It’s Not Us Versus Them

Unpacking resistance to change

September 15, 2015

Meredith Farkas

I came into my first professional library job filled with ideas and enthusiasm. I wanted to change everything. I figured that with my fresh knowledge of current trends in libraries and technology, I was perfectly positioned to shepherd lots of innovative changes at my new job. Never mind the fact that I knew very little about the institutional culture or the patrons and their needs; I was a change agent!

The level of hubris I had—and probably exhibited—back then embarrasses me today. I’m sure everyone probably feels that way looking back on their shiny new-to-­librarianship selves. Luckily, I had patient and understanding colleagues who were, by and large, pretty game to try new things.

These days, I cringe when I read things that accuse experienced librarians of being against progress or innovation in libraries. Yes, some people in this profession fear and fight change in any form, but painting everyone who resists specific changes with such a broad brush is an overgeneralization.

Resistance to new ideas has many causes. Some colleagues may be reasonable and some not, but writing them off as being change-averse simply creates an “us versus them” dichotomy that will not help anyone move forward.

Sometimes the idea itself is brilliant but a bad fit for the setting. It’s easy to get excited about something another library is doing and want to replicate it at your own. I remember early on trying to implement social technologies like blogs as a communication mechanism at my library before I even understood how people communicated there. Not surprisingly, no one took to them. But two years later when we needed a way for librarians to create research guides without knowing HTML, a wiki was a great fit. The problem wasn’t social technologies; it was trying to solve problems that didn’t exist.

Sometimes change resistance comes not from the quality of the idea but from the way it’s presented. Organizational culture is the shared values and unwritten rules about how the organization works and how things get done. Whether the organizational culture is functional or not, it cannot be ignored. Learning and working within the culture is critical for change leadership. ­Ambiguity can also trigger resistance, so provide clarity on what it will take to create the change and what is required of each individual. Just because your ­vision is clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to your colleagues. The Harvard Business ­Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” illustrates many additional ways we can sink (or save) our own ideas.

I’ve more recently had the chance to be on the other side: resisting a change I didn’t think was good for our patrons. Years ago, when advocating for improvements to a library instruction space, a colleague suggested that we buy iPads and a cart to wheel across campus to classrooms. What appeared to be the innovative choice was a bad one for us for a variety of pedagogical and logistical reasons. Given our understanding of our patrons’ technology skills and the mobile unfriendliness of many online research tools, it wasn’t a good fit. But to the person who was relatively new to the library and keen on implementing mobile technologies, it may have appeared that we were against progress.

I still go into every new job and new academic year full of ideas and enthusiasm. I also understand the importance of learning how patrons use the library and what they need from it, as well as working within the organizational culture.

In the end, change is not just about doing cool stuff; it’s about providing a better experience for our patrons.