"Workplace culture refers to conditions that collectively influence the work atmosphere. These can include policies, norms, and unwritten standards for behavior" (Kelly Blessinger, Ed.). 

This past year, I have had the good fortune to participate in the Lead with Authority: AALL Leadership Academy and to take the AALL Law Library Managerial Leadership Online Course. I’d like to share some of the things that I took away from these professional development opportunities and to weave it into another thing that I did this last year. I attended one morning of Atlantic LNG Company’s week-long award winning Safety Village in Point Fortin, Trinidad.
Atlantic LNG Plant, Trinidad

Atlantic LNG Company of Trinidad and Tobago

Photo kindly provided by C. Toni Sirju-Ramnarine, Vice President Corporate Operations.

At the opening, COO Arlene Chow engaged the audience of employees, contractors and a few family members by asking questions about safety. The atmosphere was both fun and sincere (in keeping with the national culture). As she walked through the seated crowd, reminding them of accidents that had happened in liquefied natural gas plants in other countries, she reminded them of the horrors that they had avoided at Atlantic LNG because of their concerted safety efforts. She played a video similar to this one of an accident that resulted in a huge explosion in the Pemex gas facility in Mexico.

To understand the achievement of Atlantic LNG in having an enviable safety record, you need to understand the Trinidadian carnival culture (large scale organized fun and cyclical time) and the Trinidadian national character (aggressive independence). Trinidadians do not like rules and do not have respect for rules (especially chupid rules) just because they are rules (anyone who knows me is probably rolling on the floor laughing right now). 

I noticed that one of the stalls at the Safety Village had a sign up, “Culture trumps strategy every time.”

It is not that culture replaces strategy, but strategic endeavors by upper management need to be aligned with the culture. Both the COO and the CEO of Atlantic LNG are visibly and consistently committed to safety.

The participation of the highest levels of management in the pre-shutdown safety event, is a key component of the culture of safety. Although the current CEO, Nigel Darlow, was unable to attend Safety Village 2014, in his absence, COO Chow gave the opening speech. Darlow’s absence was notable because he is a known advocate for the culture of safety. Darlow consistently communicates his commitment by sharing his personal observations of safety matters in a weekly email update to all staff which always begins with a note on safety issues. The culture of safety requires more than a united unidirectional message from the administration. It depends on every employee and contractor internalizing safety rules. When safety equipment is hot and bothersome to wear and when safety procedures are long or complicated and delay the end of the work day, employees (especially Trinidadian employees) are not going to follow them just because they are told to. They are much more likely to follow them if there is an agreement within the group that these safety precautions are of utmost importance. They must be socialized to put safety first and no amount of top down strategic planning can replace that.

So what do safety rules have to do with library leadership? In, libraries, especially academic libraries, the stakes are extremely low by comparison with a liquefied natural gas plant. Many librarians chose this career because they perceived that they would have a low stress job. Librarians are generally not like law-defying Trinidadians. They are not the kinds of people who refuse to wear safety gear because they are too hot. But when the stakes are low, and when morale is low, the chasm between the Trinidadian national character and the typical librarian character grows smaller. In other words, if a library has a “sick” culture, that is, a culture where, “[s]taff are unhappy and going through the motions -- either waiting things out, or actively looking to jump ship” (Donohue, Mary), “culture [will eat] strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker).

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the culture at some libraries leaves much to be desired. By contrast, the cultures of the best workplaces tend to reflect the growing respect that employers have for the values of Millennials.

“Flexibility in where they work and how much they work is also a key driver in Millennial satisfaction. This view differs in importance from that of the non-Millennial generation, which places greater importance on pay and development opportunities” (Key Learnings: Pricewaterhouse Coopers)

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Mike "Dakinewavamon" Kline.

By now, many of you have seen articles about Millennials and their values and attitudes towards the workplace. When their attitudes are viewed alongside the facts about employment laws and benefits in other countries, it becomes increasingly clear that the academic library standard of a 9-5 workweek with 22 vacation days and limited maternity leave is unlikely to be enough to attract and retain Millennials. Looking at the best workplaces for Millennials, many of the same characteristics appear: clear communication about rights and responsibilities, feedback/mentoring and recognition, work/life balance, flexible schedules, unlimited leave time and fun perks such as free, healthy food, free gym memberships.

“Take any highly successful company and you will find a very strong culture!” (Braun, Eduardo P.)

It is understandable that library leaders may not have the power or authority to change the policies that determine how many hours per week library staff work or how many vacation days they get, but they can do three things. The first is to know the culture. Pay attention to the individuals who thrive in your workplace. In what way(s) does the workplace culture support their success. What does your workplace reward and punish? Who gets to make decisions? The answer to these questions will reveal a lot about what your workplace culture is like.

The second thing you can do is to be authentic and be transparent about the culture. Talk to your employees about it in a nonjudgmental way. What are the things that you cannot change? You and your employees need to get on board with accepting those things.

Have the courage to change the things that you can change. Changing the culture does not happen overnight, but perhaps there are small things that you can do to change the culture within a subsection of the library. Start by being the change you want to see within the group of people with whom you hold the most influence.  According to former CEO Oscar Prieto, here’s how Atlantic LNG promulgated a culture of safety, “The safety culture at Atlantic was affirmed through consistent messaging in internal communications, employee participation in safety observations and audits and the increased presence of HSE Technicians [safety specialists] during facility maintenance activities.” (Atlantic LNG Sustainability Report 2009).

In other words, the administration did not merely devise a strategic safety plan or a safety initiative and then require their employees to implement it. They demonstrated their commitment to safety by being consistent in their message. They used words, and provided opportunities for staff and contractors to learn by seeing and evaluating safety procedures and they spent money to have more safety specialists available to be “cultural luminaries, people who symbolize your culture's values and can pass these values on to others” (Donohue, Mary). They effectuated this cultural change by focusing everyone on the Why. Why are they doing this? To keep everyone safe from the tremendous harm that can happen when safety procedures are not loyally adhered to during a LNG plant shutdown.

To begin influencing cultural change in your library, here are a few practical things that you can do:

1.       Do not create or unnecessarily enforce dumb rules.
2.       Model in word and deed the cultural values that you want to spread.
3.       Reward behavior that reflects the desired cultural values.
4.       Discourage behaviors that work against the spread of the desired cultural values.
5.       Be consistent. Your verbal and non-verbal communication should match and employees exhibiting similar negative behaviors should not be treated differently (eg. some rewarded and some punished).

If you’ve read this far, please consider commenting below.

  • What is the culture at your library?
  • What will you do to be an agent of positive cultural change at work?


© C. Deane
Reference/Foreign and International Law Librarian/Lecturer in Law
Alyne Queener Massey Law Library
Vanderbilt University