How can we manage change when it is so frequent in libraries? On this show Lynn Hoffman, Director of Operations at the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey, shares the brain-based reason why when we are asked to change, then change more, then change again we can feel a high level of resistance. While it can be an exciting time as libraries reimagine ourselves, this episode teaches us how to avoid change overload.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How can we manage change when it is so frequent in libraries? On this show Lynn Hoffman, Director of Operations at the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey, shares the brain-based reason why when we are asked to change, then change more, then change again we can feel a high level of resistance. While it can be an exciting time as libraries reimagine ourselves, this episode teaches us how to avoid change overload.  Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Lynn.

Lynn Hoffman:

I am so happy to be here, Adriane. Thank you so much.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: I’m happy to have you. And I’m excited, because today we’re talking about something that we deal with constantly—change, changing more, and changing again. While it’s an exciting time in libraries as many of our organizations reimagine ourselves and our services, this can lead to change overload. Why can change be so hard?  01:34 

Lynn Hoffman:

My summary answer to that question is three words—people have feelings, and it all boils down to that. Change is something that’s intensely personal because it is a fundamentally emotional undertaking. As much as we, as leaders and managers, have been trained that you can somehow leave your feelings at the door when you come to work—that is just a big old lie. You can’t separate people from their feelings, and change always has feelings associated with it. 

One of my favorite books on the topic by William and Susan Bridges is called Managing Transitions. It’s a great read. I think it’s in its third or fourth edition at this point. It gives some practical hands-on change management techniques and tips about a change project. But what really makes it different from a lot of the other books that are out there is that it looks at it through the lens of the people part of change, and how that makes it a difficult process.

I am a huge neurology and psychology nerd. If neurology had been a thing when I was in college I may have gone a very different way, but for me it all boils down to a curiosity about why people do the things that they do. Why do they behave in the ways they do? Why do they say what they say? Although what happens in any one of our individual brains is unique, there’s a pretty predictable pattern that crops up as people experience change and process the emotions that go along with it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: Right. And you say there is a definite brain-based framework for understanding resistance to change. Will you share with us about that?  03:35 

Lynn Hoffman:

I would be delighted to. One of my favorite authors in this area is David Rock. He has a great book called, Your Brain at Work, which I highly recommend. But the framework we’re talking about today is from a 2008 article that he wrote called, SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. It covers a lot of territory, but the three big things that he lays out in this article are first, our brains treat social threats and rewards with the same intensity that they do physical threats and rewards. 

Number two—our capacity to make decisions, and solve problems, and collaborate with other people is reduced when we’re facing a threat, and increased when we’re presented with a reward. And the big thing from the article is that there are dimensions of modern interpersonal interaction that tend to be triggers for people and they very helpfully the name of the model, SCARF. They are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

David Rock founded a thing called the NeuroLeadership Institute, and there’s a great YouTube video that covers the SCARF model. There’s stuff all over the internet. So if you want to dig in to get more about it, we have the technology. But we’ll talk about it really briefly just to give you a snapshot.

I find this model super useful to apply when thinking about change—that’s because change always comes with some kind of threat, some kind of fear gets triggered. It doesn’t always have to be a big thing. But there’s always something about a change that’s threatening. It’s usually along one of those SCARF dimensions—status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Your brain, particularly your limbic system, the lizard part of your brain—your amygdala does not know the difference between this kind of social and emotional threat, and a life or death, fight or flight physical threat. It just reacts. When that happens your brain takes all of the energy you would usually be able to spend on executive function, and cognitive decision-making, and rational thought, and it devotes all of that energy to the things that are going to increase your odds of survival.

So that’s the fight or flight thing, right? You get this very fast reaction. Your system gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, and your heart rate increases so you get more oxygen to your muscles. Those are all things you want to have happen if you find yourself in physical danger, right? You want to be able to run your fastest, or fight your hardest. However, you don’t usually have much left in the tank for analyzing information for context, or finding ways to communicate better with others, or to find empathy. So even though you’re not exercising those physical responses to a threat, because it’s not a physical threat your body is still reacting in exactly the same way and it makes it hard to think straight.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: Can you give us some examples of what this might look like in a library?  07:00 

Lynn Hoffman:

Sure. Sure. So as our example—let’s say that you’re starting up a migration to a new ILS, a new catalog and check-out system. So no matter how much you, and your colleagues, hate your existing ILS. No matter how awesome the new product will be, there is going to be some change associated with that project and with it some kind of threat that revolves around one of those dimensions. That’s where the resistance to change comes from. What we often think about as resistance to change really is this neurological and psychological reaction that’s taking place in the face of a threat. 

So, think back to SCARF—what about an ILS migration might feel threatening to someone, depending on what their typical trigger might be? So for instance, if I’m someone who’s easily threatened around status, then I’m concerned about how other people see me, and how I fit into the overall hierarchy. It may be that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing competence and expertise on the current ILS, and a new one means that all is going to go out the window. My status as an expert, the person who people come to when they have questions about how to do something is absolutely under threat, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to learn this new product well enough or fast enough to regain that status. 

That threat is what triggers the amygdala to go crazy and keeps you from being able to have any reasoned thought about why the new ILS might be better. On the other hand, if I’m more easily triggered around fairness I might be worried about the fact that no matter what the new system does it will always have winners and losers associated with it. The decision for the specific product that we’re using may be well reasoned and thoughtful but it can feel arbitrary and unfair if I’m disproportionately impacted by it.

If the workflow for receiving new library materials suddenly has five clicks in it, instead of three, that can seem unfair. Or maybe I know that I’m going to have to explain to catalog users that the thing that they used to do they can’t do that anymore, and to take that heat from our patron’s own change experience—while I know that the people who actually made the decision about switching to a new ILS aren’t going to have to take any of that, and that feel desperately unfair. That unfairness might be the trigger.

You can think of things for the other dimensions too. For certainty there’s always stuff you don’t know until you turn on the new product. Unknown is a threat of certainty is your thing. If you’re about autonomy, you like to have control over your environment and how things happen to you. Unless you’re the person who’s doing all of the configuration on the new ILS, someone else will be exercising that control. That’s a threat.

For relatedness, if you are on the team that’s trying to make this happen you might not understand why the ‘they’ of the rest of the staff can’t just get on board and why they’re not supporting your hard work to make this happen, and that can feel bad. Or if you’re not on the implementation team and you feel like you’re not getting information, you can feel like you’re an outsider and that this inside group is withholding information, and that relatedness threat can be the thing that tips you off.

The first step though, to understanding resistance to change is to think through all the different ways that the change might be threatening to folks, or honestly, to yourself so that when they happen you see it coming—you aren’t taken by surprise, and you can come up with some strategies ahead of time for how to help people through that process.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: What ways can we help support colleagues through change?  10:57 

Lynn Hoffman:

It depends on your role in the change, but there are absolutely things that you can do. If you are on the planning and implementation side of a change you can help lower the intensity of people’s threat responses by trying to come up with as many of those concerns as you can, and to head them off as quickly as you can at the very beginning of your discussions about that change.

I am a big fan of early, and often communication. Even if I don’t know a lot of stuff yet, I really try to dangle these things as part of that communication process. So for instance, back to our ILS, if you’ve got that status person who you know that they pride themselves on being an expert, and you know that they’re going to be uncomfortable throwing that out the window, you may start off by saying, You know, this is going to be really unfamiliar  territory for all of us. We’re all going to be starting from scratch and have to find our way through this. It’s hard to not know how to do something when you’ve been able to do it effectively, and competently for years. But it took time to develop that expertise, nobody did it on their own. We’re all working together on this. No one’s expecting perfection from you. This is a learning experience for everybody. 

By stacking that kind of communication at the beginning it helps reduce the intensity of that response so you can get to the point where you talk about learning new things, or collaborating to make decisions more quickly.

Secondly, this whole thing with your amygdala going crazy and eating up all the energy in your brain—Daniel Goleman, the emotional intelligence guy calls this the amygdala hijack, which is an image I absolutely love. But, you can keep in mind that period is not going to be the same length for everybody, partly that depends on where you are in the change. If the change was your idea, like any threat you got over it a long time ago before you even decided to move forward, so you’re past it. But people who are experiencing the change at different points will be a different points in that reaction. Some people will recover relatively quickly from that amygdala hijack period. These are the folks who are more likely to be your change junkies—or maybe the change doesn’t have a component that particularly triggers them. If it’s something that really has to do with status, but I don’t care about status at all, then I’m going to be able to get past that amygdala hijack really fast.

On the other end of the continuum people will have a much longer recovery period either because the threat level is really high, or because they’ve had experiences in the past that have left them with a highly reactive threat response. That can come through all kinds of different things that happen outside of the workplace—experiences that they’ve had in the past, and it means that their amygdala’s really efficient at reacting to threats. But, it may take a little while for that to wash out. 

I would say that anything where you can imagine someone saying, I might lose my job—as a threat, even if it’s irrational, that’s going to be a high intensity reaction. So, the thing to remember is all of that happens completely automatically. No amount of executive function or intelligence can override what’s happening. So you can support your co-workers by giving them the time for that fight or flight response to wash out of their system before you expect them to help out, or to problem-solve, or to get onboard in a supportive and optimistic way with whatever that change is going to be.

Also, if you already have the kind of relationship with your co-workers that supports talking about your feelings, you could share your triggers and what that looks like at work with each other. So if my colleagues know that my trigger area is typically autonomy, which it is, then even if they assign work to one of my team members without giving me a heads-up first, then at least they have the information that will help them understand why I might be annoyed with them when they do that.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Overall, how can we make change as successful as possible for our libraries, and our communities?  15:18 

Lynn Hoffman:

One of things I like best about the book Managing Transitions, is the idea that change always starts with endings. My experience has been that organizations and leaders don’t always do a great job of acknowledging whatever’s ending, which can lead to sort of a transition deficit. I think a lot of times when we talk about feeling change overload what we really mean is that we haven’t had the chance to say goodbye to the things that have already ended as part of past changes, which means that we probably have all kinds of unresolved emotions banging around that are just muddying the waters, and getting in the way.

The notion that change starts with endings can be counterintuitive. The ending doesn’t have to be traumatic, or earth shattering, but any change that you can think of has something that’s going to end. It’s maybe a process, maybe a physical space, maybe a relationship. Again, even if it’s something that you’re happy to see go like the terrible ILS, it’s still an ending. So, the best way to help is to be intentional about acknowledging those endings, and doing it every single time.

Even if you aren’t the person in charge of the change, you can still do this for yourself, for your colleagues, even for members of the community. So if the ILS you’re leaving is terrible, and you can’t wait to get away, maybe you and your co-workers mark the occasion by writing an obituary for the old product. If you are discontinuing a service, or making changes to a facility where it’s the community that’s really feeling that impact, you can ask your community members to share their memories of using the library, the building, the service as a way to acknowledge the change, and the end that comes along with it. And, that active acknowledgement can be really powerful.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  17:15 

Lynn Hoffman:

So many things—but I’ll pick just one or two. There is really no such thing as too much communication when it comes to change, and the more that you can front load your communication with cues that will help lower the stakes for people, and help mute people’s fears—the better.

In my time working with this model, and working with change management in libraries, I’ve found that library workers tend to be highly attuned to three of the SCARF dimensions in particular—certainty, autonomy, and fairness. So, I try to include language that addresses all three of those when I talk about change.

So in terms of certainty, I try to be really upfront about the fact that there is no way to eliminate uncertainty from any change process, and that there may be questions that I don’t have answers for, but I’m going to keep track of those questions, and I’m going to do my best to answer them. And if I don’t follow through on that, I want to hear about it from my team.

When I’m talking about autonomy, I’m really careful to let people know exactly what their role will be in a decision-making process when I ask for feedback. So, will their feedback influence the decision, or do I just need help finding the potential issues with the decision that’s already made. That can help people feel like their actions have meaning and impact. I can look for ways to give people choices, so even a small choice with limited parameters, can ease someone’s sense of autonomy threat.

And then finally, in terms of fairness, I always try to give the reason for a change or a decision. Perceiving something as arbitrary is a fairness trigger and my experience is that transparency is the best antidote for that.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  19:01 

Lynn Hoffman:

I sure do. I already mentioned Managing Transitions. Another recent favorite of mine is No Hard Feelings:The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work, by Liz Fosslien, and Molly West Duffy. They completely dismantle the idea that you can somehow leave your feelings at the door when you come to work in a really charming and accessible way. They actually have a new book coming out this month called Big Feelings, that I’m really excited to read. 

I recently—just this week, started reading, I Didn’t Do the Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, by Madeleine Dore. It is fantastic. It’s a great way to reconsider how you think of your busyness, and how your ability to roll with changes and to be resilient helps you get past those feelings of Imposter Syndrome, and lack of productivity that all of us face no matter how on top of it we might be.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: In closing what do libraries mean to you, personally?  20:03 

Lynn Hoffman:

I actually had a conversation a couple weeks ago with a volunteer who’s interested in leadership and libraries, and she asked, Why are you working in a public library? Why haven’t you gone into the private sector? It was the first time I’d really thought about that question in a while, but the answer came to me really quickly. It has to do with equity and access. I believe very strongly in the notion that everyone deserves access to information, to resources, to the things that will help them understand their world better, that will give them the skills that they need to tackle something new, or take on a new project. To have a place where people can come and get that access to information without a gatekeeper, without a price tag is absolutely huge.

I think it’s a fundamentally critical thing for us to have in our society. To have institutions that just are in our communities in a way that if you brought it up today and said, Hey, I know what we’ll do, we’ll pool all our money and buy a bunch of stuff together, and then anyone can come and use it. That’d be a hard sell. 

The fact that they exist already is totally to our benefit, and allows us to make the world a better place for the people who use our libraries and even the people who don’t. I think a stronger society is good for everybody. So even if you’re not a library user, you’re still benefiting from it.

I can’t imagine working in another field, although I have skills, and stuff, that maybe I could apply outside of libraries, it just wouldn’t mean as much to me as it does working in a library.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

It means a lot to me to have had you on the show today, because as we all know there’s nothing as constant as change. We’re all working hard to provide these excellent library services, and upscale all the time. So managing change is essential to what we do in keeping our libraries strong. So thank you for being here with me today.

Lynn Hoffman:

Thank you, Adriane.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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