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Auditing Kindness

Corporations have The No A**hole Rule, but the motivation and measurement in a for-profit is always the bottom line. The a**hole in the office makes a lot of money, but holds everyone else back with toxic behavior. Fire him, and everyone else steps up their game and increases earnings. Profit provides a reason to hire, fire and take action. Libraries, like most non-profits, deal more in intangibles and don’t look to the balance sheet for guidance.

Michael Stephens has used the phrase “kindness audit” most publicly, and several other people have proposed the idea to me recently as well. I love the oxymoronic feel of it – the mental image of IRS agents with felt hearts pinned to their lapels, clutching clipboards and red pens.

Kindness may seem soft and fuzzy and a silly thing to be talking about with respect to the workplace. But that’s the point of The No A**hole Rule. A jerk who does his job well still hurts the whole company. We’re in the kindness business – public service. It’s not a switch we can just flip. If our organizational culture is unkind, how well are we really serving our patrons?

So, yes, a kindness audit asks us to do a little self reflection, to think about how we interact with people. It’s more personal, but it could make for a better workplace and improved service to our users. But what’s in a kindness audit? How to quantify the unquantifiable? What’s on that clipboard?

Here’s where I’d start, but I’m looking for input:

  • Listen. Even to the people who drive you crazy
  • Open door policies are great, but not only do they have to be meaningful, we have to meet each other where we are. Just like our patrons, our coworkers don’t always communicate in exactly the way we’d like them to. Hearing those who operate differently is hard, but worth it.

    Double X recently posted a short article with a scenario that’s supposed to indicate how angry the reader is. If you have a meeting scheduled on a Wednesday and you are told that the meeting has been moved up two days, is the meeting now on Monday or Friday? I’m not sure I buy the anger aspect of this exercise (wait, does that make me sound angry?) but what struck me about the piece, the comments and the responses of everyone I’ve posed the question to is the initial inability to see how anyone could think the meeting is on the other day. Monday people can’t imagine anyone would think the meeting is now on Friday and Friday people are just as gobsmacked by the Monday people.

    What’s the lesson? First of all, just say what day you’re moving meetings to when you do it. Secondly, everyone approaches life (and the workplace) in their own way and those differing perspectives have value and meaning. It’s awfully tempting to dismiss the people who would have missed your moved meeting, but teaming up with people whose minds work differently can be powerfully effective.

  • Focus on the positive
  • Management experts suggest this one frequently, but it applies to patron interactions, projects with coworkers and really, just about everything. We’re all bad at things, we all have our own foibles and faults. That’s not the whole of anyone’s being, though. Personally, I’m very fortunate to work with someone who is brilliant at extracting the silver lining from the cloudiest of situations. I turn to her when I’m struggling to see the bright side.

  • Create safe spaces
  • This probably sounds silly, but as anyone who has spent time working with the public can attest, one of the biggest differences between an office job and a public facing job is the different levels of professionalism. Librarians have a public face that they need a break from when they get into the back office. The occasional flip comment or frustrated exclamation are inevitable and forgivable.

  • Keep looking at the big picture
  • This one goes for everyone. Front lines staff can get absorbed in the daily grind and forget about the view from the top. Big picture people can forget that the crisis they just caught wind of might not be such a big deal just because they know about it. Ultimately, we’re running libraries. It’s not rocket surgery and our mistakes and problems are aggravating, but generally speaking, no kittens will die.

  • Respect boundaries
  • When people come in looking for help learning to use the mouse, we don’t try to teach them to use Facebook. This goes hand in hand with focusing on the positive. We don’t need everyone to be good at everything and while it’s good for people to push their boundaries and learn new things, they should be able to do it on their own terms. We come to work as whole people and very few of us are able to divest our personalities when we walk through the door.

    I don’t think this is a complete list, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m looking for input. What would you audit, if you were working for the kindness IRS? Comment here or at Tame the Web (where Michael has generously cross-posted this) or send me an email (kate at loosecannonlibrarian dot net). I want to create something useful for our libraries; a tool we can use to push our organizations and ourselves. This should be a group effort, so send me your ideas!


    3 comments for “Auditing Kindness”

    1. Kindness – so great to read this, Kate – I often think about your statement from CIL this year – that “the chief export of librarianship is kindness” & I’ve quoted it to my colleagues. I’ve really been thinking about kindness a lot lately. Why? Well, just it’s a high-pressure time of year for libraries – everything ramping up post-summer, but it’s been a tough year for libraries, so there’s been more stress than usual. I’ve worked on help desks where my role was supporting librarians and I’ve been under fire, much as the public services librarians often find themselves under fire on the reference desk.

      Along the way, I realized I needed to develop more of a thick skin in order to protect myself & my enthusiasm for the job and my mission and my colleagues, even when I feel under fire from said colleagues.
      A few key thoughts that I like to remind myself to keep going when the world seems unkind – i.e., how to perpetuate kindness and preserve our own sanity along the way…
      (1) Remember it’s not all about you. So they read you the riot act on whatever. So the email was ugly (or could be read that way – see (1a)) and sounded curt, mean, or whatever. So the discussion was heated. So they seemed hostile to your ideas. You can’t assume thta it’s pointed toward you or even that they intended it to come out so strongly (or that you would take it that way). Maybe they had a really bad day – just had a bad diagnosis, their marriage is on the rocks, their child hurt, their beloved pet just died, they are physically feeling lousy – whatever it is – you don’t know what that is. I don’t know & you don’t either. But don’t take it to heart.
      (1a) which brings us to a point about email… don’t do the conflict in email – don’t hit send. Studies prove that conflict escalates in email communications. Remember, people express themselves differently in email. Some people have a 1-word style. It’s not necessarily intended to be brusque. It just might be how they prefer tro write emails. Or maybe they are on their way out the door, but at least wanted to give you some response. If they write a long tome, that may also be their style. It may not be intended to be as harsh/energy-intense as you’re reading it to be. They may not be good at wording things diplomatically. If there’s an issue that’s becoming more intense, just go see the other party (or parties) in person, or –at the very least– talk to them on the phone. Have the discussion (if you you’re up to it) for real. Why? People automatically know how to negotiate their tone, soften, respond slightly differently, reword, make things gentler when they are speaking with them as they are constantly (subconsciously) monitoring their real-time reactions to modulate for a better outcome.
      (1b) be self-aware (& when you’re not fit for human company, try & lay low to the degree it may be possible – if you can, just work on the code, project planning, the newsletter, catch up on the latest technology/blogs)
      (1c) build relationships (not to mention political capital) whenever you can so you are more likely to have others’ support. On a personal level, we are all human beings & thus social creatures – it’s part of the deal. That means that rejection hurts, no matter how thick a skin we’ve managed to develop – so if you’ve got some people you can trust and turn to in hard times, it will help you immensely. To gain this support system, be someone others can turn to in their hard times.
      (1ca) but don’t expect them to always back you… know that they too are governed by their own needs and external concerns – so ultimately, you need to have enough resilience to make it through on your own
      (1d) don’t be attached to outcomes or any specific people – appreciate – but don’t be attached to expectations (this is a Buddhist tenet, I believe, and it’s so true – attachment causes pain)
      (2) Forgive them (see #1)
      (3) Think about their pain for a moment, then work toward a productive answer if possible. Being heard / listened to is first. Finding a solution is best. If they just wanted to complain, at least they’ve felt heard. If they’re so deeply unhappy themselves that being heard & seeking solutions are not doing anyway, well then – go back to #1, and feel badly for them for having to be so lousy
      (4) Reassure yourself. If no one else is giving you the pat on the back, give it to yourself. It goes something like this – “did I do the best I could do in the given circumstances, with what resources I had available to me?” If yes, then that’s good enough. If no, it’s ok, tell yourself you’ll do it better next time.
      (4a) Don’t be a perfectionist
      (4b) Compromise – think about the lesson of Ted Kennedy’s legislative career – he got so incredibly much done (whether or not others in the legislature agreed with his politics, they all admitted he got a record amount of legislation passed). He didn’t do so by insisting on the perfect bill the first go ’round.
      (4c) Know when NOT to compromise – there are times when it’s worth fighting for. But choose your battles.
      (5) Live to fight another day… If it all goes the hell, no matter what you do, don’t worry. It’s just work. Go home, revel in other parts of your life.
      (5a) as one of my riding instructors used to say, “Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you” or as my husband and I repeat to each other like a mantra when there’s really nothing more to be done except accept the situation “It is what it is”
      (6) Keep hope / keep your eyes on the prize
      Kindness, like fear & negativity, is contagious… spread it whenever you can. See it wherever you can. Assume the best (even when you suspect the worst… the kindness tax is not too high…)

      Posted by Sharon C. | September 5, 2009, 8:21 am
    2. […] enough for sharing her beliefs with us.  On August 31st she published a post on her blog entitled Auditing Kindness.  It is filled with some great ideas.  I suggest you head over there and participate in the […]

      Posted by Kate Sheehan: Committed to Kindness « | September 14, 2009, 8:16 am
    3. So wonderful to come to a posting on kindness and see a photograph of pit bulls! As a pitbull-rescuing, librarian-in-training I couldn’t have been happier!

      Posted by Jennifer Rogers | September 24, 2009, 2:07 am

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