Thursday, July 16, 2015

Are Your Colleagues Dumb? Read This, by Kimberly Sweetman

When I think back over my career of almost 20 years, I can think of one or two defining moments. One in particular happened when I was about 2 years out of library school. I was living in the West Indies, 27 years old, and working as the associate director of the small library at an offshore medical school. That’s a great story in and of itself, but a story for another day. This was back in the mid ‘90s, and part of my responsibility was providing campus-wide training and support in Microsoft Office.

One day after assisting a colleague in the housing office with a spreadsheet, she turned to me and said, “you know, I used to wonder what value a young kid like you brought to the workplace, but now I know that you really know your stuff and do a good job.” This comment has stuck with me through my career. While librarianship was a second career for me as it is for many of us, I spent only a nano-second in my first career and earned my library degree in my mid-twenties. And I looked young. At a job interview about 10 years later (I still looked young then) I was asked how I deal with people assuming I’m younger and less experienced than I am. I was able to relay the story of what my housing office colleague had said and reply that my strategy has always been to be excellent at what I do.

Just as people no doubt dismissed me based on my appearance, I admit I did the same. When I first started out, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was bright and committed. There definitely were times I thought I was brighter and more committed than my colleagues. Sometimes I didn’t listen to them. And it’s a mistake I’ve seen repeated by lots of newly minted librarians. How about you? You’re smart. You’re energetic. You’re committed. You’re passionate. What do you think of your colleagues? Are they as smart, energetic, committed and passionate as you are? 

Diversity of perspective is essential in the workplace. Only recently (by reading Roger Martin’s The Responsibility Virus) did I realize that my choice to assume that my colleagues didn’t bring value to the discussion wasn’t just my own rash, over-inflated sense of self. Human beings are hard-wired to protect their own viewpoints and dismiss other perspectives. Roger Martin describes the four governing values that inform our actions when dealing with differing perspectives as:
  1. Win, don’t lose;
  2. Maintain control;
  3. Avoid embarrassment;
  4. Stay rational.
So, when someone offers a different perspective on something under discussion, we instinctively shift into a mode of wanting our perspective to prevail (win, don’t lose), of getting our way (control), of wanting our supported choice to be the right one at any cost (avoid embarrassment), and of staying rational to the point of being rigid. We tell ourselves that our perspective is the right perspective, and the answer we bring to the table is the right answer, which shuts us down from hearing differing viewpoints. We assume the other party is uninformed or possibly out to sabotage the organization. And we try to get others to see our way at the cost of listening to other ideas—ideas that could be really useful!

If we can alter this frame we can work with others to develop the strongest plans and ideas possible. Even opening your mind for five minutes to the possibility that others have something to contribute can change the dynamic. Rather than assuming you have all the answers, try this: actively tell yourself that although you have a lot of knowledge and understanding, you may not see or understand everything. By acknowledging that other people have different experiences that allow them to see things in different ways, you can remind yourself that their perspective will contribute to your understanding. Make your primary task accessing the collective intelligence in order to make the best choice.

The next time you are working with others to solve a problem, pause and check your mindset. Without being aware of Roger Martin’s theory, this is what my housing office colleague did. By actively reminding yourself that the perspectives of your colleagues, combined with your own, can make for stronger choices and options, you will ensure that your organization moves forward collaboratively. This benefits not only interpersonal relations in the workplace but also the plans and projects your organization carries out. Plans created with a diversity of perspectives are stronger and generally more successful. And fully thinking through an issue by weighing the contribution of everyone involved really does lead to better solutions.

After spending 20 years in library public service, Kimberly Sweetman now works as a consultant and coach helping libraries and library people to reach their goals and develop superior service through exceptional leadership. She blogs at and tweets as @sweetcoachcons.

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