In a few short weeks the new semester begins. This will be my second academic year in this position. Over the last year there have been so many changes at work including a roughly 83% turnover in personnel in my department. That means that only myself and one staff member are doing the jobs we were doing at this time last year. Another position was moved under me that I didn’t have at that time, and yet another position has been created out of whole cloth.
As you can see from my previous post, it’s been an up-and-down year for me. Equal parts joyous and difficult. Right now, things are going well for me. I’m being productive at work. My biggest problems are that I have another two positions to fill, one planned and one not. Those searches are both in process. The planned open position is a newly created one that fills out my staff and gives us redundancy. The unplanned one came up when one of my staff — how should I say this? — decided to seek their fortune elsewhere.
We’ve all been there. You’ve got a line backed up to the exits, the phone is ringing off the hook, and a patron is standing there wanting to argue policy with you. You could be working in retail, a public library, an academic library, or anywhere there is a front-line public service desk. It is difficult. It is stressful. It is rarely fun. About the only positive thing you can say about it is that it makes the time pass quickly. Thirty minutes or an hour can pass in a few seconds.
Those of us who are the best at this can view these times as exhilarating periods of service and problem solving. The rest of us dread these times and feel panic and stress. Either way we’re exhausted at the end of our shifts.
I tend to agree that the busy times are exhilarating, and exhausting, and that they definitely make the day go faster. But I’ve never looked forward to them, and now that I’m the boss I have the added burden of being the top problem solver.
I’ve had primarily public service jobs since I was seventeen years old. At thirty-nine, now, that’s a lot of time on a sales floor or behind a counter. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve had a lot of successes and I’ve had a lot of failures. I have been praised and railed at; solved problems and caused them; kept my cool and lost my temper. I’ve been taken advantage of by a quick change artist, and called an ambulance for a patron in a medical emergency. It’s been an eventful twenty-two years.
If you do any job for long enough you’re naturally going to build some proficiency. I’ve never believed the “10,000 hours of an activity makes you an expert” meme. It’s too exacting and doesn’t account for raw talent, interest, ambition, or the ability to learn. I don’t know how many hours I’ve worked public services, but I’m certainly not an expert, even after twenty-two years. I don’t know that I ever will be, and I don’t know that anyone ever is. We all have our success and we all have our failures.
I’ve recently had a few too many incidents in which I fell on my face and it got noticed by the wrong people. There are no immediate problems this has caused, but I am having to mind my P’s and Q’s a bit better. The thing is, though, all of the coaching I’ve received lately is all stuff that I’ve known for some time. I keep having the gnawing feeling that I used to be better at this.
Too Many Feelings
I am an emotional person. I always have been. As a child I got fingered as a cry-baby at school and the social ramifications of this created a cycle of repressed feelings, anger, and depression that have had a life-long affect on me. To this day, I describe myself as an angry person. I’m constantly having to suppress feelings of anger and frustration, but now, it’s less that I don’t feel “allowed” to have these feelings as much as expressing these feelings are counter-productive to my life.
I’m not angry all the time. I don’t have a secret violent side. I make friends and function as well in modern life as anyone can be expected. But constantly having to dial back my “negative” emotions takes a lot of willpower, and willpower is not something that we hold in infinite supply. Willpower is like a muscle. It can be conditioned to be strong, but after too much use it looses energy and needs to be recharged. The incidents that caught the wrong kind of attention of my superiors were ones in which my willpower was critically low.
This does not mean that I have no culpability for my actions. My behavior was as flawed as my techniques. I didn’t cross any professional lines, but I certainly did not behave in a way to solve the problems. I was not working to get to “yes.” I was defensive, pedantic, and arrogant. I let my frustration with my patrons’ senses of entitlement get the better of me. And something I had not truly begun to grok until recently, I displayed a terrible example for my employees, especially the student workers. Furthermore, in the social media age I could have provided fodder for negative publicity for the library if someone had videoed the incidents and posted them without the context of my actions. This not only could have been bad for my library, but bad for my career, as these things forever float around the internet. I’ve been a very bad boy.
Like I said, I used to be better at this. My emotionalism has gone through many stages in my life. It’s gone from the unbridled emotionalism of my childhood to the repressed emotionalism of my adolescence. After that came the bumpy emotional integration of my early adulthood. It was this time that I developed a reputation for “brutal honesty.” Engaging with my feelings were paramount to compassion or empathy. I was hard to like.
By my late twenties I had begun to grow that empathy, even in spite of myself, and began questioning what kind of person I wanted to be. I didn’t become less judgmental, as much as more aware of others feelings. I still may think your taste in music is terrible, but I’m not going to tease you about it anymore. Then, something unexpected happened. I started crying again.
On a scale of one-to-ten, if I’m between three and seven, everything is fine. If I get pushed above or below that range, however, it’s cryface time. I cried more at my wedding than my wife did. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I cry with any kind of excitement. Anytime my emotions are red-lining, or heck, orange-lining, I’m crying.
…New Life and New Civilizations…
So how do I handle it? How do I handle dealing with my habitual anger and the constant threat of tears in the face of the crush of a busy library. What was it I thought I was so good at? The only solution — as with so many things in life — is the wisdom of Spok, or more generally, the emotional discipline of the Vulcans. As Star Trek developed the ideas of Vulcan philosophy it went from a biological inability to have feelings to a spiritual discipline. It’s not that Vulcans don’t have emotions, it’s that their emotions were so powerful it nearly drove the species to extinction. It was their development of this emotional sequestration that allowed them to function and become the force in the Alpha Quadrant that they became — or will become by the twenty-fourth century.
Obviously, this is an extreme model, but a useful analogy. The ability to build an emotional wall to separate yourself from your emotions is vital for someone like me. The point is to not make the emotions inaccessible, but to sequester them until they can be expressed in a healthy manner. It takes discipline. It takes willpower. It takes a psychic awareness of your own emotional extremes and current state. I did used to be very good at this. In fact, I had gotten so good at it that I started to worry about my ability to connect emotionally with anyone. I had become too Vulcan. At one point I thought I might even have turned myself into a sociopath, but then I actually looked up what a sociopath was saw that that was not remotely the case.
My challenge now is to reconnect with my Vulcanness; to regain that emotional discipline that used to be so easy for me. “Under-react” my boss tells me. When I’m feeling worked up, I need to mentally take a step back and evaluate what I’m feeling. Which emotion is it? Is it reasonable in the situation? Am I hungry? What is the real problem? How do I solve it in the best way? I knew how to do this once. I believe that I still do. Now I just have to practice.
It is a dark time for the library. A few months ago, one of my employees –a woman in her early forties — was diagnosed with colon cancer. This week we learned that she has passed away. I only knew the woman for a short time, but she was a quiet and kind person whom I could approach for an informed opinion both about library issues and management questions. While she technically worked for me, she had a lot of retail management experience that I was beginning to consult and utilize. I had looked forward to her being a vital part of my team for some time. Her loss is profoundly felt both personally and professionally.
After some confusion when the news first broke, the library administration was able to inform all of the staff members, and we are working to inform all of our student assistants. When the news finally did break we were told that at her request there would be no arrangements. This causes a bit of a practical problem, however. While the decent thing to do is to respect the family’s wishes, we are grieving as well as they are. Perhaps, not as deeply, but grieving just the same. We are in need of achieving closure with her loss no less than her family is. What do we do? How do we cope?
Administration is reminding us what campus facilities are available to us — for both employees and students — and we are already discussing what can be organized within the library that will give people the opportunity to pay their respects to our lost coworker and give everyone an outlet for their grief. The idea at this time is to have an in-house memorial event in which individuals can talk about their memories of her, sign cards, and provide gifts for the family.
This is one of those things they don’t teach in library school. How could they? Why would they? No one plans for the death of an employee or coworker. Even though we knew she was sick, and knew it was serious, we never imagined that it would have happened as quickly as it did.
As an undergrad I took a Death and Dying class that, while I had great difficulty with the instructor, has ended up being one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken in my life. While in that class we learned about the grief spectrum and how people manage that differently. Once I found out that the news about my employee was real I began looking for resources on how to deal with this situation as a manager. Most of the resources I found were about loosing a coworker and the grief process generally. However, Stanford University’s Faculty/Staff Help Center has a much needed resource available to us. It describes effects on individuals, coping strategies, and tips for supervisors, as well as other outside resources.
Just a few days into our own grieving process I feel that we are handling it well. Due to the fact that our lost colleague was a very reserved person, and the fact that we’re a better working group than a social one we are operating as best as can be expected. Her work had already been delegated to others as she dealt with her illness, and the sadness we feel has thus far been manageable. I, as a manager, must keep aware of changes in my employees and colleagues as they deal with the loss. Individuals may be emotional or short tempered, and there is no time limit on grief. Weeks may go by without outward signs of trouble, and then a seemingly innocuous event may trigger an emotional outburst. The most important thing I can do is give people the room they need to process their grief as they require.
For this week’s post I thought I’d share some images from our Halloween festivities. I’m lucky in that I work in a place that allows these kinds of shenanigans from time to time. It was a fun day and the staff and students looked great! Can’t wait to do it again next year. I certainly need to step up my Halloween game.
First up, a bunch of our student assistants carved pumpkins and held a vote at the circ desk to see whose was the best.
Next, a selection of costumes donned by our staff:
And finally, the pumpkin carving winners!
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.