New Skills, Part 2: Choosing to learn

In “New Skills, Part 1: The Gathering Place,” I looked at Kate Theimer’s successful forum for knowledge professionals and what made ArchivesNext work so well from 2007 to 2015.  I still hear Kate’s wise exhortation, “Be the change!”  Nostalgia can be personally enjoyable but the best lessons come from understanding what to hold on to or let go.

Where we gather has changed.  But we’re still going to school; looking for jobs; facing workplace challenges; deciding which professional associations, if any, to join.  Considering how to participate in those associations.  Or work on issues we care about without official affiliation.  And for the older generation of knowledge professionals, what to do in retirement.

Durable skills

Nick Inglis, a respected records and information expert, recently shared a link to “These are the most important skills you need to be successful in the modern workplace.” The essay focused on “soft skills,” including empathy, adaptability, and effective communications.  And why they aren’t weak, as  “soft” may suggest.

Power skills, durable skills, human skills, people skills, durable skills, E.Q.: Whatever you want to call them, they’re in big demand now. But, as employers scramble to hire enough high-E.Q. people (including new college grads), and launch massive efforts to instill “power skills” in vast numbers of the employees they’ve already got, one question leaps to mind: Can these skills be taught?

It matters. As companies grapple with digitization, automation, and constant change, creating a culture where people can communicate their ideas is crucial…So are collaboration and creative thinking. . . .

But it’s hard to tell if human skills training helps people change aspects of their personality—being resistant to new experiences, or having tone-deaf social skills, for instance. At the moment, no one has yet come up with a standard way to assess those skills before and after training.

An employee who tries to suppress negative behaviors at work because that is required but displays them with peers in person or online outside supervised space may not have bought into the training.  In my view whether training has a superficial or enduring effect depends on individual motivation.  The essay Nick shared explains how empathy and adaptability in its positive usage (“adaptability” also can be misused to excuse poor workplace cultures and conditions) benefits job seekers and employees in competitive situations.


Historian Timothy Burke wrote at his blog (Easily Distracted) in October 2018 that,

There seems to be almost no appetite now among public readers for interesting, stylistic or exploratory writing. Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives.

Some of this pre-dates Web 2.0 but we can choose our own course.  During the 1990s, some public and private sector employers turned to Deborah Tannen’s books about communications styles.   A commentary she published in 1998 in the Washington Post (“For Argument’s Sake”) illustrates Tannen’s approach.

It is the automatic nature of this response that I am calling into question. This is not to say that passionate opposition and strong verbal attacks are never appropriate. In the words of the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, “There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language.” What I’m questioning is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature of approaching almost any issue, problem or public person in an adversarial way.

. . . The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression: We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake — for the sake of argument.

In my 2018 post about what they don’t teach you in grad school, I looked at why early acculturation in combative debate and “ritual opposition” can be at odds with workplace values. In a seemingly lively classroom, Tannen described how on “closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently. And the students who are arguing are not addressing subtleties, nuances or complexities of the points they are making or disputing.”

Reading Tannen’s commentary in 1998 led me to offer options such as on- or off-list replies to queries on Listservs.  And for @ or mutual-Follow DM replies on Twitter.   Respecting individual preferences can open the door to wonderful lessons from others.

Workplace competencies

In looking for a job or considering where you might find some measure of satisfaction beyond the much needed paycheck, online interactions can give some sense of what competencies employers seek. This works both ways in employment situations.

Some potential employers check job applicants’ Social Media accounts, especially for certain types of job openings.  But it’s important to note that threat-assessment, risk assessment and “fit” are not the same.  In insightful essays and courageous public remarks, archivist Stacie Williams and librarian April Hathcock have looked at how fit can affect racial and ethnic minorities.

Whether you’re in an online forum or an office, it’s important to understand the intent and purpose of Codes of Conduct and anti-harassment policies.   And not just as designated or appointed “leaders.”  If you feel able, empower yourself to improve for your professional community the physical and online space they are in.

Conflict management “due to competing objectives, limited resources, or differing perspectives” is a leadership competency in many archives and records jobs.  A National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) accountability competency includes developing ways to effect change “in light of failed or delayed….projects.”

Whether we work in academic, corporate, non-profit, or government knowledge profession jobs, we have opportunities to develop reasonable comfort with failure, as Amanda Watson described eloquently in “A kitchen-sink post on failure.” It isn’t always possible to air out everything in public but acknowledging it internally can help with solutions.

And most importantly, “resilience” isn’t about accepting poor working conditions or treatment (much less demanding others suffer because you did). But includes durable non-technical competencies such as accepting negative feedback in a constructive manner and adjusting behavior accordingly.   Leadership potential can show at any level (including students) and affect the online and physical professional spaces where we gather.

Introverts and extroverts

An essay in January 2012 by Susan Cain, author of Quiet, highlighted some challenges in discussing issues in groups.

The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

Essays by Lance Stuchell and Eira Tansey five years ago reminded us of the impact of Twitter echo chambers.  Words that felt bold in large professional forums a decade ago may now draw routine Likes and Retweets in niche groups.  But many discussions in 2012 of interpersonal skills at Archivesnext and New Archivist and in speeches still resonate.

Mark Matienzo looked at the value of socialization in a comment about Kate Theimer’s 2012 blog tips for wanna-be archivists.  Matienzo wrote 7 years ago,

I have serious concerns about the “anti-people” attitude in the profession, because the interpersonal interactions are incredibly vital to what I do. . . .These concerns in particular come from my experience teaching within an online archival education program. I’ve got a very strong opinion that new archivists (or new members of any profession) need a level of socialization that isn’t just possible through online teaching, no matter how interactive.

Lance Stuchell highlighted at New Archivist Kate’s thoughtful post and Matienzo’s insightful comment.  Because I’ve occasionally struggled with misinterpreting what others said online, I observed that,

You make some excellent points. I am a little uneasy, however, by some of the vibe that surrounds the “I can’t believe people still think. . .” Because working successfully…includes understanding why people form mistaken impressions or conclusions you would not….I know when I have a misconception, I cringe when people react by piling on. And respond well to being drawn out [as to] why I formed that view.

I added that

As several commenters have said, you do what’s needed for the job, it is your duty to do so. But there’s nothing wrong with admitting that your natural leaning is to Introversion or even that you enjoy working on tasks in solitude. As Jonathan Rausch pointed out in his famous article on caring for your introvert, its easier for Introverts to understand Extroverts than the other way around. Maybe we have an edge in adjusting, picking up Extrovert skills and adding them into our toolkit.

Lance’s reply was kind and generous:

I am with you on wanting to avoid belittling people and the desire to provide positive mentorship….I also am hesitant to group people together willy-nilly.

He looked at some stereotypes, then added,

Also, I don’t think it is required to switch who we are as people. We can be introverted and still, as you said, do what’s needed for the job. In fact, I think you are a great example of that. You clearly feel comfortable enough advocating (and not to mention stand up to bullies from time to time) when it is something you feel passionate about. I also bet you did not let your introvertedness (don’t think that is a word) get in the way of your work either. I don’t think it is bad to do things that make us nervous, leaving our comfort zone is good from time to time. I think the bad thing is never pushing yourself, and never trying to grow.

In a 2011 feature in the the Washington Post, Trevor Plante, a supervisory archivist (now a manager) at NARA, observed that

There are definitely two types of personalities at the Archives. We have the introverts that would be very happy being in the stacks, not talking to anyone all day long — just come in and work with the records and not deal with people. The people that tend to be in Reference are the more outgoing types, where literally our jobs are helping people. We are involved with the digging-deeper process. It’s like being a detective, where you start in the most obvious places, and if they’re not finding what they need, then we’re the ones guiding them through and pointing them to different places to check.

Trevor’s use of the verb “help” as he explained his work with members of the public stayed with me.  You see him in NARA’s learning center in 2017.  And with visiting members of the NHL San Jose Sharks at NARA in 2011.  After decades of doing mostly backroom work as an archivist (with occasional research room staffing), then as a historian, I’m still an introvert but find great joy in working with the public in NARA’s Education and Public Programs Division staffing support assignments.

It’s important to understand your own learning style and that of others, which can be very different. Whether online or in person, I do best by observation, which helps me fill in the gaps I find in prescriptive essays or “how to” books.  At the National Archives, as in many archives and libraries, there are more employees who come up introvert on Myers-Briggs Type Indicators than extrovert.  Thoughtful, self-aware extroverts can help us introverts learn by eample the “extrovert skills” that don’t come naturally to us.

One such extrovert is Sam Anthony, Special Assistant to the Archivist of the United States.  He has many friends and admirers among NARA employees and those who knew him in college at UNC and later in the Washington, DC area.   Not only is Sam an extrovert, he has a knack for helping people because he tries to understand them as individuals and put them at ease.

We know that from his work with visitors who range from members of school groups to celebrities.  And his behind the scenes contributions in making things run smoothly.  That takes a lot of skill, insight, anticipation, and (oh, definitely) ability to adjust as events unfold.  I’m not alone in admiring Sam’s fortitude, as well, as he faces challenges in and out of the workplace.

And then there’s that sense of humor.  You see Sam pictured with me in 2012 at a NARA exhibit opening.  And in 2016 at a scheduling meeting with AOTUS David S. Ferriero.  David’s description of taking the Myers-Briggs test at MIT–“I’m not even at that party.  I’m home reading a book!”– matched many archivists who’ve taken the test.  But he’s also right that some things become easier for us over time.

Sam the extrovert did his part at the exhibit opening, suggesting to me that we pose in a way that would lead viewers to ask, “What caused THAT reaction?” Sam held the pose perfectly–he has some theater experience. Me, not so much! You can see that I broke into a laugh as a colleague clicked my camera shutter. A great lesson about not taking yourself too seriously.

Can I get away with sharing a more recent story of Sam taking visiting students through the Rotunda of the National Archives?  And lying on the floor to make them laugh during his history tour as he did indoor “snow angels?”  Talk about thinking in terms of what others need!

Ours to choose

Our careers–if we actually have opportunities to use our academic training (I’ll cover that in another post)–are shaped by many forces.  There’s a lot we can’t control.  But doing the work of understanding ourselves and those with whom we work online and in person? Learning from others?  Powerful.  And enduring!

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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