I’ve been taking a course on knowledge management this term, and find the concept of workplace culture intriguing: what do we attend do? what does a leader value and promote? how do leaders and followers, colleagues and loners, interact together to create organizational culture?
And even more than before, I appreciate the opportunity that working across cultures and domains has afforded me to better understand human interactions. Below I draw on my time in grad school, my managers over years and years, and my time volunteering and working in various libraries and academic institutions. Rather than describe specific situations, let me go over some general ‘feelings’ I have for some group-constructed values and implicit beliefs. Stereotypes happen, but correct me if I’m egregiously wrong here!
The Grad Student
Learning is paramount. Learning new things and making connections, especially in writing or in presentations, is more important than anything else. Languages and cultural interaction, historical knowledge, and ability to analyze or criticize is vital. Others have the right to ask for a portion of my time, but really need to leave me with plenty of time to engage in thinking, scholarship, and research. I have quirky habits, like knitting or skulls or painting or stamping, and engage of a mixture of all things intellectual. Nobody can tell me what to do – but if I play my cards just right, I can get a T-T job and be a researcher forever.
The Western Librarian
Organizing things and making that order attractive is very important. Everything should be kept in order, with the most important things flagged to catch people’s attention. People should seek me out, and not other information sources, if they want help with something. I know the internet. And cool tech stuff. And books. I should also know about every area of knowledge relevant to my people. It’s important to get books that are both fun and useful, but support my values. Minority communities, award winners (good books) and internationalism should be highlighted alongside popular books. There’s never enough money or people, so however I can get this library running is good enough. No one should censor books (unless I decide to). I should be allowed the freedom to work with and organize objects, as well as develop my professional skills, sometimes for long periods of time. I should help people find the things they want and fulfil their own selves through my library.
The Soviet-Era Librarian
Books are important. They are sacred objects and should be treated with care. I am responsible to ensure that each book is in its place and nothing is lost. If something is lost, I am held personally liable. I certainly hold personally liable any user that happens to lose, damage, or misplace an item – it’s either them or me. Only authorized people may use each resource; this usually involves letters, signatures, or ID. Copying is frowned upon. Responsibility is my job, not people. I am responsible to see that the hall is silent, the books are safe, and procedures are followed. People should not bother me. There are lots of forms and signatures. Those who do not hold the title of librarian cannot be entrusted to lend books or assigning classifications. They may carry or dust books for me, under my close watch.
The Upper Crust
Being the right sort of person is important. Degrees from Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge show a certain kind of person, but not everyone who has these degrees is that kind of person. It is valuable to be relatable over a pint, affable in passing, and indirect in communication. We are a social sort and stick together, unless pursuing a quirky individual project. There are certain manners that mark people. It’s acceptable to do what you love, but it should fall within a range of activities. We always speak positively of people, except in indirect ‘jokes’ or asides. Confrontation is unwise. Business runs on relationships, but this would never be made explicit. We don’t record what we know. We simply know that, along with the right experiences and relationships, being the right person will go a long way.
Education will change things. This is the most powerful thing we can do. Helping each child to learn at their own pace (in proven ways) is our responsibility. We’re here to make a difference. (And we don’t mind the holidays). Educating children in the wrong way will probably harm them and the teaching staff. The right sort of ‘professional development’ will fix everything. Children need the right sort of marks, or they won’t learn. We stick with our department. We’ve trained for a profession, and people need to respect our expertise. We like gifts: flowers and wine are great. We come in many subsets:
The Showman: The best teaching comes through performance and display, inspiring others and demonstrating what the class can do. A show is what wins Hearts and Minds.
The Mentor: It’s about developing each individual to the utmost. We like to help the struggling students, listen to them, and encourage them. The same with staff. We expect a lot, and we hope for a lot.
The Provocant: It’s important to challenge people’s ideas. Students aren’t learning unless they’re learning both sides of an issue. We learn through speaking, thinking, debating, and arguing. We push ourselves, and do the same with our students.
The Placement Specialist: You’re here to get high marks, and we’re here to give it to you. Push the students, test them, develop them. Bright futures for everyone!
…I could go on, but I think I’m sliding into personality types (people’s driving motivations and perspectives) as much as culture (the motivations and perceptions we’re trained into through group membership).
Having spent much of my life working alone, it’s fascinating to work in organizations, simply because people are different in a group than they are by themselves. They develop cultures, “shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves its problems” and adapts to its world and to each other (Edgar Schein). Both the functions and the dysfunctions are puzzling, and as both a reflective and an action oriented person, I’m always asking myself, why are things this way? What values and expectations and habits do people bring to a group, and what happens when these clash and one group has power over another? (The week we spent on conflict! It explained so much of why people get frustrated with each other!)
And most of all… how can we change things? There’s so much weirdness that happens when we gather diverse people with opposing motivations into a role-divisive, power-laden and systemically-driven modern organization.Yet it appears that my core cultural belief as an American is that there must be ways to maneuver in the organizational world, ways that reduce stress and enable us all to work better together. I don’t know what they are, but I want to believe that harmful cultures can be challenged, conflict can be mediated, and positive relations can flourish in spite of everything. [This is… this is how positive self help got started, however, and I’m not sure I want to encourage that…]