I went to two conferences I very much enjoyed this month – the Conference on Academic Library Management and BLOSSOM (Building Life-long Opportunities for Strength, Self-care, Outlook, Morale, and Mindfulness). Both of them had a ton of great information and ideas to unpack around being a better manager with a more holistic, empathetic approach. Both had sessions that dealt with how “burnout” narratives are framed – i.e., usually the blame for them falls on the individual rather than underlying concerns, power imbalances, or other systems that lead to worker struggle. I learned a ton and I am eager to rewatch the sessions that were recorded when I have the time. We had a great time commiserating about the myriad failings of our top administrators. But I couldn’t help but notice there was something that didn’t really get covered: what do we do with problematic colleagues or reports?
I bring this up because we have a serious toxicity problem in libraries. There’s a Green Book that exists for BIPOC library workers to help them avoid the most racist workplaces. I’ve been in several conversations lately where folks have said we need a whitelist of places that aren’t miserable, filled with drama, or under-resourced to the point of constant crisis. I am all about treating every staff person as a whole human being deserving of dignity and safety, but we need to talk about what we do with the individuals that actively add to the toxicity, whether that’s in the form of the -isms, chronically shirking responsibilities (and therefore sticking more work on the plates of their already overworked colleagues; a surefire way to get that resentment going), or being socially destructive, manipulative, etc.
Early this morning, because–to be frank–I am stressed out about work to the point where it’s interfering with my ability to sleep, I posted some semi-related thoughts on Twitter; I’m going to gently reword them here.
I think some of us library folk put up with dysfunctional, if not toxic, situations because we care so much about our patrons. And certain…architects of dysfunction know this and take advantage of it. This can go for caring about your colleagues, too. I’d say it’s not even intentionally malicious from the powers that be at times, and I’d expand this dynamic beyond libraries and to education as a whole. I think the blame for this is not on individual “carers,” but on patterns of neglect (lacking accountability for problematic colleagues, deficit logic, devalued work/life balance, lack of direction & vision, failure to acknowledge the importance of the library or congratulate its accomplishments, and territorial or siloed behavior). This is something different than vocational awe, although it’s a compounding factor. It’s maybe more like vocational exploitation: it’s not only our vision of ourselves as carers or helpers but the ways that makes us vulnerable (in a way that’s not our fault) to dysfunction.
So what I’m saying here is because I am able to self-motivate with things that are relatively consistent and separate from institutional whims that may or may not have my best interest in mind, I can get pretty far on the energy and reward I get out of helping students. Most of the time, that’s enough to take my mind off the underlying issues, but is that how we should be handling this? Should we continually be running down the lists of pros and cons in our heads and trying to find ways to justify sticking around when things are bordering on or crossing over into toxicity? There are situations where that may legitimately be the best option, like when you’re unable or unwilling to leave a job and need to actively compartmentalize things, but can we even measure how much energy that sucks up?
It pains me to try to write this because there is nuance beyond what my brain is capable of right at the moment, but if we’re going to deal with how rampant toxicity has become in this profession, I think we need to balance whole-self management with accountability. There are unfortunately people in this field who reproduce poisonous, outdated, and/or hateful ideology. They can be malicious; they can thrive on drama and undermining their colleagues instead of what keeps many of the rest of us going (helping patrons). We should not be trying to open the hearts and minds of absolutely everyone we work with, particularly if they’re xenophobes, but also if we’ve tried to do that for a long damn time and gotten exactly nowhere with it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as “the boss” in the last almost-two-years is that management is a two-way street. The person being managed has to, on some level, want to be managed. If that’s not the case, I feel like it’s a Top Chef/Project Runway situation where they sometimes let people go when they don’t feel like they can impart any new knowledge or mentorship to them.
It’s an incredibly delicate balance to strike. I want people to not lose their jobs and livelihood, but I also don’t want them to stay working in places where they are miserable and shittily taking it out on other people. And it’s clear that the toxicity is out of control. In no way do I fault CALM or BLOSSOM for not covering this – they were excellent experiences, and both were free. But I’d like to see a lot more discussions about this, because the situation has got to change.