; See Also, how vocational awe maps to low-morale experiences).

Are any of these familiar to you?  In your low-morale experience, how did these structures manifest?

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Report: The Renewal Presentation for Massachusetts Library System (September 2021)

In late September, I was hosted virtually by the Massachusetts Library System – I led an online Renewal Presentation event for the membership, sharing the data from my low-morale studies. The event was recorded for Massachusetts Library System members for them to prepare for the subsequent Renewal Colloquia, which are slated for October 6.

Before the event, attendees were offered reflection prompts, and at the end of the event, attendees were also offered a chance to evaluate the Presentation.

Following is a selection of data from the evaluation.

Presentation Evaluation Report Highlights

Things learned or more clearly defined:

“I was familiar with Kaetrena’s research and am a follower of her on social media, but I really appreciated the time that she took to explain the low morale experience and how it manifests itself physically, emotionally, and mentally. “Work dread” is real!”

 “I had never thought of library administrators creating low morale experiences because they come from low morale experiences. Or just that they may also be having their own low morale experiences because of some of the reasons we as staff are also having low morale experiences. There was a lot to think about there.”

“I felt like the emotions we feel were validated. That we are not just a bunch of hard-to-please complainers.

Share how attending this Presentation may influence your daily or long-term library practice:

“Ultimately, I have realized over the past 18 months the value of creating boundaries and saying no to things that just don’t fit in to my daily work life. It is very important to me to not continue to feel low and burned out. I feel like this presentation (and the next one in October) will provide me with some useful tools and strategies to continue to identify what is causing my low morale and work to improve my situation.”

“I think I will see my coworkers and their attitudes through a different lens. We are all at different stages in our lives/careers and are affected differently by the circumstances we work in. I think I will be able to be there for them while I’m helping myself.”

“Just helpful to be reminded how much emotional labor our work is and that be have to be mindful of it and to take care of ourselves.”

Recovery plans (personally or at work):

“Try to make my personal life very full; continue to work only during work hours; find a better employment situation.”

“Attend 2nd renewal session for Library Leaders. Continue to learn more about this topic.”

“I have faced low morale in the past. I am not currently feeling that way, but will have tools to work on it when it rears itself again.”

Topics recommended for discussion/consideration:

“How can we deal with this from administrators? What are happy outcomes (and what actions were taken) when people have been able to get rid of the abusers?”

“How to handle those who come to me from both sides of an abusive situation. How to ease someone who has felt targeted long term and has withdrawn from the community as a result.”

Thanks to Kelly Jo Woodside for the invitation, as well as her support during the event.

Ready to host a Renewal Presentation? Let’s plan your event!

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A New MicroBlog Series: Red Flags

Red Flag (noun) : something that indicates or draws attention to a problem, danger, or irregularity. Merriam-Webster

Low-morale experience data and anecdotes highlight that, for a variety of reasons, victims often discount or ignore early warning signs that co-workers (including leaders, colleagues, or direct reports) or organizations are toxic and/or harbor or promote abusive or neglectful employees and/or systems. 

The Red Flag MicroBlog Series aims to very briefly share markers or characteristics of low-morale behaviors or organizations that may be overlooked or dismissed

  • during job-seeking – particularly during interviews
  • during the first few days, weeks, or months in a new job
  • at the first sign or instance of abuse or neglect (e.g., the first time a colleague microaggresses you)

As you browse the entries for this series, you’ll be inspired to look at employers, co-workers, and organizations with objectivity and be able to craft questions or note behaviors that help you better understand the interpersonal dynamics or organizational imprint – positive or negative – that may be expected of (or left on) you as a potential or current employee.

As series entries are added, I’ll list them here.

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Book Haul: Mental Health

People moving through low-morale experiences often face a range of negative emotions and feelings, and these feelings can color how they perceive their relationships with organizational leaders, co-workers, and their long-term career outlook. The following books offer insight into recalibrating perception, emotions, and feelings. What would you add?

Carbonell, D. (2016). The worry trick: How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Dillard-Wright, D., Spears, H.E., & Munier, P. (2012). 5-Minute mindfulness: Simple daily shortcuts to transform your life. Avon: Adam Media.

Dweck, C.S.(2017). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. London: Robinson.

Holiday, R. (2014). The obstacle is the way: The timeless art of turning trials into triumph. New York: Penguin.

Weber, J.P. (2019). Be calm: Proven techniques to stop anxiety now. Emeryville: Althea Press.

Impact Factors & Enabling Systems

The low-morale experience is one that moves through several stages, starting with a trigger event, moving forward to long-term exposure to instances of abuse and neglect, and then hopefully, successful resolution or mitigation. While the experience is launched by individual behaviors, it is also influenced and further propelled by external or internal factors and wide-spread systems – some of which are in place ostensibly to prevent abuse and neglect at work. 

Formally defined in my 2017 studyimpact factors (IF) are events or contexts that influence a low-morale experience from the beginning through its resolution. There are two impact factors that manifest: 

  • Insidiousness experience development (Insidiousness) – the experience is slow-moving/ people don’t realize quickly enough that they are being systematically abused or neglected.
  • Contagion – low-morale victims realize that co-workers are also being abused, and/or they begin enacting abuse/neglect on others

Impact factors include enabling systems (ES), which are individual behaviors or organizational cultures, structures, policies, or ethoses that inadvertently enforce or underpin low-morale experiences. Also revealed in the 2017 study, these systems include:

  • Leadership Styles
  • Staffing & Employment
  • Promotion & Tenure 
  • Perceptions of Librarians/the LIS field
  • Human Resources Limitations
  • Uncertainty & Mistrust

In my subsequent studies, I discovered more impact factors and systems that intensify low-morale experiences for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) academic librarians and public librarians. Succinctly, BIPOC experience 2 additional impact factors (including Stereotype Threat) and 8 additional enabling systems (including Racism, & Oppressed Group Behavior). Public librarians experience 3 additional impact factors (like Personal Safety) and 7 more enabling systems (including Policies, Training, and Politics).

Learn more about how these factors and systems connect by visiting the links.

As you review the impact factors and enabling systems, do any apply to a low-morale experience you’ve faced?

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Renewals Reach: Job creep in special collections roles

Warren and Scoulas approach causes of burnout in special collecitons public access roles, citing that daily work often exceeds the duties outlined in formal job descriptions, along with how practitioners view these additional ephemeral work expectations. 

Access the article (possible paywall)