Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Too much responsibility

I was recently telling you about liking everyone I work with, and I think part of that has to do with our natural human tribal instincts. If a group of workers are gathered together in the same job a kind of bonding comes into play, a protection, a professional allowance. As I work in a team of clerks/pages at a library, that glue is thickened both by how much our jobs are the same and by the amount of adversity we endure. We endure a mild amount of adversity, mostly with patrons, occasionally with management, and, of course, always with each other. For good or ill this creates a team, though we never refer to it like that.

The darkest aspect of this can be seen in street recordings of police attacks. Whether there is a group of police expressing mob violence together or there is a single lunatic cop who behaves horrifically while his colleagues turn the other way, there is a tendency to give in to the team, to be ruled by the heat of the bond between each other (the one that comes from adversity), rather than being guided by a responsibility to doing a good job. Police, because of the kind of power they have, combined with the profound sense of adversity they work under, bring out this quality at its most egregious level, with murder, harassment, dangerous self protection, and cruelty sometimes running rampant. These breakdowns are so extreme that they would seem perhaps to have nothing to do with the world of a library clerk. But oddly, the underlying dynamics are the same.

We clerks can be protective about not having to do things we don't like, indulgent of rules when they are serving nobody, and willing to pass work away from ourselves as a self indulgence or in a fit of pique. We can constantly turn the other way helplessly as our co-workers perform horribly, and we can do a middling job of things under the guise of  "why do so much more than everyone else". In short, a library clerk can be terrible from a similar place that a police officer or a teacher can be terrible, albeit perhaps with a differing array of consequences for the people involved. And we can be excellent too in similar ways other jobs can be done excellently.

When we are good, we are autonomous and full of integrity, interested in the best possible outcome for those we are helping regardless of the cost in inconvenience to ourselves, which, frankly, is never great. We do this from a private sense of honor, but it ends up reflecting well on all of the workers around us. We act individually and are seen, often enough, as an element of a group. I may be the only person ever to help some library patron, going well out of my way to get some material that will make them happy, and they are, surprisingly often, very much inclined to praise the many helpful people at my library, even as I am the only one to help them.

And in some ways it plays out exactly that way with unhelpful, inaccurate, and incompetent clerks. They act individually, but a wide brush paints us all. In this situation, though, that wide brush is a bit more our responsibility. It is a huge effort to monitor our co-workers, intercede against them, and step in to help people being misdirected and misinformed. It breaks the code of the team. We strive to get along. But as my ridiculous colleague wastes fifteen minutes of your time to get you half of what anyone else would get you, and I, agonized and helpless, wander off for an afternoon cold press coffee, some of that failure is on me and my crew. Like it or not I become one of those pathetic cops, standing around while an insane police officer throws some innocent kid to the ground, thinking there's nothing I can do when, really, I'm the only one who could actually do something.

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