Change and Resilience

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.

Continuous Learning

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.

Self Empowerment

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. 

Personal Identity

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. 

Skill Shifting

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.

11 thoughts on “Change and Resilience

  1. Thanks for the wonderful musing on resilience. I just wanted to chime in to say that of all those traits mentioned, while all are equally important, I tend to value reflection above all. Ironically, it is also the one i personally struggle with the most: who has time for it! But as the simple existence and act of this blog post shows, reflection is often times provides the deepest insight into our motivations, our existential situation, and the possibilities for personal change.
    PS- I also found existentialism and beer simultaneously and early in life, though one often took precedence over the other.

  2. While I recognize that this was merely an aside in your post, I wanted to say that I take issue with the belittling of the 12-step method. My fiance is an addiction counselor, and he certainly does not excuse his clients from taking responsibility for their own lives and actions. He explains to them that they actually need to be even MORE responsible in order to avoid the situations and contacts that will trigger negative behaviors.
    Back on topic, this is good food for thought. I have never been one to welcome change with open arms, and I need to work on improving my own resiliency.

  3. John, thanks for the kind words. Reflection is possibly the most important to me as well, and finding time is difficult. Hence, my infrequent blog postings.
    And, Kelly, it was an aside, but your point is well taken. I was trying to make distinctions in the self-help literature between that which emphasized personal responsibility and the specific kind I found on the website linked. I don’t know if all 12-step programs are alike, but I assume they aren’t. However, any steps that involve admitting powerlessness over our addictions, turning ourselves over to God, believing God alone can “remove our defects,” etc., are all manifestations of what existentialists call bad faith. Admitting we are powerless and that only some higher power can fix us is explicitly denying responsibility for our actions and placing that responsibility on unseen forces. I don’t doubt that such thinking has helped people overcome addictions, but it’s still bad faith.

  4. David Brooks has a piece out today called “People, Not Prosperity” that reminds me of what you say here. Thanks for that.
    And we in the Business want to welcome everyone to National Poetry Month!

  5. I hesitated before writing this because your post is not about the 12-step program but I also object to someone making what I consider to be an uninformed and easy, cheap shot at it. The 12 step program does not absolve you from personal responsibility — it makes you face everything you have ever done wrong and then go admit it to people (not just acknowledge it in your head) and try to make amends. It is ruthless in its pursuit of personal responsibility for your actions. Admitting that you are powerless over your addiction is not the same as admitting you are powerless over your actions. Your argument is that people in 12 step programs are living in bad faith and are therefore not as resilient. I would say that people who have the support of a group that encourages personal responsibility, personal reflection, and better choices in life makes them more resilient.

  6. I seem to have stumbled onto an area where people have very passionate concerns. To be clear, I am NOT talking about the reality or efficacy of 12-step programs. If the programs encourage personal responsibility as Kelly and Lucy insist, then so much the better for them. This emphasis is only in a few of the steps, though, esp 4, 5, 8, 9, and 10, which are inconsistent with several others.
    I was referring to particular steps in the program that do not support this conclusion, which I paraphrased. Perhaps it would be clearer if I quoted the steps I was referring to in full.
    Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable
    Admitting you’re powerless over your addiction IS admitting you’re powerless over your actions, in particular the actions that accompany your addiction. If I can’t stop doing whatever it is I’m “addicted to,” then I’m “powerless” over those actions. This might be the case, but it’s still what existentialists would call bad faith, because they don’t believe people are really powerless. The fact that people, often with encouragement and support, do stop harmful addictive behaviors proves they were not in fact powerless over their addiction.
    Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
    At least among the atheistic existentialists, this is utter nonsense, and regardless it’s another admission of our own powerlessness over our actions.
    Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
    The “as we understood God” relativistic nonsense aside, this in essence says the same thing, that not only are we not responsible for our actions, but that only if we make God responsible can we free ourselves. I suppose a Kierkegaardian reading could be made, but in the thought of Nietzsche, Sartre, and all non-theistic existentialist this would just be more bad faith.
    Step 6 – Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
    This is the most escapist bad faith of all, and it directly implies that we are incapable of altering our character on our own, but must have God do it. If you believe this statement, then you believe that the people who have stopped harmful addictive behavior have not done so because they chose to, but because God fixed them. Lots of people believe that, but from the existentialist perspective it’s still bad faith.
    Step 7 – Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
    Here, we know that we’re doing things we don’t really want to do, but again rely on some alleged “higher power” to fix us because we can’t fix ourselves.
    Step 11 – Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out
    Here again, the “power” comes from some being outside us, rather than being tied to our choices and actions.
    It seems to me that the rhetoric of the 12 steps is incoherent, and also incompatible with the reality. If the reality is people take responsibility for their actions and end their addictions, then that’s great. But it’s simply contradictory to believe that we are responsible for our actions AND that only God can modify our behavior.
    So the remaining options are: 1) don’t believe the existentialist interpretation of responsibility and bad faith and believe that someone or something else is responsible for your behavior (some version of Calvinism or fatalism); 2) accept more or less some version of existentialism and insist on such as the reality of good anti-addiction programs that encourage people to take responsibility for their destructive actions and end them; or 3) accept some version of it while also accepting its logical opposite enshrined in half of the 12 steps outlined above.
    1 and 2 are the only logically consistent positions to take on the issue. It sounds like we’re all in agreement on #2, but #2 is in disagreement with several of the 12 steps. It seems to me that you’re talking about the reality of 12-step programs, and I was talking about what the 12 steps actually say. I will admit ignorance about how 12 step programs actually work, but it would be very difficult to persuade me that an existentialist version of freedom and bad faith is logically compatible with steps 1,2,3,6,7 and 11.

  7. Two interesting discussions! I very much appreciate the remark about Pulley’s traits for resilience and professionalism. I think that will be helpful in working with my staff to cultivate that approach. We’re certainly in the situation of rapid change that is taxing everyone’s resilience.
    On the 12 step discussion, I take it that your concern isn’t actually with personal responsibility, but with the notion of self-empowerment and self-direction. 12-step has a notion of personal responsibility and free will that’s in step with the existential “good faith” model you wrote about. The distinction I read in all of this is that 12-step diverges from your existential model by assuming that there are limits to self-empowerment and self-direction (which absolutely supports the Kierkegaard v Nietzsche observation… though as I write that, I admit I haven’t read Nietzsche in quite a while).
    I think there’s a rough library management analogy that may help to harmonize this discussion. 1, 2, 3, 6 & 7 might be better understood as good faith actions in the face of limited personal efficacy. A library might (1-3) decide it needs to seek outside funding for a project beyond its inherent means and (6-7) recruit new leadership or bring in consultants to provide direction to that work. Of course, writing library grant proposals isn’t quite as spooky as developing a relationship with a personal God.

  8. Jacob, I’m glad the Pulley discussion has some usefulness. I’m not sure how to motivate people who don’t want to be motivated, but then I’m not a manager. But I’ve argued elsewhere that empowering all staff to be independent and take initiative is important for all sorts of reasons. I’ll now add resilience to the list.
    The more I think about the other issue, the more I see we all might be using different meanings of “responsibility.” Can one be responsible for things you have no control over? For the most part, I’d say “no,” though there are compelling ethical arguments for things like collective guilt or responsibility for war crimes committed by one’s country and stuff like that. But in this case, we’re talking about actions that one actually does, as opposed to ones some agency might do supposedly acting on your behalf.
    As I understand it, the existentialist position is that we have control over our actions and make choices the define ourselves, and thus we are responsible for those choices and their consequences. The question is, what can one control? The steps I was criticizing assume that one can’t stop “addictive” behaviors, but that only God can correct your flaws. Existentialists would call that bad faith because it denies that people have choices in their actions.
    In practice, it seems that people do have choices, and choose to end their destructive behaviors. If they need encouragement or support, that’s not bad faith. The bad faith is in thinking they can’t choose they actions. They can and do. If their faith in a higher power helps them, that’s great. It’s still bad faith from an existentialist perspective, but at least they’re no longer self-destructive. In this case, as I read it, people are indeed facing up to the reality that they are responsible for their actions, they’re taking the necessary steps to correct destructive behavior, and yet they’re still not admitting their own self control and empowerment. It’s a philosophical question that is only important if one desires existentialist authenticity. Otherwise, who cares?
    Then there are things we really have no control over. Can we be responsible? This gets tricky. If I chose to drink heavily and then drive, I’m responsible if I run someone over in my car, even if I’d never have chosen to do it. That argument is as old as Aristotle. I chose to drink heavily and set the ball rolling. Or there’s the terrorist logic seen in movies, where some psycho claims that if some government doesn’t do what he likes, the blood of a bombing is on the government’s hands. More bad faith, but dangerous. Or someone puts a gun to my head and tells me that unless I do some heinous act, he’ll kill me. Slightly different now. I’d say that I am responsible for the heinous act if I commit it, because I could have chosen to sacrifice my own life.
    It gets very messy where personal responsibility is concerned, but I don’t see how one can argue both for personal responsibility and for the claim that only a higher power can make choices for you.
    Geez, this could have been another blog post!

  9. In my experience, it is almost impossible to motivate anyone who doesn’t want to be motivated. Empowerment, I believe, is a little bit different. The person or group you are attempting to empower will still ultimately have to use their agency as to whether they will do anything with this new empowerment you have given them, but at least they have the ability to do so.
    Resiliency is something that I believe is very important for the youth of today to have. They face more pressures and the scope of those pressures has widened as the media has become global.

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