By odd coincidence I was discussing resilience as a psychological trait over lunch with a friend last week and then noticed a CFP about resilience and libraries. It struck me that we librarians talk a lot about change but little about the resilience necessary to adapt. A search of Library Lit confirmed my suspicion. A keyword search for change yielded over 10,000 hits, but resilience had only 15 hits. That rigged search doesn’t actually prove much, but you have to admit it makes a nice contrast.
Out of curiosity I searched for book on resilience and stumbled across Building Resiliency: How to Thrive in Times of Change, by Mary Lynn Pulley. This book had two major things going for it: 1) it was in ebrary, so I didn’t have to leave my office to get it, and 2) it’s only 26 pages long so I could read it in one sitting. The book seems aimed at managers who are taking on new management tasks and are feeling Peter Principled, though that’s not quite how the book puts it. Having known some Peter Principled managers in my day and always anxious to avoid being Peter Principled myself, I could sympathize.
Pulley (who has a fantastic name for someone trying to lift you up) has a "Resiliency Worksheet" at the end that lays out the nine themes of the book as a 7-point Likert scale. Below are the themes with the most resilient responses.
Acceptance of Change
I am comfortable with change. I see it as an opportunity to grow as a leader.
Change provides a chance for me to learn new skills and test new ideas. I like to build on the lessons of the past – my successes and my disappointments.
I regularly assess my strengths. I keep my eye out for work assignments that will let me build new managerial skills and develop as a leader.
Sense of Purpose
I like to think that my work reflects my personal values. I try to make decisions based on what’s important to me and balance that with the organization’s mission.
I really like my job, but it doesn’t define who I am. I have other pursuits outside of work that are just as important to me as my job.
Personal and Professional Networks
I really appreciate my family, my friends, and my colleagues. There have been many times that those relationships have helped me out of a jam. I like to stay connected to those people who are close to me and take a personal interest in their lives.
I make some room each day to reflect on my decisions and actions I like to look back to see if there was another choice I could have made.
My skills could prove useful to this organization in another role. I can translate my experiences outside of work into developmental opportunities.
Relationship to Money
I like things. Doesn’t everybody? But I don’t want to get caught in the trap of working long hours and taking on extra assignments in order to pay for things that don’t really reflect my interests and values. I make my money work for me. I think about my purchases before I make them.
If we leave out or revise things like "building management skills" or "developing as a leader" then I tilt heavily toward the resilient end of the spectrum. Given that one of my mottos is "there is opportunity in chaos," this isn’t surprising. The least resilient responses were the ones that accepted the least responsibility for one’s life and actions. "Change makes me uneasy." "I want to stick with what I know best." "If this organization wants me to develop, it has to give me some kind of plan." "It’s my life the way it is – I can’t just change it around to make it into something else." "There are always so many things to do." Resilient people know they are responsible for their decisions, while the least resilient people live in what existentialists call bad faith. They don’t accept their freedom of choice; they just want to be excused.
Despite our frequent demands for or obsessions with change, we don’t pay enough attention to the anxiety such demands and obsessions invoke in some librarians. We do occasionally discuss what sort of people successful librarians need to be these days, but not necessarily how we get there. In addition to focusing on technical or organizational changes, we should also draw attention to what traits people need to adapt to these changes and how those traits might be developed. What breeds resilience in some and not others, and is there anything libraries can do to create resilient librarians?
I’m just asking the question, but I don’t necessarily have an answer. Personally, I’d recommend a good course of philosophy based on my experiences overcoming adversity and depression when younger. Where some have therapy and prescription drugs, I had existentialism and beer. Existentialists believe that we are responsible for our own actions and define ourselves by our choices and that no one is essentially a winner, a loser, a hero, a coward, or a librarian. We are the projects we choose, though we try to escape from the responsibility by pretending other forces control our lives. However, though it might develop resilience, I’m not sure a regimen of existentialism and beer would work for everyone, and I’m pretty sure the beer without the existentialism would do no good at all.
There’s also the motivational and self-help literature, which often recommends the same attitude of self-control. It’s not surprising that some self-help literature contains similar ideas about personal responsibility. Of course, I exclude the so-called self-help of the 12-step variety exemplified here, which is just another manifestation of bad faith. Truly helping oneself requires personal responsibility, self- empowerment, and self-direction. According to Building Resiliency, so does being resilient during times of professional change.
I knew at least one manager who just wanted obedient sheep, but that’s the exception in my experience. Most people probably think it a good idea to have resilient employees who take responsibility for their development. What’s not clear to me is how that can happen. Sometimes the literature on change will include something on motivating people, but motivation only goes so far. Even if people are motivated they might still not be resilient, and the traits listed above can’t necessarily be motivated. Resilient people take responsibility for themselves and their development. Could one create an organizational culture that would provide such motivation, when resilient people are resilient even without such a culture? Can one really motivate people to be more resilient when the point is that resilient people motivate themselves?
Ultimately, I think the resilient traits Pulley lists mark an important distinction between professional and unprofessional work. By that I’m not exactly talking about "professional" librarian versus paraprofessional/ library assistant/ library worker/ whatever so much as the way one approaches work. Professionals–whether managers or not–do most of the things in the list. They accept change, empower themselves, find their own purpose, build their own skills, learn continuously, etc. They don’t wait for others to tell them what to do. They accept responsibility and take control of their work. That was as true for my work when I was a circulation clerk as it is now.
Sometimes lists like this pop up in library articles or blogs. It’s no great secret what’s necessary, but it’s not clear how everyone can get there, even with a resiliency checklist and some recommendations for action. Resilient people are made, not born, but the professional question might be whether one can make them when they really have t
o make themselves.