Friday, April 23, 2010

Proper community integration

Our library administration is gradually phasing in a staff development approach which uses the Leadership Challenge model designed by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.

The key premise of the model is horizontal leadership: the notion that each person, regardless of position or rank, has the potential to improve the organization by sharing innovative ideas and problem-solving expertise…and that management at every level should invite and make use of such contributions.

For this fiscal year, each of us has been asked to develop an Action Plan of personal goals and objectives, based on one of the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. Supervisors can then use these plans both to mentor and to learn from their staff.

I've had the good fortune through most of my working life to have supervisors who already practiced this sort of collaborative relationship, so I've welcomed my present organization's mandate that staff and supervisors learn how to work together in this way.

I want to share a discussion with my colleague Eric Soriano which began as an email exchange about his current Action Plan goal, yet which deepened to consider a core challenge for helping professionals in any setting.

Eric joined us from another library branch a few months back, and I’ve let him know I always value the perspective of new eyes on old subjects. In an email comment, he wrote about seeking balance, so that he doesn’t “come on too strong” with his new ideas.

I’m really conscious about this as my previous training as a Jesuit volunteer was high on proper community integration.
That phrase, proper community integration, caught my interest. Here’s part of my reply:

I like this concept. It recalls to me a skill or sensibility…which seems to be crucial in any helping profession. One might call it scaling one’s helping interventions to the readiness of the other person (or group) to receive.

Scaling is difficult to do, because one has to attend carefully not only to what the other person is (sometimes inarticulately) asking for, but also to what that person is ready to understand and to be able to use.

My 15 years in clinical counseling taught me a lot along these lines. It was essential to meet my client where he/she was, not where I thought he/she ought to be.… I had to tune into “what’s going on at the moment that the client might be willing and able to nudge in a more healthy direction.”

This sort of scaling requires me to set aside both my judgment of the client (or customer) and my judgment of what would be the “best” solution/answer.

It’s tricky. We have to be able to read the signs that our customers feel they are moving in a constructive direction…even if we believe they could have gone much farther (or in a better direction).
Eric’s response was to share a story from his native Philippines which he has given me permission to include here:

I’ve been blessed to see and experience the value of community integration in a cultural perspective. I actually learned it the hard way when I was assigned to be a fisher folk community organizer in a far-flung impoverished coastal community in 1997.

Straight out of a fancy private college…I thought I was fully equipped to go in there and give presentations on project management and environmental awareness. Well, none of these men reached high school so someone like me should automatically get their attention.

I was dead wrong. Only a couple of men attended the first meeting I organized and I felt sooo frustrated thinking all my slides and graphs were put to waste.

That night, I walked near the beach, then saw a group of about a dozen men huddled in a small hut and a tiny gas lamp. Lo and behold, the same no-show fishermen with a big bottle of gin in the middle! They fell silent after seeing me.

Then, after about the longest 2 minutes ever, one of them mustered the courage to offer me a shot of their drink. I was mad and initially tempted to give a lengthy lecture on how they waste their limited resources on alcohol when they barely have anything to eat! But for some reason, the spirit (not the alcohol) moved me to not say a word and to accept the offer.

Then it happened. A few more rounds later they started telling their stories, and I learned how cold it was to venture the open seas of the Pacific at night and drinking gin was their only way for their bodies to cope. I ended up drunk, but the lesson learned is the kind of hangover I don’t mind lingering.

It may be [that] learning their language…, actively listening, [being] truly interested/engaged in people and respecting group dynamics/traditions/culture, while still trying to be an agent of positive change,…represent universal values worth giving importance in any organization—even the library.

Easier said than done, of course.

Some of those techniques are trainable, but some you just need to have. Like, how would you train someone to have genuine concern for others and truly love service?

Personally, I just beg for the grace to see every human transaction in [our library] as a blessing I can learn from. I appreciate the unique gifts of my colleagues and even the nuttiest of customers bring an extra zest to my work experience as I continue my journey growing in this profession.

And our story continues....
I'm grateful to Eric, both for triggering this discussion and for sharing a story which resonates with me and recalls to me similar stories of my own.

Horizontal Falls, Talbot Bay, AustraliaIn case it's not obvious, we are talking here—again—about real, humble customer service. We're talking about exercising horizontal leadership by collaborating with our customers, rather than "patronizing" them.

We're talking about doing genuinely thoughtful, constructive reference interviews, about leaving behind one's own pride or annoyance or boredom or frustration to be with our customers where they are when they come to us.

So many times I want to say "Can I go home now?"

But when I allow myself (metaphorically, of course) to get drunk with my customers, I find out things they know and experience which, though it would not have occurred to me, are deeply relevant to the information search they bring to me.

And so, as Eric says, our story continues….

Addendum: This whole discussion recalls to me a powerful book by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman called How Can I Help? Stories and Reflection on Service. It doesn't speak specifically to librarianship, yet it's one of richest sources I know for opening up the heart of service.

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