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Leading from the Center: Reimagining Feedback Conversations at an Academic Library

In Brief

What if we brought the same compassion and learner mindset that we use with students to our interactions with colleagues? Inspired by change management through the lens of appreciative inquiry and interpersonal effectiveness, a team of University Library faculty and staff developed a series of professional development workshops to establish a shared baseline of communication skills. Focusing on personal responsibility as a change management strategy, while fostering a culture of accountability that recognizes shared humanity and intentionality toward growth, the team initiated conversations on receiving feedback. Drawing upon literature addressing professional development, psychological safety, positive-negative asymmetry, and self-compassion, this article discusses the team’s systematic approach to the professional development trainings on feedback, the planning process, and workshop scaffolding.

by Ashley Rosener, Emily Frigo, Susan Ponischil, Annie Bélanger, Jacklyn Rander, Elisa Salazar


Our new dean and organizational change provided the opportunity and, in our case, the motivation, to deal with changes effectively. Guided by conversations on Appreciative Inquiry1 facilitated by our new dean, interpersonal effectiveness training with our university work-life consultant, and resources related to receiving and providing feedback, a group of library faculty and staff developed a series of workshops to navigate organizational change within an academic library. Communication, especially responding to and receiving feedback, was an area of growth for our libraries and a starting point for our professional development series.

Organizational change is difficult, as is interpersonal communication. Miscommunication happens easily and can become widespread. By investing in personal and workplace-wide professional development, organizations can take small steps to mediate conversations and check for understanding so as to avoid unnecessary conflict. We will share how providing a shared vocabulary and understanding how we engage collectively can renorm conversations and improve interpersonal relationships.


Growing a culture of authenticity and accountability requires the skills to give and receive feedback. But changing work culture is incremental and takes time. Ensuring that the change will be impactful and long-lasting requires the commitment and agency of people throughout the organization. We wanted the skills development to support the cultural change that was taking place in our library in a meaningful way. Therefore, we chose a peer-led approach, paired with support from senior leadership.

We began the process of working on Appreciative Inquiry by asking generative questions to enhance interpersonal communication skills and used those as building blocks towards a culture of inclusion. Further developing the skills to have healthy dialogue would allow us to lean into discomfort, grow to a culture of authenticity and accountability, and eventually achieve a culture of actively inclusive practices. How can we expect to navigate tough conversations around oppression and exclusion when we, at times, struggle to talk about what happened in a meeting? How equitable would it be to ask new members of the faculty or those of under-represented backgrounds to call out inequity when the skills to receive feedback were not there? As a primarily white academic institution, we saw education as one way to help counter microaggressions (Burklo, 2015), but that was not enough. We want to create a healthy climate and strengthen our interpersonal skills to support our growth as whole people, and given the demographics of whiteness in our profession, we have a responsibility not to add to the emotional labor of people of color to educate their colleagues on the often subtle nature of microaggressions or the impact of white privilege (Alabi, 2015). Education about dialogue and feedback was a first step and foundation—idealistically, we thought we could start to disarm “righteous reactions” or fragility (DiAngelo, p. 123). From a shared ability to have healthier dialogue, we believe that we can grow to have crucial conversations around Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA),2 such as addressing microaggressions and handling them in the moment. Once we had come to these realizations and commitments, we wanted a learning and strengths-based approach to change and growth.

Often, asking questions can be a way to clarify what is at the heart of our concerns and to develop a shared understanding (Schein, 2013). To honor this need for shared understanding, we chose Appreciative Inquiry as the central part of the framework for our organizational evolution. Affirmative or positive questions support the development of a positive environment; while negative questions focus attention on what is wrong, positive ones focus on what could be (Cooperrider, Whitney, Stavros, 2008). Asking and answering positive questions supports new ideas, alternatives, enthusiasm, and commitment from coworkers. Positive questions can lead to better communication and increase understanding and commitment. They can also support staff growth and change. By appreciating what is good before exploring what could be better, trust and compassion builds between peers. We felt this approach would help us develop that trust as well as peer relationships, empathy, accountability, resilience, and agency.

In a culture of authenticity and accountability, we have a duty to share productively and constructively our concerns and needs as well as our affirmations to colleagues. We can no longer afford to be nice at the cost of growth and change. We wanted to create an environment of sharing thoughts and feedback. Therefore, developing the skills to do so with respect, compassion, and empathy was a critical goal as we sought our next evolution.

Literature Review

Below we focus on the core of the literature that was instrumental in informing our thinking and approach to supporting others at our library through skills development. Using an interdisciplinary approach, we looked beyond the library literature to the field of organizational psychology and change management. This literature is dense and unpacks the complexity of creating and sustaining a learning culture within the workplace.

Professional Development

While there is a fair amount of literature on professional development in libraries, fewer articles describe or discuss professional development led by colleagues. Most of the literature focuses on initiatives developed by senior leadership in collaboration with outside speakers and facilitators. Pennsylvania State University Libraries provides us with an example of bottom up staff development with an institutionalized in-service day led by library staff. Each year, a library staff “planning committee has free reign to recruit presentations and plan the day… the entire process is directed by the committee; we have never been disappointed” (Snowman, 2017, p.9). This yearly in-service day has been found to be “extremely beneficial from many developmental angles. Presenters hone their public speaking skills, learn to fit content to allotted time, and develop a reputation among their peers as people who are knowledgeable, articulate and dependable” (Snowman, 2017, p.11). This success story is a good model for libraries seeking new professional development methods. Additionally, when employees lead formal learning opportunities they gain leadership experience while demonstrating to all that in house expertise exists at all levels of an organization, thereby promoting a learning culture within the workplace (Ellinger, 2005).

Negative Impact and Psychological Safety

It is important to realize that negative experiences and words often have a higher impact than positive ones in making sense of the world (Vanish, Grossman, and Woodward, 2008). Research on the ratio of positivity to negativity (P/N) in team interactions shows that the high performing teams have a high P/N ratio of 5.614, which means that for every negative statement, there are over five positive ones (Losada and Heaphy, 2004). Additionally, in the context of the relationship between a supervisor and employee, Bono, Foldes, Vinson, and Muros look at a number of empirical research studies and “suggest that even though most supervisory interactions are positive, the overall net effect of interactions with supervisors may be slightly negative because of the stronger effects of negative interactions on employee mood” (2007, p.1358).

Understanding the impact on employees is just one of the human and organizational costs of conflict. According to a 2010 study in Canada, LeBlanc found that “managers and leaders spend an average of 3 hours of work time plus 4.5 hours of distraction or worry on workplace conflict every week” (as cited in Oore, Leiter, & LeBlanc, 2015). It should come as no surprise then that libraries and library leaders view emotional intelligence as a key skill. Hernon and Rossiter surveyed library directors and asked them to identify the most important emotional intelligence traits. In the category of empathy, “there was widespread consensus that ‘treat people with dignity/respect’ was the first choice, followed by ‘attract, build, and retain talent’ and ‘good interpersonal/people skills,’ which tied for second position” (Hernon & Rossiter, 2006, p.266).

Negative comments and conflict can impact one’s sense of psychological safety. Psychological safety is required for candid conversations and this is something individuals, teams, and organizations need to actively cultivate. Kahn defines psychological safety as the “sense of being able to show and employ self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career” (1990, p.705). The intrapersonal, group/team, and organizational levels all bring elements into play that can influence one’s sense of psychological safety. It is a dynamic element that is shaped by organizational norms, leader management style, group dynamics, and interpersonal relationships, and it has a locus of control on an individual level (Kahn, 1990, p.705). Dutton et al state, “This sense of being valued and worthy is not a state that is a given in work organizations; rather, it is something that is created or destroyed by the way that people interact with one another at work” (as cited in Dutton, Workman, & Hardman, 2014, p.280). While some management styles use conflict to generate creativity, fighting behaviors inherently erode psychological safety. Psychological safety has a relational and social component and needs to be continually nourished to create a healthy environment.

Research also suggests that conflict can be viewed as a threat to one’s identity or relationships (Drago-Severson & Blum-Destefano, 2016). “Norms of niceness may reflect more than an overreliance on politeness or rules of etiquette, because the ability to comfortably manage conflict or criticism is in fact a developmental capacity” (Drago-Severson & Blum-Destefano, 2016, p.24). Niceness can become synonymous with civility and a way to maintain “the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent” (Itagaki qtd. in Fadel, 2019). Conversations around racism easily trigger white fragility, “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 2011, p.54). It is predicated on a deeply rooted notion that only bad people are racists rather than a structural understanding of racism. Since according to this notion nice people are not racist, niceness becomes a way to maintain white privilege and a culture of white supremacy. These norms are a fraught place to be and hard to unpack. Yet, how you know and learn is also part of a developmental capacity that changes over the course of your life. Drago-Severson and Blum-Destefano use a constructive-developmental lens based on Keegan’s adult development theory and advocate meeting people where they are at and building their capacity to stretch and hear what you are saying (2017). The research we read made a strong case for an iterative, scaffolded approach given that individuals are always evolving.

Feedback is important to individual growth, but in a recent article, “Preparing Early Career Librarians for Leadership and Management: A Feminist Critique,” the authors noted a “common theme […] that respondents felt frustrated about the feedback they receive from supervisors. Unspecific feedback, no feedback at all, or informal feedback that does not reflect the formal review were major points of frustration” (Thomas, Trucks, Koons, 2019). The authors note that this information indicates “that the supervisor may not understand their work, and does not give appropriate or helpful feedback because they cannot.” Giving and receiving feedback are challenging to most people and these skills are infrequently taught. Despite this lack in training, learning how to better give and receive feedback can greatly improve one’s personal and work life. Stone and Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well provides a vocabulary for understanding feedback conversations and how to improve as a receiver. This can empower receivers in the feedback dialogue.


After teaching our workshop series, we did more research in the literature and made connections with what we taught and the idea of self-compassion. Neff defines self-compassion as having three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (2003). If one has a more compassionate orientation to oneself, they are in a place where they can more readily “hear” feedback and extend compassion to others. The concept connects to mindfulness, resilience, and coping with stress. Alongside this, there is also an internal, personal component that individuals can cultivate to build resilience.

Self-compassion provides a means to create this internal fortitude and grounding to provide greater agency. In the literature, we found self-compassion discussed in other caring professions or in relation to students, but not as frequently in librarianship. A recent study found that self-compassion may be a way to help cultivate authenticity (Zhang et al, 2019), the “subjective feeling that one is currently in line with one’s inner values, attitudes, traits, and emotions” (Sedikides, Slabu, Lenton, & Thomaes, 2017, p.521). When you feel you are being true to yourself and being authentic, it may generate a sense of power and agency (Gan, Heller, & Chen, 2018). With interpersonal communication, the challenge is to juggle simultaneously remaining authentic, respecting others’ authenticity, and ensuring you are not doing harm. The larger frame is to consider both the intent and impact in your communication, as there is often a gap between the two (using the SBI Feedback Model to Understand Intent). Regardless of your intent, you need to own your impact and be accountable for it. According to Utt, it is a matter of justice because the effect of our actions (regardless of intent) can deeply impact our identities and lives (2013). By keeping the focus on the impact, “it takes the person who said or did the hurtful thing out of the center and places the person who was hurt in the center. It ensures that the conversation is about how ‘what they did’ hurts other people and further marginalizes or oppresses people” (Utt, 2013). Accountability is necessary for a healthy organizational culture as it defines boundaries and expectations for behavior.

In order to hear, you need to listen with deep intent and with an awareness that it may change you or potentially cause you to reevaluate your orientation or sense of self (Drago-Severson & Blum-Destefano, 2017). Additionally, “if hearing is meaningful, it has to be embedded in an openness where what is said might be heard even if it threatens to break the order of the known world for those who listen” (Stauffer, 2015, p.80). Kahn and Fellows referred to Dr. Spreitzer’s research on psychological empowerment indicating that “when our voices are heard, we feel a sense of efficacy: a sense of what we say is valued and valuable, makes a difference to others and to our work, and has influence around us” (Kahn & Fellows, 2017, p.114). This type of openness requires vulnerability and courage that is uncomfortable, maybe even conflicts with one’s sense of psychological safety. It also requires a commitment to constructive intent and respect, an intent to reaffirm and build forward; and a commitment to not intentionally do harm.

Learning Culture

A workplace learning culture requires articulating both goals and values that are reflected in policies and practices. It can take time to learn and adjust to new accountability norms. Learning is crossing a threshold and perhaps even reconciling a perceived loss of privilege in changing how you communicate in order to be heard. For change to occur, we need to cross a threshold between judge and learner; in that, there is discomfort and the ability to recognize that what you thought was not true. Cognitive dissonance, when new information differs from your own beliefs (Festinger, 1957), sets the stage for attitude and behavior changes.

To both foster and establish such norms, collective leadership and meeting agreements are one key way to articulate shared values and link those values to practices (see the below image of Collective Leadership and Meeting Agreements created by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College). Discomfort is part of the learning process but can feel unsettling and even “incongruent with the idea of safety” (Aaro & Clemens, 2013, p. 137). Establishing workplace values and behavior norms become key to better equip folks to enter a space of dialogue and learning (Aaro & Clemens, 2013, p.142). It paves the way for social justice-oriented conversations that we need to have in order to challenge systems of power, oppression, and privilege. During organizational change, even one with an appreciative approach, the process can be both exciting and stressful. It is a time to reset or even reaffirm expectations. During our workshop series, and afterward in faculty meetings, we saw the need, if not yet always the desire, to continue focusing on interpersonal communication.

Collective Leadership and Meeting Agreements created by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, used with permission
Collective Leadership and Meeting Agreements created by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, used with permission. Full text of these agreements as a list.

What We Did

Creating workshops for library faculty and staff came from interest generated by a faculty book discussion in the Summer of 2017 featuring Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well which offered a flipped, practical approach to the topic. Stone and Heen’s text was also suggested as a resource during Appreciative Inquiry training in early 2018. After the training, faculty who had participated in the book group created a proposal to continue the discussion with workshops. Two library faculty and two staff were the intrepid leaders in this venture.

The Thanks for the Feedback Task Force was asked to build a library-wide professional development experience for Summer 2018. The plan, which took six weeks to develop and implement, included learning circles and workshops for formative colleague feedback and constructive handling of “conflict” using Stone and Heen’s book as a guiding text. The goal of these peer-led workshops was to empower staff with skills they could use to be more effective communicators and to advocate for themselves—skills to help with workplace conversations and others where stakes are higher, such as annual reviews and contract renewals, where formative feedback can be so important. Creating strategies to advance communications, part of our Libraries’ strategic plan, was carried out in part by library staff who saw this as an opportunity to develop their own leadership skills. In May of that same year, the dean asked the University’s work-life consultant to conduct interpersonal effectiveness workshops for all library personnel to address ways to manage change.

The Interpersonal Effectiveness for Work and Life training was developed to empower employees to learn communication strategies to prevent conflict from arising and foster intentional communication. This three-hour training provided practical tools along with discussion and practice opportunities. Participants were able to receive feedback on specific issues related to communication. The objectives of this training are as follows:

  1. Increasing awareness through the use of mindfulness strategies
  2. Learning a specific script to increase effectiveness when making a request or setting boundaries
  3. Identifying strategies to listen, validate, and give generative feedback
  4. Understanding how to leverage personal integrity for wise communication

Communication skills discussed were based on Marsha Linehan’s evidence based therapeutic approach, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which combines mindfulness practices with cognitive behavioral therapy. The Work Life Consultant composed a comprehensive training focused on improving employee effectiveness and wellness. The Work Life Consultant’s role on campus is to offer support to employees on a variety of work life needs. She is available to meet one-on-one with individuals who need additional support with the generalizing skills for a variety of contexts. All faculty and staff were required to attend the training; the intention was to provide a common language and baseline skill set for all employees.

Using Thanks for the Feedback, the task force designed and created two workshops. One addressed the types of feedback and another discussed how to navigate conversations. A third workshop, inspired by Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano’s book Tell Me So I Can Hear You: A Developmental Approach to Feedback for Educators, was created to explore adult developmental theory and offer strategies for growth. Our assertion when creating these workshops was that feedback is about the future. We wanted to inspire receivers of feedback with practical approaches that could be used in situations ranging from informal peer-to-peer conversations to employee evaluations. We wanted to share what we learned, engage with our peers, and identify some strategies to improve communication. All three workshops were designed to provide context, opportunities for self-reflection, and strategies for growth. To make the most of the time during the workshops, book chapters, podcast episodes, articles, and other recommended readings were made available prior to the workshops through e-course reserve. This allowed attendees to come in with a general understanding of the content. While the May workshops with the work-life coach were mandatory for all library employees, the task force members felt this should not be the case for the workshop series in an effort to encourage engagement and excitement around the topic.

To open each workshop, the taskforce identified the following guiding principles to set the tone:

  • We approach these workshops as peer facilitators not experts. We are all sincerely interested in this topic, still learning, and still trying to walk the talk.
  • We embrace a learner mindset and a positivist approach: what do you/we do well? And what can we do even better?
  • We value psychological safety. We hope to provide a safe space to share experiences, perspectives, and challenges. Share as you feel comfortable.

While all three workshops could be stand-alone sessions, there was some information that was scaffolded across the three. The first workshop we created was called “Types of Feedback.” It outlined the first two chapters of Stone and Heen’s book, which focused on the three different types of feedback identified as coaching, evaluation, and appreciation. Participants were provided online access to a study guide for the book along with chapters 1 and 2. The workshop was an hour long with less than an hour of outside preparation for participants. Slides reviewed key chapter concepts, provided prompts for both small and whole group discussions, and highlighted a TED Talk video from Sheila Heen. Partner discussions, group discussion, and self-reflection prompts created opportunities for colleagues to discuss ideas and ask questions.

The second workshop created was developed using chapters 5 and 11 from Thanks for the Feedback. Titled “Navigating the Conversation,” it provided a chance to talk about relationship triggers and how those triggers impact how we receive feedback. Relationship triggers involve what we think about the giver and how we feel treated by the giver (Stone, 2015). Chapter 11 talks about how to handle conversations considering elements called keyframes, defined as “stages and moments in the conversation that can serve as landmarks” (Stone, 2015). Four feedback skills—identified as listening, asserting, “process moves,” and problem solving—were offered as considerations. This workshop included less than an hour of outside preparation and an hour of meeting time. Slides included various types of review content with prompts for discussion and self reflection.

The third workshop created, “Ways of Knowing,” had a slightly different approach. It provided a glimpse into constructive developmental theory to talk about how one grows, develops, and learns across the lifespan. Participants were introduced to the four ways of knowing according to adult development theory: instrumental, socializing, self-authoring, and self-transforming. Beliefs, values, and areas of growth for each of the four types were discussed and practice scenarios were offered. Throughout the workshop, attendees were encouraged to reflect on their own ways of knowing and brainstorm strategies to support the different ways they learn and grow individually. This workshop was thirty minutes longer than the others with less than an hour of outside preparation. Slides were created to highlight obstacles to communication and to provide opportunities for self reflection and awareness.

Considering the voluntary nature of attendance, the workshops were relatively well received with 57% of our faculty and staff, including administrators, attending at least one of the three workshops. Task force members were excluded from all statistics. Of those who participated, 68% attended more than one of the workshops, indicating an interest in the topics presented. At the end of each workshop, attendees filled out a paper evaluation form. Interest in workshop topics ranged between 4 and 5 on a five point scale and comfort level with feedback between 3.5 and 5. Attendees’ comments identified, among other things, “the importance of asking clarifying questions” and “the need for more empathy and fewer assumptions.” Workshop attendees suggested a variety of ways to keep the conversation going. There was a strong interest in more workshops, a book club, and a brown bag lunch series, as well as scripts and practical tips with opportunities to practice receiving feedback using techniques identified. Several responses suggested using strategies learned for performance reviews. Based on these results we repeated the first two workshops in December 2018, “Types of Feedback” and “Navigating the Conversation.”

Once our workshop series concluded, an electronic survey was distributed to all library employees and garnered a 41% response rate. Takeaways from this survey were similar to the paper survey. Attendees wanted to learn more about navigating a conversation and how to communicate feedback preferences to people. Respondents also noted that the workshops were informative and interactive. A few people shared regrets that conflicting schedules didn’t allow them to attend. We asked how people wanted to keep the conversation going and received many of the previously mentioned suggestions which showed strong support for a book club, brown bag lunches, and scripts with practical tips.

Next Steps

Interpersonal effectiveness skills for giving and receiving feedback are capacities that one can grow over time with practice. We knew that the workshops were a milestone along the journey of growth and an inclusive culture. When considering next steps, we took a step back to consider the landscape. According to ALA’s Diversity Counts study, female library staff outnumber male library staff by about 80%, and white people outnumber people of color by 85-90%. It also reveals that expectations of service tend toward expectations of behavior. This is often referred to as emotional labor which, defined by Hochschild, “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (1983). For instance, Emmelhainz, Pappas, and Seale point out an example of this in the Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers (2013). Visibility and approachability are the first points established: “In order to have a successful reference transaction, it is essential that the reference librarian be approachable.” This is followed by sixteen ways to be approachable broken into three categories: in general, in person, and remotely. According to 1.1.2 in the guidelines, an approachable librarian “is poised and ready to engage patrons…to stop all other activities when a patron approaches and focus attention on the patron’s needs.” This document is seen as representative of monoculturalism and white blindness (Brook, Ellenwood & Lazzaro, 2016). Inherently, then, approachability is often defined by whiteness. Anchored in whiteness, it reinforces approaches that keep white people comfortable, preventing challenges to this status quo (DiAngelo, 2018). In her keynote address at The 2019 Innovative Library Classroom Conference, Veronica Arellano Douglas called out patriarchal systems and identified structures placing service above the intellectual work of librarians. In light of these realities, what steps can we take to challenge systems and structures that, according to Arrelano Douglas (2019), are “harmful to women, marginalized peoples, and human connections”?

As we were intentional about heading toward a culture of active practices of inclusion, we understood the need for building blocks toward healthy dialogue, candor with cognitive empathy, and active accountability as peers. As we began the work to change our structures for hiring to be inclusive and high-empathy, we provided the interpersonal effectiveness training. We also worked to make explicit more parts of our work culture, such as core workplace principles, expectations of attendance, and other implicit practices that can be tripping hazards. We continue to offer these feedback workshops as baseline trainings to share core workplace principles and collective engagement expectations, and to answer the questions of new hires on a continuing basis. Inclusion needs a foundation of interpersonal effectiveness from all, as well as the ability to have dialogues and brave conversations. Further, we continue to encourage faculty and staff to lead from the center by supporting their capacity and agency while fostering open communication with senior leadership.

In practice, our colleagues did question as well as express concern that these professional development workshops and workplace principles were dictating how they feel or express their feelings at work. It was a question that addressed checking our understanding of our shared vocabulary in addition to how it works in practice. The growth mindset, positivity, self-compassion, and resilience have all become popular buzzwords and malleable in their meaning. There is also critical discourse on how these growth-oriented frames are used. Berg, Galvan, and Tewell note that “Resilience often becomes performative for everyone, including managers, who embrace the concept in a well-intentioned but detrimental move to improve employee or organizational well-being” (2018, p.2). In this frame, resilience becomes part of a larger narrative of maintaining the status quo, perpetuating inequality, and doing harm.

Ethics of care from feminist theory provides another needed lens that emphasizes the relational aspect of care between people and a way to counter a performative view of work or being. With this ethic, the focus is on “attentiveness, trust, responsiveness to need, narrative nuance, and cultivating caring relations” (Held, 2006, p.15). In relational care, a mutuality and dialogue are present; it also connects to trust as well as our sense of safety in our workplace relationships and larger organization. Of course, all of this takes time and practice. Another frame that explicitly addresses power dynamics is anti-oppressive facilitation, expanded on by AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance). Regardless of your approach, it is key to check-in with colleagues as well as acknowledge their autonomy to know which techniques to add to their tool kit and which ones to lay aside. Change can be incremental and we all grow at different paces.

The foundational framework and language for interpersonal effectiveness set the expectation that all faculty and staff will have a working knowledge of these skills. The next step involves opportunities for colleagues to practice using these skills in a safe setting using role playing. An interactive training will allow employees to gain an increased sense of mastery, as well as troubleshoot with the Work Life Consultant in areas where they struggle. Furthermore, employees will learn how to generalize skills for many different settings. Several role-play sessions have been recommended to senior leadership by the work life consultant; these sessions would use both common and uncommon scenarios where the employee might be caught off guard. Practicing will allow employees to automate a thoughtful and intentional response to conflict as opposed to a reactive response. In this way, the interpersonal effectiveness skill set becomes a proactive approach to conflict. As employees begin to practice some of these skills and see success, a second training focused on emotional awareness and safety is under consideration. The training could also include several interactive role play sessions. This training will have employees practice taking ownership of their own wellbeing and learn to feel empowered when they do find themselves in difficult situations. Therefore, employees will have skills for preventing unproductive conflict as well as managing discourse successfully.

This interactive training will further address concerns raised by our peers after the 2019 library faculty reviews revealed an opportunity for growth in the area of feedback conversations and roleplaying. Our faculty reviews begin with a peer (unit) review, which can feel vulnerable for all involved, especially the colleague under review. It also provides time for us to practice our interpersonal communication skills and an opportunity to improve how we give feedback. To reset expectations on the library faculty reviews for contract renewal, tenure, and promotion, an external facilitator will do a one day training using entitlement theory as a foundation. This new training will give us time to focus concretely on “who do we want to be and how do we get there.”

To continue empowering others through discourse and action and provide iterative learning opportunities, task force members have taken some next steps. In May 2019 the faculty learning community discussed Warren Berger’s The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead. This discussion informed a library-wide training session that same month titled “Generative Questions: Big Beautiful Questions.” Our dean has also worked to create brave spaces3 in the library by providing agency to individuals at all levels and facilitating a brave spaces discussion with our leadership team. With a constantly evolving organization and new employees, we plan to continue this work and make it iterative.


Organizational change is difficult, as is interpersonal communication. Miscommunication is normal, can be widespread, and affects many. Acknowledging this helps you realize that learning to check for understanding and effectively managing conflict is a necessary skill. By investing in personal and workplace-wide professional development, you can take small steps to mediate conversations and check for understanding so as to avoid unnecessary conflict. We talked about how providing a shared vocabulary can renorm conversations and interpersonal relationships. Having principles about how you engage together collectively can help center the relationships and yourself when you hit communications bumps. Creative conflicts lead to innovation and sometimes miscommunication. By asking questions, rather than making assumptions of intent, you can exercise your self-agency over engagement. By bringing empathy and respect, you can lay out workplace expectations.

It takes courage and vulnerability to be self-reflective, and lots of practice to incorporate new ways of knowing. Our goals, as authors and members of our libraries, are aspirational. Movement forward requires a learner mindset and a positive approach. Managers need to value those who speak up to challenge the status quo, and at the same time, open communication needs to be balanced to limit or redirect off topic comments (Edmondson, 2014, p. 40-41). When unpacking interpersonal communications, there need to be discussions about power differentials and the whiteness of our profession. While this work takes time, workshops like ours can provide a foundation to address larger systemic issues.


We would like to thank our reviewers Leah White and Ryan Randall. Their thoughtful comments were instrumental to this final article. We would also like to thank Amy Koester, our editor, for her guidance throughout the process.


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“Collective Leadership and Meeting Agreements” created by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College

  • Be here and be present. Arrive promptly. Pay active attention to those speaking.
  • Think well of each other. We recognize and value that we each enter this experience with the intention of building a shared understanding and goal of moving forward.
  • Understand the difference between intent vs. impact.
  • Address the ideas, not the person. Personalize our statements. We use “I” in dialogue and “we” when formally representing a group.
  • Keep confidentiality. Personal experiences bravely shared stay within the space. Share ideas and concepts only.
  • Expect unfinished business. Addressing the issues before us will take concerted effort and time.
  • Share the space. Speak up. Hold back. Be aware of time.
  • React minimally, act maximally. If something triggers an emotion, take a few minutes to gather before responding.
  • Avoid assumptions. Ask questions. Remember that we all have different experiences. Ask questions or ask someone to give a longer explanation to make sure you understand their point or perspective.

Return to Figure 1 caption.

  1. Appreciative Inquiry is a process and approach to facilitate positive change in organizations, groups, and communities. At its core, it assumes that some things are working right and that this core must be preserved. It seeks to understand the good and set a path to the ideal new state. It is grounded in five principles: Constructionist, Simultaneity, Anticipatory, Poetic, and Positive. It leverages powerful questions with active listening to have conversations that matter and create new ways of thinking. (https://www.centerforappreciativeinquiry.net/more-on-ai/what-is-appreciative-inquiry-ai/) []
  2. IDEA Working Definitions for Grand Valley State University Libraries:
    “Equity: The active, ongoing work of identifying and eliminating barriers preventing full participation by all members of the library community.
    Inclusion (& Diversity): The continuing practice of providing an environment in which all members of a library’s community feel welcome, safe, supported, respected, and valued.
    Accessibility: Ensuring our tools, devices, services, and environments are available to and usable by as many people as possible.” []
  3. Brave spaces are an evolution from safe spaces. In instances when conversations shift from polite to controversial, safety has been invoked as a way to stop the conversation and remain comfortable. Brave spaces shift the emphasis to bravery while being anchored in ground rules for engagement, where cognitive empathy is at play, and a baseline level of trust is built. In particular, when thinking of social justice, safety, defined as free from harm or risk, does not allow us to deconstruct whiteness as the discomfort, negative emotions, and guilt are seen as harm. For more, see https://bravespaces.org . []

3 Responses

  1. Rose

    Just a note that the definition of emotional labor should actually be attributed to Arlie Hochschild, not Emmelhainz, Pappas, and Seale. They are directly quoting Hochchild’s definition in their book chapter (which is cited).

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