Role Negotiation

By Hannah Rasmussen posted

In my January 30 blog I wrote about developing personal metrics as a way to “know that you’re winning.” After that blog went live someone asked me “What happens if your personal metrics are totally different from the library’s metrics?” I didn’t have a great answer for that—other than “it depends,” but it got me thinking.

When I was consulting, our starting point for situations like this was to look at how the individual and the organization each define the role in question. I found that a disconnect in the metrics of success was often the result of a disconnect in the understanding of the role. So the best approach was not to look at metrics but to look at how the individual and the organization each define the role and then see if this definition is negotiable internally—meaning that the understanding of the role can be adjusted within the person—or externally, meaning that the understanding of the role can be adjusted within the organization.  

One of my jobs as a consultant was to work with groups and individuals to develop their role definitions in the wake of organizational change. I was often struck by the narrow task nature of many people’s definitions. They defined their role by how they did their job, and this was often based on specific tasks within the job. Similarly, both individuals and groups had what we called a “surface” definition of their job. They defined their role by what they did in their job. For example, I worked with nurses and one of the nurses defined her role as “visiting new mums in their homes and weighing and measuring their babies in the first year.” When her position evolved into working at a new “well baby clinic” in a community center, she had a lot of problems adjusting. She felt she wasn’t performing her role as a nurse anymore. I worked with her to see if her definition of her role as nurse could be made both wider and deeper. Instead of focusing on just what she was doing and how she was doing it, we focused on why she did her job.

By focusing on the “why,” she realized that she could better understand her role and be more flexible in how she performed her work. She developed a new definition of her role: “to support parents learning about being a parent and support them as they raise a healthy and happy child.” Through this internal negotiation she was able to see that the changes in how she did her job and what she did in her job fit into her understanding of her role.

Of course, internal negotiation doesn’t always work. Sometimes the individual does not feel comfortable negotiating, or it is too much for the person. Some of the nurses I worked with, in a different situation, fell into this category. After the introduction of a new computer system to what had been a paper-based ward, many of them submitted resignations because they were so unhappy with the change in their roles. After working with them on internal negotiation and realizing it wasn’t productive, we turned to external negotiation to see what could be done.

Just as individuals often have narrow or surface definitions of their workplace roles so, too, do organizations. Some organizations define roles in terms of tasks to be done and the methods to do those tasks. For example, one university development office I worked with defined the role of “researcher” in terms of developing specific documents while using specific databases. The individuals were required to be in the office from 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. When the researcher in place wanted to expand outside this rigid definition of her role to access and disseminate information in a different way, we worked with the organization to help it develop a wider and deeper understanding of the role. We looked at what the organization really needed from the role—again “why,” not “what” or “who,” was the focus.

External negotiation, like internal negotiation, doesn’t always work. Sometimes the individual does not feel comfortable negotiating with an organization, sometimes the organization isn’t interested in negotiating, and sometimes the negotiation just isn’t possible.

This strategy is a starting point when you’re in this type of situation. Usually it is not as black and white and I’ve made it for this blog. Often a combination of internal and organizational negotiation is necessary. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes it fails terribly, and most of the time it’s not bad. The good thing about this strategy is that even if it doesn’t work, you have a better idea of what you want from your role, and what is or is not negotiable, for both you and your organization. That is a great starting point for moving forward regardless of what you’re going to do next.

So far, my experiences with helping individuals explore internal and external negotiation have been mostly in healthcare. With the ongoing changes at most libraries, I'm curious: what are your experiences with role changes and role negotiation in libraries?

Hannah Rasmussen is a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Knowledge and Library Services at Harvard Business School.