What do we do when things are changing around us but we are not the ones in charge? On this show Catherine Soehner, Associate Dean for Research and Director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah, talks about the dynamics of change and how we can react according to our roles, all the while influencing the change process for better results.


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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.

What do we do when things are changing around us but we are not the ones in charge? On this show Catherine Soehner, Associate Dean for Research and Director of the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah, talks about the dynamics of change and how we can react according to our roles, all the while influencing the change process for better results. Enjoy the show!

Catherine, welcome to the show.

Catherine Soehner:

Thank you. I’m so delighted to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: I’m delighted to have you here talking with me about managing change when you’re not the one in charge. We’ve all been in a position when much is changing around us, and we are not the ones making the decisions about how that happens. As we start, what would you say is the most important thing to think about when we find ourselves in that position?  01:25 

Catherine Soehner:

I would say one of the most important things for all of us to keep in mind—first of all, that change happens to everyone, and that it is a pretty common thing, especially in libraries. Now most time changes are small. We barely even notice them, but when big change happens we notice pretty clearly that we’re in the midst of something that is challenging. 

I would say one of the most important things to keep in mind is that our center of control is somewhat limited. I always invite people to imagine placing a hula hoop over their body. What we have control over as humans is what’s inside that hula hoop. Everything else is outside of our control. Really understanding that and embracing that that’s where our control is gives us a lot of freedom. We can have big reactions, but we are then responsible for what we say and do with those reactions, right? The only person I can truly change is myself.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  How do people in organizations typically respond to change, and how does this affect the overall library?  02:51 

Catherine Soehner:

Barry Oshry offers us a really interesting human systems model for how we respond, just generally, in organizations. But that is highlighted even more when we’re in a big organizational change. He splits up every organization into three tiers. The people at the top—those are your typical administrators in academia. Those are usually associate deans, deans, directors, associate directors—those are the people that typically are at the top. Then there are folks that are in the middle, and they are generally somewhere between the tops and the people at the bottom—so, there’s a middle group. 

And then there’s folks at the bottom. I like to start with the point of view of the people at the bottom of an organization because we do see what’s happening, and where there are problems. It’s really clear to us when there’s an issue, but what also comes with the idea of being at the bottom of an organization is that there’s a sense that the people who are in charge are not seeing the problems, or they can see the problems and they’re just refusing to fix them. It’s a world in which our lives are being controlled by the people at the top and they’re making a mess of it. 

Then people in the middle have to, somehow, navigate what is being told to them from the top and how their folks beneath them will respond. They’re being pulled back and forth, right? The leadership says this is the new direction. I know when I hear that, that my folks who are reporting to me will not like it, then what do I do with that mess? Do I try to appease my supervisor, or appease the people who report to me? It’s a world in which we get very little positive reinforcement from anybody because they’re always trying to make sure that I’m on their side when I’m in that middle.

Then finally, people at the top—when we’re at the top of an organization we are sometimes lulled into thinking that we should take care of every issue. Every issue that shows up is somehow ours, and ours alone to deal with. Barry Oshry suggests that for folks at the top—in order to get rid of this—us against them, kind of, situation that just tends to happen, not because we’re bad, but because we’re human. Organizations react this way. It’s just a human phenomena—doesn’t mean we’re bad, just means we’re being human.

He suggests to folks at the top to quit trying to take it on ourselves and to invite people to the table to work out the big problems, and to share as much information as we can share. Really he calls the leadership to transparency. Anyway, that’s that top piece.

Folks in the middle—he recommends to them to really try to help the folks at the top understand what’s happening from the point of view of the people at the bottom of the organization and vice versa, and to get them talking to one another.

Then finally at the bottom—he recommends folks at the bottom to really set aside that belief that the people at the top are going to fix everything. They’re not likely to be able to. He really encourages folks who are typically at the bottom of an organization to think about what’s within their control to manage. What do they have control over? Who else sees the problem and could help change it—really empowering people at the bottom of the organization to think through how they might make things better for themselves and their colleagues.

It goes on and on. This is such a mind-blowing opportunity to think about how the organization looks depending on where you are. The other thing that’s fascinating is that those positions in the organization are fluid. When I’m in the library I’m at the top of that organization, but when you look at the overall campus—I’m at the bottom [laughs]. Nobody comes knocking on my door about who should be the next dean of the college of education. Nobody really cares what I think about that [laughs]. I’m given opportunity to provide feedback, but no one’s knocking on my door for that kind of information—I’m at the bottom. 

Then if the dean of the libraries, who is my boss, says, Oh, here’s the new direction. And I know my folks aren’t going to like it—I’m right there in the middle. My position in the organization shifts depending on what situation I’m facing. 

I do think that in forums a lot of how we experience change in an organization, how we can help ourselves and others understand why we feel the way we do—understand that our leaders are simply human, and they’re doing the best they can to get through the darn day—just like everybody else.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3:  Interesting perspectives. As individuals how do we think about our own role in our organization and what they mean for how we personally contribute to change dynamics?  08:14 

Catherine Soehner:

That’s a really good question because as I was mentioning, Barry Oshry really encourages us as individuals to see where our power is. When we’re being asked for feedback, it’s important to give it. This is your supervisor really trying to break out of that mold of us against them. They’re inviting you to the table. 

The problem with asking for feedback, or being asked for feedback—when my boss asks me for feedback I really deeply hope, and sometimes expect, that they’ll take my suggestion [laughs] as it is, the entire thing and do it. After all, my ideas are fabulous and why wouldn’t they? It becomes very disappointing if the person in charge decides to go a different direction, right?

Well then, they didn’t really want my feedback is what I start to think. They just went with the opinions of the people that they really like. We make up reasons why our feedback wasn’t taken. But the funny thing is, the truth of the matter is, that we are going to disagree with our supervisor. Being heard is not about being agreed with. It’s a different thing. My boss heard me just fine, she just disagreed. 

It’s important to understand that feedback, and being asked for feedback is one of the big ways that our supervisors are asking us to participate in the change, but also to understand that our expectations can get in the way. I read somewhere that an expectation is a premeditated resentment [laughter], and I just love that idea, right? Because, it is often our expectations that are the true problem.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4:  Are there ways we can influence change processes in our work to help get better results?  10:16 

Catherine Soehner:

Yes, there are ways that we can influence the change process—certainly by giving feedback when we’re asked. But furthermore, when a person who is in a leadership position says, Hey, this is the new direction. It seems like they’re not only sold on it, but they’ve already made the decision. If that’s the case. If one of your leaders does do that kind of thing, and doesn’t ask for feedback, but just makes the decision, one of the things that is within our control is—how will we deal with that?

Now if I can see that there’s a real problem with that direction, it’s very likely that person in leadership doesn’t know about it, and it’s really going to make their idea crash and burn, then I can bring that—it’s new information, right? But, it’s important to think about how to address our supervisors. It’s important to always have the front of our suggestions that we want our leaders to succeed. Their success is our success. If my leader fails, that is not going to help me do what I want to do and serve the people, and do the things. If they’re failing it’s a problem for everybody. 

I usually start with, I want you to succeed, and I’m here to help make that happen. I understand that you want to go in this new direction, and I have some information, and some concerns, because I can see where things might go wrong. That’s one component. The next component is to offer options for mitigating that problem. Well, we could do option A, or option B, or option C. Now if you go with any of these options I will be the first person to take a stab at a draft. I’d be happy to do that for you. How else can I help? 

It is one of the most powerful things that we have at our disposal as employees is offering to help. Imagine what that feels like to someone who is in leadership who already feels the pressure of making all of this work, and to have someone come into my office and say, Catherine, how can I help you? You look a little overwhelmed. Oh, my goodness! It’s like the heavens have parted and the light is shining, and there’s angels singing, right? It’s a glorious moment, and I highly recommend that people use that power a lot. Barry Oshry calls it, ease the conditions of others—as a very powerful piece that we all bring to the workplace. How can I help you succeed? How can I ease the pressures for you? Often I get more out of that moment than does the supervisor.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: That sounds incredible. How do transparency and feedback play into managing change?  13:18 

Catherine Soehner:

I talked a little bit about feedback and our expectations, and how important it is to give feedback when we’re asked—in a constructive way. Transparency is another one of those concepts that we often allude to, or even talk about directly when we’re talking about change. We want, from our leaders, more opportunity for us to give feedback, and we want them to be transparent. But again, our expectations get in the way. What do I hope to have happen when my leader says, All right, I’ve heard all the feedback and I would like to broaden our food and drink policy so that it’s a free-for-all. You want to order pizza, by all means bring it to the library. Let’s imagine that for a moment I really think that’s the wrong decision. Then it’s like, Why would you do that? The supervisor says, Well, here are the reasons. The reasons A, B, and C are why we should do this. 

What I hope, and even sometimes expect, is that when I hear reasons A, B, and C for a change that I will agree with them, and I will be like, Oh, I get it, of course, reasons A, B, and C! Of course, anyone in their right mind would make this change as a result. But what happens in reality, is I say, Reasons A, B, and C, are you kidding me? Those are the stupidest reasons I’ve ever heard in my life to make that change. You’re clearly not being transparent because this just doesn’t make any sense. There must be some other reason why you decided to go in that direction—you’re just not telling me. Clearly you’re not being transparent.

What this does is that it sets up both people for being terribly disappointed and upset, right? The leader is trying to be transparent. They’re telling you why. What they hope and expect is that all the employees will be like, Oh, we get it! We agree with you. That’s what the leader wants. It’s also what the employee wants. They want to say, Oh, reasons A, B, and C—of course I get it.

But they don’t. Talking about transparency and what it means to disagree, and welcoming disagreement with an understanding that the leader’s likely unable to do everything everybody wants. They will have to decide, and that they will do their best to bring back a reason for that decision, and that people may still disagree with me. 

It’s like the crux of the problems are our expectations, both around transparency and around feedback because we equate being heard with being agreed with. It’s a really false connection between the two. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6:  Just hearing you say that is liberating. Is there anything else you would like to share?  16:15 

Catherine Soehner:

I also have a message for folks who are in charge. Whenever possible, invite feedback. You don’t have to put everything you hear into practice. That’s not what that’s about. It is about deeply listening and seeing if there might be a better way to do your idea, or ways in which you can mitigate some of the problems that people are bringing up. I highly recommend talking about transparency, feedback, and our expectations, and inviting disagreement. 

As we are embarking on an earthquake retrofit and renovation of this building, I start with saying, I want your feedback, and you are going to disagree with me, and you’re likely to disagree with one another. Let’s try to be kind in our disagreements, so that we can all be friends with one another afterwards, and should there be a question to go with direction A, or direction B, I’ll be making that choice as your director. You may still disagree with me. I just want to be clear about who’s making the decision. This isn’t a vote. Just because I disagree with you, doesn’t mean I’ve stopped liking you or appreciating you, or valuing you. I just need to hear the feedback. [laughter]

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Thank you. Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  17:39 

Catherine Soehner:

I do. There are a few that have really changed my outlook on leadership and have changed my leadership style significantly. One of them is the book by Barry Oshry. The title is, the Possibilities of Organization. It’s a 1992 book, but human beings really haven’t changed much [laughs], I really love his model of thinking about how we as humans work in an organization. 

The other book I recommend is by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. It’s called, Thanks for the Feedback. This was written in 2015, it’s a little more current there. Again, a full read is great if you can do it, if not go to the section where they talk about tell me more. It will blow your mind and change you forever [laughter]. So, do that. 

And finally there’s this book called, Managing Up, Expert Solutions to Everyday Challenges. It’s a really thin book and can be read in about forty-five minutes, but it does have really great advice about how to speak to your supervisor. If you are planning on doing that I highly recommend taking a look at that particular book.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8:  I appreciate you sharing those. Catherine in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  19:02 

Catherine Soehner:

Libraries are so important. I think one of the big things that we offer is that we are a space that is open to everyone, and that we do our best to level the playing field so that resources are not just for those who can afford them, but they are for everyone on campus. Once we’ve purchased a resource we want to make that available for free to everyone, whether you’re from a college that has a ton of money or a college that is very poor—it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a first generation student, or someone who’s a legacy—doesn’t matter. Everyone has access to the same experts, the same resources, the same tools. I really like that value of libraries.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Catherine, thank you. We all find ourselves in positions where things are changing around us and we’re not always the ones making the decisions. This conversation is enlightening in terms of what our role can be, the seat we’re sitting in, and the perspectives we bring. It’s helpful as we navigate how each of us can contribute to change dynamics. So, I truly appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this today.  19:59 

Catherine Soehner:

Sure, well, thank you again for inviting me. It’s such a joy to do this.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com 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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