Narrative and compassion in management practice

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For many years now I have been reminding myself of the reasons why my studies in English Literature have been so important to my own professional development. Through this self-reassurance I have constantly re-affirmed the concept that if one can understand the way a story or narrative in constructed, then one can understand better how the world itself is created. In this sense, it is interesting that Peter Brophy draws upon theories of narrative and story to inform ‘Evidence Based Library and Information Practice’ (ELIB). However, I do feel as though there is one key characteristic that is missing from his theory and that is of primary importance to storytelling. This year, I have read a lot of information and management theory relating to managing, teamwork, collaboration and leadership among others, but nowhere in that material have I encountered reflections on the importance of ‘compassion’ in both management and teamwork. It is only through compassion that a narrator can effectively create characters in stories, and, in organisations, having compassion is the only way one can understand and work with people’s own subjective and personal circumstances that they bring to work with them everyday, as well as understanding and accepting employees’ and customers’ limitations, while finding a way to work within them to achieve goals.

Brophy, drawing from Eldredge, outlines that evidence based learning and practice is both quantitative and qualitative but that there remains an imbalance in which emphasis is placed more on objective quantitative measures. However, he argues that this positivist approach does not apply well to librarianship because it involves a social system with variables that cannot be controlled within human interactions. Brophy shows an awareness of the prevalence of poststructuralism in contemporary social, cultural and linguistic theory: “To add to the complexity, all we have to describe the world is language, which itself introduces ambiguity, bias and difference.” Poststructuralism dictates that signs are not word-images but are experiences which are directed towards other signs based on the context of the receiver. To then try and take quantitative measures and apply them objectivity is an impossible task. Even one can take objective measures, these still have to be related to other people who are free to interpret the findings based on their own observations, meaning there is never a complete consensus agreed about the evidence collected and how it is to be used.

This leads Brophy on to consider post-positivism and social constructivism as qualitative approaches the may inform EBLIB by affirming the prevalence of narrative in human interactions. He argues that “These approaches suggest that rather than emphasising the transmission of “facts” (accepted knowledge about the world), modern societies need to encourage learning which encompasses both openness to differing world views and the ability to relate new ideas to existing knowledge in meaningful ways, so that each of us is continually constructing, sharing, and reconstructing our understanding of the world in all its complexity.” Such an approach emphasises the value of narrative in developing a more complete understanding of contexts and that can lead to greater decision-making for managers. This is because narrative allows one to look at evidence in context through structures: Culture, Holism, In-depth Studies, Chronology.

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One practical way that this can be applied to a library’s ability to understand user services could be in the use of surveys. Surveys are, of course, a quantitative method of research. However, it is also possible to hold interviews with users about the survey itself in order to add a layer of understand to the results in which users have the ability to express their ideas in more subjective, less structured ways. This kind of evidence feeds into Brophy’s narrative approach. Of course, what it creates is a sequence of narratives which will still need to be gathered together into a coherent structure so that it can be applied to improving a service. In order to truly understand a user-group, one not only needs to create quantitative analysis of their habits and needs, but also to understand why they behave as they do, their motivations and their needs or desires. In order to successfully achieve this, managers need not only to know how to read graphs and charts, but also need to be able to read and understand people. And for this compassion is a quality that all good readers and subsequent narrators retain because it allows them to more fully understand the qualitative aspects to social interactions and systems.

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