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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Theory of Thirds

I've introduced, or encouraged the introduction of, many changes in organizations. Here's what I've learned. Faced with change, staff divides into thirds.
  • One third says, “I have been waiting for this moment all of my life.” They embrace it enthusiastically.
  • One third says, “Gosh, I don't know. I have some questions about this. But if you'll provide some support, I can probably do this.”
  • One third says, “Over my dead body.” The problem, of course, is that they don't usually say that out loud. They think it. They feel it. But they pose as one of the other thirds.
Working with the first third is fun. Such people revel in the change. They come alive. They stretch and grow. They invest themselves in the future, and so it comes to bear the stamp of their personalities and gifts.
The second group voices legitimate concerns that, if answered with diligence and respect, can turn a wild idea into a profound institutional transformation. It too, results in personal and professional growth of the staff.
The third group, alas, holds many of our libraries, many organizations of all descriptions, hostage. People in this group oppose the change without voicing objections that can be addressed. Through overt or covert action, they sabotage change.
Of course, they may well have significant concerns of their own. Often, they believe they are preserving what was good, not that they are stymying what is necessary. But concerns that remain unvoiced cannot be effectively dealt with. At this point, such staff members have moved into passive-aggressive obstacles who still collect their paycheck, but no longer do the job the institution has decided it requires. Such employees may well believe that they are doing the job they were hired for. But in libraries, as in everywhere else, jobs change. These changes are not up for veto by each employee.
I understand, by the way, that not every change is a good one. The employee may even be right. Sometimes administrators and communities come up with bad ideas. But when you have been informed that your job has changed, and you refuse to do it, then there is a disconnect. There should be consequences. Often, there are not. The resistance and sabotage is ignored, overlooked. It is permitted. And so it persists.
I believe that this situation is quite common in our world.
What should happen instead?
I believe that leaders, that supervisors, should take the following steps:
  1. As clearly as possible, job expectations should be communicated, succinctly, and pointedly. At the beginning, this should be done verbally, face to face, and privately.
  2. Then supervisors should be able to describe, without rancor, with clear specificity, observations of the behavior that contradicts that expectation. The trick here is not to focus on the judgment (“you're lazy!”), but on the incontrovertible facts. (“You said you would create a training checklist by Oct. 30. It is now December 1st and no one has seen it.”)
  3. Finally, supervisors should present an unambiguous choice to the employee. “Now you know what we need, and why I believe we're not getting that from you. You have a choice. Please come back in a week and tell me what you have decided. Will you do the job we pay you for?”
Then employees will divide again. Some few will step up and say, “I'll do my job.” Some will say, “I'll try” (and so join the second group). Some will say, “you're right. I don't believe in this change, so it's time for me to go somewhere whose direction I support.” And there are always a few who will stay, but continue to fight dirty. And at that point, supervisors should begin whatever process they need to discipline and terminate the insubordinate.
But I believe in people. Given a clear choice, most of us do the right thing, eventually. And those that don't, really should lose their jobs. The failure to hold people accountable to clear direction is one of the biggest institutional failures, all too common in libraries and businesses alike.
But what happens when the non-performers leave? From the perspective of the library, why, now you can replace them with people from the first third, people who are eager to implement the change. From the perspective of the employee, they are now free to find a better fit for their beliefs - and often, they can and do.
Finally, I would also advise leaders to put the greatest investment of time in the first two thirds, and to deal with the final third with simple directness and efficiency. It's more fun, your institution moves faster, and your staff sees that openness and initiative is its own reward.
But what do you think? Does your institution divide into these categories? And what others ways have you found to get everyone pulling in the same direction?

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