Leading Change

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a lot about organizational change. I’m not a manager, and possibly not much of a leader, but here are some of my thoughts. 

Change is such an ambiguous term, much like moving forward, because in some sense everything is always changing. As Heraclitus might say, I never step into the same library twice. The rush and flux of working life always changes and adapts, sometimes to the point where if you analyze an organization you can only ask, "How in the heck did we ever get here?"

I’m assuming that any directed change should lead to improved performance related to the organization’s mission. This sounds like the kind of thing everyone can get behind, like freedom or justice. Many of the articles I’ve read over the years, or pleas for change I’ve heard, don’t get much more specific than that. They assume agreement on a mission, and agreement that any specific change will help accomplish that mission better, without connecting the two. Coming up with a mission is easy in academic libraries. Coming up with reorganizations and changes is also easy. The problem is linking them together in a persuasive way.

As I see it, the core mission of academic libraries is to build collections and facilitate their use to support the scholarship and teaching of the university. Collection development, cataloging, reference, outreach, digitization–it’s usually pretty clear how these things support our mission. We have the ends, the problem is figuring out the best means.

Assuming that we have a shared mission, to promote useful change, we have to ask at least four questions at the beginning.

  1. What are we not doing now that we should be doing to support the mission?
  2. What are we doing now that we can do better to support the mission?
  3. What are we doing now that we should not be doing?
  4. And how do any proposed changes answer those three questions?

If we can’t answer those questions, then there aren’t any good reasons to change, and we will be forcing change for change’s sake. There are good reasons to oppose such change. For one, change is disruptive and stressful, so before we change, we should be very clear that it is worth the disruption and stress. Also, we must analyze our situations carefully to make sure we won’t be eliminating something we don’t understand but that serves a useful purpose. Sometimes situations look poorly organized, when really they work but we don’t understand how. The biggest reason to oppose such changes is that they take time and energy away from serving the core mission of the academic library and devote it to other things.

Answering those questions can sometimes be very difficult. It takes a lot of experience, understanding, and analytical ability to answer them. Let’s assume some bright people have answered those questions. Where do we go from there? Identifying necessary and productive changes is but the first step, and not as difficult as implementing those changes.

If you want to avoid a confused and discouraged staff or a toxic work environment that will be unpleasant and unproductive, you can’t coerce change. You’ve got to persuade the relevant people that change is necessary and worthwhile. This seems to be the point where a lot of people fail, primarily through a lack of rhetorical skill. To persuade others, there are a few things you need to do:

  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the situation
  • Appeal to shared values or premises
  • Demonstrate how those shared values or premises lead to your conclusions
  • Address objections and counterarguments in a credible, but sensitive way
  • Show respect for your opposition and a little humility, because there’s no way you’re entirely right and they’re entirely wrong
  • Focus on your positive message and not get lost in useless criticism or defensiveness
  • Focus on results, not attitudes
  • Remember that threat hinders communication

This last one is especially important. No matter how credible your arguments or positions are, you can’t persuade people who feel threatened. The goal of rhetoric isn’t to win arguments, but to gain agreement on a set of propositions or a course of action, and that’s very different. If people feel threatened, they won’t even hear what you have to say.  It’ll just come out, "blah, blah, blah." Threat works both ways, though. Managers wield more power than lower level employees, but managers are people, too. They have worries and feelings, and they want to be respected and well treated. (I’m excepting the subset of managers who are just plain malignant and incompetent. They deserve all the disrespect they get.) To have people stand around constantly denigrating them is harmful professionally for them and the organization, but also for them personally. And when managers feel threatened, they too stop listening. Either way, discussion and deliberation stop.

Avoiding threat isn’t easy, though, because in some situations people naturally feel threatened. Knowing that change is disruptive and stressful means that calls for change can easily be considered threatening. Knowing there’s a boss who can force you to do things you don’t agree with can be threatening. Defusing that threat and leading change takes analytical and communication skills of the first order. Seeing criticism and dissent as necessary catalysts to constructive change rather than just angry resistance is difficult for us all. It seems to be  human nature that we think we’re right regardless of our reasoning and we have trouble understanding how anyone can possibly disagree with us.

But even the above list is very general, and assumes that the people involved are capable. The first suggestion requires that someone not only actually understand a situation, but is able to demonstrate that understanding to others. Remembering that threat hinders communication is abstract. The difficulty is knowing in practice when and how people are feeling threatened and having the skill to disarm that threat. That ability is the result of phronesis, or practical wisdom, and not something that can be learned from a bulleted list.

In earlier posts I’ve tried to disambiguate leader and manager. A manager can very easily call for change, and often can enforce it. But to identify worthwhile changes and persuade others to embrace them despite the stress involved, and to do this whileinspiring confidence and unity and without creating a toxic work environment, requires a leader.

2 thoughts on “Leading Change

  1. These are all good points for those who wanting to create some change in their organizations. If you just force it on people it will happen, but without support the change has less chance of succeeding. Your piece seems mostly focused on the library organization, and the need to engage staff support for change. Complicating things in higher education is the need to also gain the support of the user community [unless the change is something that impacts only on library staff - such as deciding to shift to shelf ready books]. Without faculty and student support (or other stakeholders), change will likely fail even if all library staff believe in it. George Kuh wrote a useful book called “The invisible tapestry” that focuses on the culture of the higher education organization. The big takeaway from the book for leaders is that if you want to successfully create change in higher education you have to understand the culture of the institution (or the department) and work within the culture – not go against it. So how you even conceptualize or frame the change difficult change challenge for library leaders is when the prospect of change is forced on you from an external force (faculty, the president, alumni, etc) and it’s all but a given you will have to make the change, and your leadership is tested in how well you manage it with staff – because the answers to your four questions may be all wrong but you don’t have a choice – and how well you leverage what you give up for what you can get for the library.

  2. The last point is especially well stated. That a manager can often enforce things but it requires a leader to persuade people to change.
    That said, I think the last decade has focused too much on leadership (judging by the business bestsellers) and the importance of good management, execution and all the boring things required to run a successful enterprise have been forgotten!

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