Access Services · Leadership · Lifeskills · Professionalism · Service Models

Soft Power and Changing Workplace Culture

Updated: 2017-10-27, 10:17

I recently worked a Sunday evening shift for the first time, 1:00-9:00 PM. I didn’t stay until closing, but long enough to support my daytime and evening crew while the normal closer was on vacation. I’m glad I did, because I certainly saw some things I want to work on changing. I won’t go into details, because this isn’t the correct forum for that, but let’s just say I’m interested in running a tighter ship around here.

I’m almost five months into this position and I’ve begun getting my footing and growing in confidence. I’m seeing the lay of the land better. I’m seeing things that I’d like to change and am now processing the best way to go about it. I feel like I’m ready to start throwing a little weight around, but I’m not sure how. One of my problems is that every time I’ve ever tried to be the alpha male I’ve just ended up embarrassing myself. Another problem is that every time I act from a purely emotional state I make the wrong choice and either look like a fool or an asshole, and usually both. I don’t have the strength of personality to lead from the top. What I think I need to do is develop some soft-power skills to push things the way I want to go.

What is soft power? Soft power comes from the international relations field and is roughly defined as the ability to achieve one’s goals through persuasion, rather than coercion. I can tell people to do and act in certain ways, but I won’t get the results I want if they don’t want to make the changes I desire. I can and should make direct requests, fiats, commands, and decrees, but I also need to be able to convince, cajole, encourage, and display the changes I seek.

For instance, in the past I’ve not felt that it was the student supervisor’s job to teach the student how to be a good employee for someone else. I’m second-guessing that now. My previous experience was at a much smaller institution that demanded much less of the front-line students. Here, our busiest times, not surprisingly, are during the class switches. Between 8:15 AM and 8:30 PM, students leave whichever building their class was in and come to the library for this, that, or the other, and we can have, literally, thousands of people in the building at one time. Compare this to my last library when they were busy before classes, at lunch, and in 3:00-5:00 PM range, after afternoon classes and before evening classes. There were never more than a couple hundred people in that building at any one time.

With the service environment being so different I’m beginning to feel that we need to be holding our student workers to a higher, more professional, standard. I’m even seriously considering instituting a loose dress code: e.g. no gym clothes, no open toed shoes, etc. I’m also concerned about the work spaces being relatively tidy. We have these bursts of activity where one cannot sit down, much less be expected to put away all returned items, but they are cyclical and predictable and in their troughs we have opportunities to return our returns to their home. That hasn’t been happening, necessarily, and I am now actively encouraging and performing these duties.

So far, the tidy desk initiative seems to be working. I’ve communicated to everyone my desire and the reasoning for it via email. When I’ve noticed it not being done I’ve been able to ask or gently remind for it to be done. I’ve not lost my temper or otherwise had to be mean about it, and as far as I can tell people are complying without resentment. I believe that a mix of hard and soft power has worked to my benefit, here.

Getting cooperation on a tidy circulation desk is something that I can implement on my own, but larger changes in the culture of our student assistants is something that will have to take buy-in from my direct reports. Do I have sufficient credibility to bring them along? I don’t know. I’m considering having a series of meetings in which we discuss what we want and need from our student assistants. Ultimately, I’d like to produce a clear manual that lays out our expectations and standards for our student assistants with a document that each student signs and can be used as a reminder and codified document for the times when discipline is necessary.

I’m actually thinking that this won’t be such a difficult thing to get traction on. I’ve actually received independent feedback on this from people underneath me without ever mentioning that I was considering it. If I can show that multiple parties are having the same thoughts I am it only bolsters my argument. For all I know, everyone is having the same thoughts, we just aren’t communicating them.

The first step is to float the idea and get feedback from my full-timers. Only then, can I move forward with my plans. I’ve been lax on the subject of meetings, because there are already a lot of meetings scheduled for us, but I’m beginning to think that this is an opportunity to begin a meeting schedule that will have a real purpose and open communication between ourselves to align our goals.

UPDATE: They all seemed receptive to the idea. I think we’re going to start a working group to build both a standards and expectations document and a formal training program.

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