Library Leadership

93. Low Morale in Libraries with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick

What causes low morale in libraries? On this show I talk with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick. She’s a researcher, facilitator, and leader in libraries who was recognized in 2019 as the ACRL Academic Research Librarian of the Year. Her findings revealed a disturbing level of abuse in libraries and a lack of institutional support to resolve these situations. She shares with us important insights from her work on low morale in libraries, how it particularly affects BIPOC members of our organizations, and ways we can transform ourselves and our libraries to inclusively honor the lived experiences of library workers.

Transcript

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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 causes low morale in libraries? On this show I talk with Kaetrena Davis Kendrick. She’s a research, facilitator, and leader in libraries, who was recognized in 2019 as the ACRL Academic Librarian of the year. Her findings revealed a disturbing level of abuse in libraries and a lack of institutional support to resolve these situations. She shares with us important insights from her work on low morale in libraries—how it particularly affects BIPOC members of our organizations, and ways we can transform ourselves, and our libraries to inclusively honor the lived experiences of library workers. Please do not miss this essential conversation.

Kaetrena, welcome to the show.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Thanks so much for having me, Adriane, I’m happy to be here.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: I’m happy to have you here. I appreciate you talking with me today about low morale in libraries. This is important. While the concepts of low morale are not new, you say the elements often attributed to the concepts are discrete. Can you share with us what qualitative research tells us about this?  01:45 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Question #2: Sure, and thanks again for offering me this time to discuss my research and work in this area, Adriane. First off, I have a question for you. When you think about low morale what comes to mind?  02:11  

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

When I think about low morale it makes me sad because librarians are such dedicated people, and want to do so many good things for their user groups. Low morale is disabling, I think.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Question #3: Hmm, when you say low morale what kinds of terms come to mind?  02:30 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

When I have low morale I am depressed, discouraged, sometimes angry. I pull away from people and work. It’s really not a good situation.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

A lot of what you just said are some of the outcomes of low morale. When I was considering this topic much of the literature discussed things like: compensation; poor communication; job creep; work creep; and work-life balance. But they were perceived as separate and random, as independent facts. For instance, if someone said they have low morale what they really just meant was, I wish I was paid more. Or they just meant, My supervisor doesn’t talk with me. 

However, when I ask librarians to share their stories of low morale I learned that experientially, low morale is the result of repeated and protracted exposure to workplace abuse and neglect—that this experience is compounded by several impact factors and enabling systems that could expand, based on the type of library you’re working in, or even based on a worker’s cultural ethnic identity.

Impact factors include things like contagion—which means, I’m realizing that other people are being abused, or I’m abusing people myself as a result of what I’m dealing with. Another one would be insidiousness, which is—nobody really realizes that they’re dealing with this instance, this experience, until they look up one day and they’re in it, like the proverbial boiling frog.

Enabling systems include things from perceptions about libraries and librarians to processes that are connected with human resources, or training. For instance, if you’re dealing with low morale and you tell someone you’re dealing with it—they might say, Well, you’re a librarian. You all are quiet. How are you all fighting? What are you all doing, throwing books at each other? Hee, hee, hee. Right?

Or you go to human resources and they’ll tell you, Oh, that is just how Joseph is. That’s just how he acts. Those are some of the things that I’ve learned about this qualitative understanding of what low morale is. It’s an experience, and it has a trajectory, it has outcomes, and there are certain types of abuse that are associated with it.

The poor communication is perceived as an abuse type, rather than these independent, random feelings. Oh, it’s just my luck I got a bad supervisor. Oh, it’s just my luck I don’t get paid enough. Everything else is fine. Right? People have reported this as an experience. It’s not random, and it has an actual trajectory with its own specific mental, physical, and health related outcomes—and career impact outcomes as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: So, I’m starting to see that there are these discrete reasons why low morale happens. And then it leads to these bigger consequences. 05:11 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Well, they’re actually connected. They’re connected by types of abuse. What I learned is when people would tell me what is happening to them—there are certain types of abuse that come up persistently, and repetitively. Even as I’ve done this work and taught to different user groups—I’ve talked with academic librarians. I’ve talked with more, specifically to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. I’ve talked with public librarians. There are abuse types that come up over and over again. That is the experiential factor. It’s not discrete. It’s an experience—and the experience is, These are the types of abuse I’m having.

The discrete idea is, Oh, it’s just this one thing. What they’re saying is, No, it started here with this event—that was a type of abuse, and then I was subjected to this other type of abuse, and then I was subjected to the same type of abuse as before, and then this other type of abuse showed up. As I was being exposed to these types of abuse I was trying to stop it, and I couldn’t once I realized it was happening. And, as I was trying to do that these things happened to me mentally, physically, emotionally—and I started feeling this way about my job and about the profession.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Your work is so important, and I’m just grateful to be1 hearing about these things right now—so that we can hopefully put a stop to some of this. 06:31 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

I hope so, too.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: What do low morale impact factors, and enabling systems for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color reveal about the challenges of emotional labor? 06:39 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

In my second study with Ione Demasco, she’s at University of Dayton—we focused on low morale experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. I want to take this opportunity to say that if you represent as a member of this group, please, please participate when research is being called for—because I didn’t have a powerful enough group in my original study and that’s why we went back and did the second study.

In this study we learned that BIPOC librarians are exposed to two additional impact factors. The first one being contagion, and insidiousness I mentioned earlier. This group also is exposed to something called stereotype threat and deauthentication. You have to keep in mind that these things are occurring while they’re being emotionally, verbally, or written abused—system abuse of negligence. They’re dealing with this already and then they have these additional impact factors.

Stereotype threat is—if you’ve ever felt like you had to prove something as part of a minoritized identity. You feel like you have to prove that you’re better than, and so you end up taking on extra work to distance yourself from negative stereotypes that might be associated with any sort of minoritized identity that you may have.

The other one that they’re exposed to is something called deauthentication. This is when you choose not to bring your whole self into a space. That means that this group would consciously decide things like, I’m going to make sure that I reduce my accent because I speak another language. I speak Spanish as my first language. I’m going to speak in a way that reduces that accent. Or they might say, I’m not going to have a conversation or tell anybody that I celebrated Yevoli. 

Even though Causasian people talk about their entire lives and they’re not dinged for it. The perception is for them as they’re dealing with this experience, If I talk too much about myself I’ll bring my whole self to work. I might be punished, or retaliated against, or asked to explain things, or interrogated. So, I’m not going to bring up anything about me that might be either weaponized against me when I’m already dealing with this other experience.

There are also eight more enabling systems that BIPOC librarians deal with when they’re dealing with the low morale experience. Half of them are race-based and those are: whiteness; white supremacy; racism; and diversity rhetoric. Diversity rhetoric is the cognitive dissonance that this group feels when they see their organizations saying that they promote and are engaged in diversity work, but not actually doing those things. Or, they see actions of pushback against EDI work. So, that cognitive dissonance—again while they’re dealing with low morale they are recognizing that institutions are basically doing paper diversity.

When it comes to emotional labor the significant increase is that these two impact factors, that stereotype threat and the authentication, are internally motivated. These are things that are motivated internally, whereas contagion and insidiousness are happening externally. These actions are also a trigger as a cautionary measure or a defense mechanism wherein they perceive they are dealing with hostile, unwelcoming workplaces.

These enabling systems also significantly augment feelings of isolation and uncertainty in the group. That is significant because it threatens the goals of retention of a diverse workforce.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: What do emerging data tell us about the low morale experiences of formal library leaders?  10:20 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

I’m doing a current study right now on the low morale of formal library leaders. What this data seems to surface is—first of all it destroys a growing myth about formal library leaders, that is that they don’t suffer from abuse and neglect. In my previous studies there’s this sort of refrain that—what comes up often is the trigger of a low morale experience is administrative or managerial incompetence. People often talk about, They’re doing these things to me, they don’t understand what they’re doing, and they may not. However there’s also a thread that, They’re the ones offering this abuse and why are they doing it? Why’s it always top-down? 

This study also shows—we have to remember that leaders more than likely, come from abusive workplaces themselves, and come from abusive library workplaces themselves, and as a result they may be leading from their own trauma. But also, it shows that abuse can be bottom-up. There are several emerging impact factors that show that abuse is also happening from the bottom-up to the leader—where before we just saw, like it was top-down. Sometimes from the side, from another colleague. But this shows that it’s also from the bottom-up—that direct, and indirect reports enact abuse on formal leaders in libraries.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: What pathways does the latest research offer for transforming the ways librarians assess and reflect on their leadership styles?  11:42 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Question #9: I have a question for you, Adriane. You perceive yourself as a leader, what terms would you use to describe your leadership style?  11:51 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

I am a collaborative leader. I’m a listener, and I try to integrate feedback. I would say mostly collaborative, and communicative.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

I like that. I always offer that exercise because one thing I notice when I ask this question to anyone they never tell me, Well, I’m an authoritarian leader. I’m a toxic leader. But we know that library workers are being exposed to these leadership types, and these leadership types are more likely to promote or cause workplace abuse or neglect. 

You mention asking for feedback. I would recommend reflection, not only asking for feedback, in terms of work and projects and things like that, ask for feedback about, What is your library leadership style? What is your leadership style in general? Where are the common markers in those conversations, and where are some challenges in those conversations—some differences? 

It opens to how you can improve it as well. Some people may hear some hard truths, right? So, another reflection opportunity when you hear those hard truths is to be honest with oneself. 

I’m a perfectionist, for instance, for me. So, I know what I’m asking for is, What is the shadow side of your leadership style? I also am a collaborative leader. I believe in empathic leadership, but I also know that I am a perfectionist So, I have to monitor myself against micromanaging people. I have to be careful there. Another place is to—what is the shadow side of your leadership style that you know is on the surface positive, but what are the negative aspects of those, and how can you fix them, or be aware of them so you know when they’re coming up for you—and what triggers those actions when they come up?

I also think about traditional ideas of leadership and they have their place, but they can be replaced. I mentioned empathic leadership. One of the reasons I focus on empathic leadership is because this along with some informed leadership focuses on pathways of mutual aid and collective care. One of my mantras in terms of low morale is—a countermeasure to low morale is self-preservation. Leaders have an opportunity to model self-preservation, which can lead to self-care if they do it through these opportunities for empathic and trauma-informed leadership.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10: In what ways does your work invite librarians to consider more inclusive styles that honor the lived experiences of library workers, particularly as we continue facing the COVID-19 pandemic? 14:16 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Thank you for mentioning the pandemic and how it surfaced things that were already troubling, but offering us an opportunity to change them. I think these kinds of decisions are right on target. When the pandemic began I immediately started gathering data on how library’s responses to COVID-19 were impacting already established low morale experiences. I’m continuing to collect this data and I will be until the U.S. government says that this is officially over. 

During the pandemic librarians reported upticks in exposure to things like resilience narrative, which Berg, Galan, and Tewell discussed as, Placing individuals in charge of system failures. For instance, how this comes up is, We’re being increasingly told to do more with less. But also people are being made to feel guilty when they have concerns about things like, Yeah, I was coming into the library to work during the height of the pandemic but I wasn’t offered any protective equipment.

People have also been exposed to clear cases of what Fobazi Ettarh calls vocation awe, which essentially is what happens when we weaponize our own values against ourselves in the idea that we have to do all the things, and things like that. How that might play out is—libraries were asked to open even though we’re not funded very well. Libraries all over the nation all of a sudden became essential services where we had to be open, but we never received funding for these types of operations. We did it because we wanted to make sure everybody knew that we were here to serve. This is how that value of service is weaponized against us and put us in a position where we should have probably been closed. 

Those are some things we need to be thinking about. We need to use the opportunity that we’ve been given to reflect on how we do the things that we do, and retool them so they’re in the service of the people—not only who come into the library, but they’re in service to the people who work inside the library.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #11: Can you tell me about renewal communities?  16:20 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

One of the great things that have come out of research—a difficult topic, is that people now know they’re not by themselves. One of the ways they know they’re not by themselves is because I created a community where we could gather. That community is on FaceBook. We’re about 1400 people in there now. It continues to grow. We offer opportunities to outsource solutions where people are dealing with low morale. We offer resources. We focus on how to take care of yourself—the most important thing is, you know, you’re not by yourself. 

I think that’s one of the debilitating pieces similar to any trauma, but because we’re librarians working in places where we help others, people don’t know that things are happening to us as well, and it’s hard to talk about. But, in this space it’s a safe place to talk and crowdsource solutions, and figure out ways to end the experience as well. We’re on FaceBook. We also have sister communities on Twitter, and Instagram.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #12: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  17:22 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Yes. I want everyone, all listeners, to know my mission, and that is to inspire authentic collegiality, to promote well-being, share the gift of creativity, and cultivate empathetic, engaged leadership in the workplace. To that end I will continue doing this work, and I call on the listeners to please help me surface experiences about, and reduce and eradicate abuse and neglect in our library workplaces. If this episode resonates with you please share more and participate in my data collection efforts.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #13: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership book and why?  17:56 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Well, rather than traditional management books I lean toward well-being and mental health resources that have expanded my understanding of what it means to lead. Some of my go-to’s are, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. If you have time, also consider looking at The Obstacle is the Way, by the same author. 

Almost anything resonates with me that Brené Brown writes, or talks about. But, the one that really helped me in terms of work with low morale is, I Thought it Was Just Me (but it Isn’t). I also recommend if you do want to read a traditional one her book Dare to Lead is also helpful. Resmaa Menakem wrote a book called My Grandmother’s Hands. That’s helpful to me in terms of understanding how our bodies respond to trauma and how it holds on to it, and how organizations also hold onto trauma. 

In terms of creativity I’ve read and really appreciate, and have been served very well by The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. A community that I follow that is very helpful in terms of regaining understanding and perspective of balancing our work and what it means to work in the United States at this time, with the focus on productivity and all it’s negative connotations, and countermeasures—I follow The Nap Ministry, which is a blog and community from Tricia Hershey, the Nap Bishop. She recommends rest—and how we reclaim ourselves through resting.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #14: Kaetrena, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  19:29 

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

You know I’ve been thinking about this question, and there’s no answer that I can give you that gets to the heart of what it means, because it’s a feeling for me, a very deep feeling. However, putting it in words—for me libraries are a personal solace, but it’s also a place of movement, and it’s a place of community. But for me, it’s rich in reflection. It offers a place for reflection for me. I believe it’s the font from which all people should have access to if they seek continuous improvement and expansion of their inner lives. It should be open to them if they’re not seeking it now, they have a place from which to start when they’re ready.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Beautiful. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, it has been a great honor having you on my show today. You’ve given me a lot to reflect on, personally, and I believe you’ve given our listeners a lot to think about—and also an invitation to reach out to you to help you with your research, so thank you.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick:

Thank you so much.

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 have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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