BCLA Perspectives

Vulnerability and Collaboration in Libraries

At BCLA Connect, during our presentation and panel discussion, Collaboration: What is it and how do we build it?, Tamarack Hockin, Paola Ardiles, Stephen O’Shea and I discussed how trust is built through vulnerability. We asked the audience to do an exercise in openness, one that is designed to foster trust through revealing something moderately personal such as saying when you last sang to yourself. Attendees asked their neighbours a series of questions designed to reveal more about each other than the typical getting-to-know-you types of questions like favourite vacations and birthplaces. We took the questions from The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle (2018). 

Two attendees approached me afterward and said this exercise made them uncomfortable.  The session was not a safe place for them. During our questions and comments period, a participant said that she couldn’t be vulnerable in her workplace as it was too toxic. According to Sawyer (2017), psychological safety allows for people to be vulnerable and, therefore, to collaborate effectively through expressing opinions and views openly. Collaboration is the main driver of creativity and “innovations emerge from ever more complex organizations and many interacting teams” when members get to express themselves equally in the discussion (p. 7). Everyone will not  express themselves equally, unless there is psychological safety and a group structure of respect.

I made a key mistake while working on this session–an error that stifles collaboration and trust. When creating the vulnerability exercise, I did not consider the different workplace environments people have. We all have variations of organizational culture that depend on our library system, our teams, our supervisors and our managers. I didn’t consider that the session itself might not have felt like a safe space for us all.  Specifically, I lacked self-awareness. I did not recognize my position of relative privilege, and unconsciously assumed that, because I have been comfortable making myself vulnerable in my organization or at conferences, others would feel comfortable doing so as well.

In this article, I try to address how workplaces can make themselves safe and set the stage for real collaborative environments. In the spirit of this article, I freely admit that I am still learning how to be a better leader and supervisor. Also, I write mainly from a public library perspective as that’s where the bulk of my work experience has been. In addition, the authors cited speak from a place of privilege, and different voices need to be heard on this topic. This article is the beginning of an exploration on vulnerability with a focus on library organizational culture.

Lastly, I’d like to preface this article by recognizing that many libraries are changing in innovative and collaborative ways and are supportive workplaces. However, making any environment collaborative requires persistence in laying necessary groundwork. Even in a very aware, inclusive and supportive system, some library staff may feel that their voices are unheard, or disregarded. It can come down to their team or their supervisor, or it can be the entire system. If some library workers feel that they cannot safely give feedback, it’s worth investigating how to create safety. Leaders, for the purposes of this article, are not only supervisors, CEOs, directors, and managers, but also any library staff members who feel safe and empowered to the degree that their voice is heard in their position. People have different experiences of safety and power in the same workplace, and it’s important to always remember this, especially if your voice is heard where you work.


What does it mean to make ourselves vulnerable at work?

Brené Brown writes that vulnerability is daring to “show up and let ourselves be seen” (2012). Vulnerability allows us to reveal our authentic selves and to feel comfortable to do so. Being vulnerable builds trust between us because in the act of opening ourselves up, we give up some power and must trust others to do so. Vulnerability may involve revealing aspects of our life that we feel we must hide at work. Betsy Myers calls this “covering” (2019). Covering is when we are uncomfortable exhibiting a large aspect of our life and experience at work. Myers points out that the energy that one puts into trying to hide something takes all our energy. We might cover anything from experiencing mental health issues to not wanting people to know we support an unpopular side of an issue. Being candid about human experiences, or an outlier view, can be very liberating in the right atmosphere; however, revealing your authentic self can be devastating in a situation that does not lay the necessary groundwork for mutual respect and trust.

People do not need to reveal their personal secrets to make themselves vulnerable. However, honesty and openness, revealing our hidden true selves, will help build trust between us and our colleagues. Admitting to workplace mistakes, to leading a project that went sideways, or to making a decision that had unintended impacts are also examples of making ourselves vulnerable. Telling a colleague honestly that we don’t think we know the answer could not only help us get closer to the answer, but it will also signal to our colleague that it is OK for them to not know the answer, either. 


Library culture

Michele Gelfand, a psychologist, and researcher on cultural norms, gives libraries as an example of a “tight culture,” a place where rules are enforced and where strong norms exist for correct behaviour (Roberts, 2019). This tightness is reflected, to varying degrees, in our organizational culture. Often, tight cultures strengthen their norms because of threat. Libraries have been responding to external threats as we react and adapt to constant changes in information availability, in how information is delivered, as well as in the concomitant changes of our community. Libraries’ tight culture is expressed in our focus on order, relying on rules and procedures and hierarchical organizational charts. Loose cultures tend toward openness with less expectation to conform to norms, and are generally more creative (Nussbuam, 2017). There are benefits to allowing for more creativity as libraries innovate and look outside the traditional library frames. Libraries inherently need to lean more toward order than chaos. However, “loosening up” our organizational culture will invite more collaboration, and innovation. 

Rules, procedures, and supervision are valuable tools, especially in large organizations. When we overemphasize knowing of rules and procedures, or proving our expertise, we reward “knowing” while devaluing “not knowing” and curiosity. Libraries are continually confronted with new challenges and change. The desire to have one right way to deal with a situation, rather than the confidence to negotiate situations based on context, does not create a sense of safety. Having the expectation to know it all, stifles contributions and questions. What do we have to contribute, if everything is already known? And, what do we really know when our landscape is changing so quickly? 

If we are going to be innovative, we must redirect some of our focus over to not knowing, flattening our hierarchies, and encouraging flexibility. We need managers to be able to step out of the managerial role for certain conversations, actively listen to staff, and embrace the discomfort that comes with not knowing.

The discomfort of staff stepping out of their roles is something many libraries are currently trying to address as we change our service models; however, even as we learn new ways to offer services and operate, we may not be effectively inviting people to step out of the hierarchy. Many libraries are cross-training staff and morphing services to meet changing community needs.  Change management theories suggest that staff be included in the decisions for these changes, but the success of our change management will depend on how comfortable the staff feels giving feedback. The repeated invitation to speak, while others who normally have the floor listen, fosters safety. In marketing, a message needs to be communicated at least three times before it registers. This is no different with internal communications. We want staff in our libraries to feel that an initiative is taken with them, not done to them. Involving staff in the process is essentially good change management, but change management techniques are futile if staff does not have enough trust to say what they really think. 


Leaders be vulnerable

If staff does not feel safe expressing curiosity and diverse opinions, we also fail as innovative organizations. A trusting environments facilitates collaboration, and collaboration is a key element in innovation (Sawyer, 2017). Listening skills, authenticity, and honesty are necessary to allow for a diversity of views to be expressed. If we think being professional means immunity to mistakes, emotions, and other elements of being human, then we are not being servant leaders. Leaders must all have the courage to be imperfect, and to step outside our comfort zone (Myers, 2011). Libraries expect staff to change roles more often than ever, and so it’s imperative for leaders to do the same.

I had mistakenly assumed that I was approachable when I first became a manager. I did not recognize that for some, the hierarchy and lack of contact with me, made it very difficult for them to give me feedback. Managers need to actively engage all staff and invite their feedback regularly. What helps managers to be approachable is a concerted, authentic, and sometimes relentless effort to invite real feedback. To mitigate staff from feeling powerless in their position, managers can actively welcome differing staff views. Coyle writes that  managers need to “overdo thank-yous” when fostering collaboration (p. 78). Thank yous do not only show gratitude, they are “crucial belonging cues” (p. 79, 2018). Even if managers don’t personally feel they have much power, hierarchical environments can be inherently alienating to those they supervise.

Myers writes that leaders need to connect with their staff and show sincere empathy.  Myers, Coyle and other authors speak to the importance of belonging. There are many ways organizations can create atmospheres that foster belonging. Managers and supervisors can behave in a way that is authentic and real, so others do not find it difficult to be authentic as well. One step to authenticity is self-awareness, and curiosity about what motivates us. Respect is another leadership quality that Myers discusses. Most people want to matter in the fabric of their workplace, and respect and space for their voices will show them that they matter. The bulk of library leaders in my experience, have believed that all staff members are important to the organization. The question is whether or not all staff receive signals that they are important. It’s not always possible for a manager to hear every staff member’s voice, but an organization can make it a priority to train all their supervisors to listen first without the intent to convince. One of Myers’ suggestions that resonated with me, and this suggestion is implicit or expressed in other works I’ve read on collaboration, is to learn from everyone. Myers suggests that staff who have been in the organization for years, can benefit from a mentor that has three months with the organization (2019). New staff members have different perspectives about existing procedures and operations than staff who have been steeped in an organization’s culture for years. There is something to learn from our reports (if we have them), our colleagues, and our supervisors. 

We often talk about active listening with library member interactions. Do we also listen actively to staff? Do we think that people shouldn’t have the fears they have, or bring up the issues they bring up? Coyle says that managers need to listen without chiming in, and, instead, allow others to come up with solutions. Vulnerability is often created in what we do not say as well as what we do say. Skilled listening does not include interrupting and offering solutions right away, but does include curiosity on the part of the listener (2018).

A common thread in creating a safe space at work as a leader, discussed by both Myers (2011) and Coyle (2018) along with others, is managers asking staff for feedback. This is less of a formalized 360 review than an open and frequent invitation for feedback.  Those who supervise can create a safe space by asking for feedback on what they do well, what they could do more of, and what they could stop doing (Myers, 2019). If managers show that feedback on their own performance is valued, that contributes safe space. 

Lastly, another common theme in creating collaborative safety is admitting when you learn from failure. Everyone fails at work sometimes. I once got the feedback that I shouldn’t have used the word failure. Failure, when we examine and learn from it, can help us move forward. Failure might not be what we want to include in annual reports, but, internally, it can have great value. If we can have the courage to admit when we have failed, we can understand the cracks, biases, or miscommunications that caused it. 

We need to achieve certain goals, and we also need to consider the impacts of these goals and have affected people fully participate in the process. Organizations must properly measure success, but being tied to a goal without allowing for circumspection and collaborative feedback can lead to a negative impact on staff and service. Maintaining a healthy ability to pivot when needed can help us move in the right direction and avoid failure. Sticking with a goal that doesn’t address the issue it needs to address is much worse than changing course. A truly collaborative organization recognizes that all successful initiatives are a team effort and not the result of one person’s actions–and when a project is not successful, the team decides how to recover and learns from the lessons together.



Many people experiencing barriers use library space. Many using libraries have barriers that prevent them from knowing how to use a mouse or how to communicate a question without layers of anxiety. It is ironic that we may feel varying levels of discomfort about not knowing and being vulnerable, when we serve those who are vulnerable in front of us every day. 

In a safe environment, there is no shame in not knowing. Without a diversity of staff perspectives, we cannot successfully collaborate and uncover cracks in our foundations. We need our cultures to be pervasively curious. When people do not feel comfortable expressing themselves, groups interpret situations with their own explanations instead of discussing with appropriate people. Organizational narrative tends toward the negative (Bushe, 2010). If there is negative talk simmering in our organizations, then leaders need to look at how they listen, and how they invite feedback.

As someone who supervises, I regularly learn in humbling ways how I can improve. I have great faith in libraries, as well as in our adaptability, our usefulness, and our importance to our communities. Warren Bennis said that leaders must be first class “noticers” and that “the DNA of leadership is relationship-based collaboration” (Meyers, 2011). Libraries are innovating, and, if our organizations haven’t already, it’s a perfect time to expand our innovations and foster collaboration as a system, with all voices invited and encouraged to speak at the table.



Brown, B. Daring greatly. (2012). New York: Penguin Random House.

Bushe, G. (2010) Clear leadership: Sustaining real collaboration and partnership at Work.Boston: Davies-Black

Coyle, D. (2018). Culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. New York: Bantam. 

Myers, B. (2019, November 6). Six emerging leadership trends for the 21st Century.  [Lecture, SFU Beedie School of Business] Surrey.

Myers, B. (2011). Take the lead. New York: Atria Books.

Nussbaum, D. (2019, January 17). Tight and loose cultures: A conversation with Michele Gelfand. Behavioral Scientist. Retrieved from https://behavioralscientist.org/tight-and-loose-cultures-a-conversation-with-michele-gelfand/

Roberts, R. (Producer). (2019, October 28).  Econ talk: Michele Gelfand on rule makers, rule breakers [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from: https://www.econtalk.org/michele-gelfand-on-rule-makers-rule-breakers/

Sawyer, K. (2007) Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books.


Other Suggested Reads

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness. New York: Random House.

Daimler, M.  (2016, May 25). Listening is an overlooked leadership tool.  Harvard Business ReviewRetrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/05/listening-is-an-overlooked-leadership-tool 

Deadrick, D. L., & McAfee, R. B. (1997). `Customers for life’: Does it fit your culture? (cover story). Business Horizons, 40(4), 11. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0007-6813(97)90034-3

Duhigg, C. (2016, Feb. 25). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. NewYork Times Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

Gino, F.  (2016, April 25). Teams who share personal stories are more effective. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/04/teams-who-share-personal-stories-are-more-effective 

Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012, June). Leadership is a conversation. Harvard Business ReviewRetrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/06/leadership-is-a-conversation 

McKee, L., & Wiens, K. (2017, May 11).  Prevent Burnout by Making Compassion a Habit. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/topic/leadership-and-managing-people  

Parris, D., & Peachey, L. (2013). A systematic literature review of servant leadership theory in organizational contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, 113(3), 377-393. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1322-6

Taylor, B. (2017) 5 Questions to Ask About Corporate Culture to Get Beyond the Usual Meaningless Blather. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/06/5-questions-to-ask-about-corporate-culture-to-get-beyond-the-usual-meaningless-blather


Jennifer Wile is Manager, Information Services at Surrey Libraries. She has worked in both academic and public libraries in the United States and Canada. She is passionate about understanding organizational culture, and facilitating community learning and workplace collaboration. She received her MLIS in 2001, and completed an MBA in 2018.