Generosity at work

It seems to me that the interconnectedness of our work makes us library folk frequent collaborators. It often takes a number of people working together, for example, to select, acquire, receive, catalog, and provide access to resources. Or, for instance, how does a librarian have access to students for in-class instruction if not through collaboration with faculty? We are often skilled at working cooperatively and fostering partnerships within our libraries, across our campuses, and beyond.

The characteristics and quality of our many collaborations, however, can sometimes be disappointing–as is the case in all work environments, no doubt. It’s frustrating when work that is connected and should be collaborative is instead disjointed and siloed. It’s challenging to work with a difficult or defensive colleague or supervisor. And it’s depressing to recognize when we ourselves have been the source of a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half or so working with a faculty member at my institution on a fairly intensive teaching and research project. The course of our deepening and developing partnership has provided me an occasion to give a lot of thought to our collaboration and, by extension, the nature of collaboration more generally. This particular faculty member has been an especially generous collaborator. By generous, I don’t mean she has been nice or easy to work with, although she certainly has been those things. What stands out most to me is that she has never been territorial or defensive. She has had no tendency toward one-upsmanship. Instead, she has been at ease with and even eager for sharing ideas, work, and credit. She was as keen to hear my ideas as she was to share her own and just as likely to advance my interests as she was hers or, better yet, find common ground between them.

Indeed, when I reflect on the many people I’ve worked with, I feel grateful for all the generosity I can so easily call to mind. These people and moments were characterized by, much like my recent faculty partner, a ready willingness to share ideas, information, communication, and credit, an inclination to recognize the potential and the contributions of others. These were people who were accountable and took responsibility for their fair share of both work and mistakes. Rather than trying to stake personal claims, they sought to support and advance those around them such that everyone benefitted–individually and together.

As far back as elementary school, I’ve prided myself on being a good teammate or colleague, yet I now recognize how one-sided a collaborator I often have been. I cringe to recall the moments when I was certainly eager to help others, but not work with them. I see now how I was often resistant to others’ contributions and reluctant to hear criticisms. I was more than happy to give, but not to actually join forces. I wasn’t ill-intentioned, just perhaps (too) focused on self-reliance or proving myself.

A search for recommendations on how to be more generous at work turns up articles like this one and this one. The short version of their suggestions includes things like: be thoughtful, work hard, communicate readily, collaborate better, share credit, create positive working environments, and so on. While these things can be easy to know, they are often hard to do.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being nice here. I’m by no means against niceness or kindness. What I’m talking about, though, is developing and contributing to an environment of thick collegiality such that we can work effectively together in a “shared endeavor to create something rich in meaning.” Generosity, I think, helps makes this possible.

So how to become a more generous collaborator, leader, colleague, supervisor, supervisee, mentor, and/or teacher? Some research suggests that, perhaps like most things, practicing makes it easier. And my personal experience suggests the same. The more I practice generosity–that is, the more I cultivate the mindset and habits of a generous colleague or leader–the easier it is. And the more generosity I see around me and receive in return. It seems to me that respect and trust are at the core of this attitude and practice. Being generous both requires and helps promote trust and respect.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. I do think I’m better at this than I used to be, perhaps because of time, age, worldview, and because I’ve worked at it, too. I also know I can be better at it still. But the practice of promoting generous behaviors and attitude–the work of it and the reflection on it–has had a significant impact on my work relationships, quality, engagement, and satisfaction.

It would be naive to ignore the roles gender and other types of power and privilege, or lack thereof, can play in collaborative work and the work environment generally. Some might say, for example, that generosity is expected of women, and not men. Or some might say that to be “generous” actually means to be weak or timid or taken advantage of. There are challenging and troublesome expectations and stereotypes wrapped up in this conversation for sure. It’s reasonable to worry how this might reinforce divides, rather than challenge them. It seems to me, though, that generosity can help to subvert stereotyped expectations and structural inequalities by acknowledging others’ capabilities and accomplishments, by making space for voices otherwise unrecognized. I think practicing generosity at work opens communication, creates respect, and transforms our perspectives and practices for the better. Generosity can promote opportunities and engagement for us all.

Your thoughts? Drop us a line in the comments…

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