The Art of Not Providing Advice

I have recently joined the American Library Association (ALA) External Review Panel (ERP) pool and completed my first ERP training session during the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago earlier this month. The External Review Panel is a group of LIS professionals from academic and practitioner backgrounds who are responsible for helping ALA accredited university programs with their self-assessment documents which outline how their programs meet the ALA’s accreditation standards for master’s level programs in library and information studies.

Learning about the external review portion of the ALA’s accreditation process reminded me of the challenge of providing advice. As an undergraduate student I majored in psychology and I took a course in counseling psychology and one of the most important messages that my professor gave to students was that counselors never give advice to counseling patients. Councils ask questions to help patients interpret situations and uncover counterproductive thought and behaviour patterns, but they don’t simply tell them what to do. This approach simply doesn’t help people. The advice given may not fit patients’ individual circumstances or it may simply be rejected. A counselor’s role isn’t to tell patents what they should do in order to achieve some sort of externally determined ideal way of thinking or living, it is to help them to discover ways to think and act that address their unique challenges in a way that works for them. As an undergraduate student I had enough sense to realize how challenging it must be for counselors to refrain from providing well-meaning advice to clients as they see them struggling with challenges in their lives.

I didn’t end up following a path into counseling or psychology, but this lesson stuck with me. It ended up being central to the ERP training. There are many misconceptions about the accreditation process, many of which center on the idea that ERP members are responsible for evaluating the programs that they review. Panelists do not evaluate the program nor do they make recommendations regarding whether or not the program should receive continuing accreditation. The ALA’s Committee on Accreditation (COA) is responsible for the accreditation decision. The ERP serves as the COA’s agent and its role is to verify the assertions and evidence that the program makes regarding the ALA’s standards in its “self study”. Evidence gathered in the verification process is reported to the COA with programs apprised of the results of the ERP’s evidence verification at the end of a site visit. The ERP is therefore responsible for making sure that there is specific evidence to back up the claims that universities make in their “self study” reports. For example, if a university claims that they have a curriculum review committee that means 6 times per year, the ERP would request copies of the minutes from these meetings, would examine committee membership and membership rights (i.e. voting versus non-voting members), and would look for evidence that recommendations from the committee were implemented in the school’s curricula.

It is the activities that panelists don’t perform that create the biggest challenge for new panelists. Panelists do not compare one university with another. Just because you have seen something that works really well at one institution doesn’t mean that you should hold that up as a standard for another institution. You may have feelings about process flows at an organization and may feel like there are ways to create efficiencies or opportunities for collaboration, but it is not a panelist’s job to point these out. Similarly, panelists may have certain expertise in curriculum design or a given subject taught at the school. They are there because of their background knowledge of the topic, but they are not there to argue for ways that the school could modify their teaching practices or course syllabi. Panelists are not visiting these programs as consultants with a mandate to implement changes. Panelists are not there to judge any of the programs or systems that are in place at a school. Each program has developed systems, structures, and practices that reflect their unique circumstances including their larger university or college’s mission, their available resources, their student population, and their vision of the LIS field. The ERP review process is meant to be a collegial one in which panelists help to verify that the claims made by the program are supported with evidence, not whether the school should change elements of their program based on their interpretation of the standards. In summary, the ERP helps programs to ensure that they are supporting the claims that they make in their “self studies” with clear evidence.

There are so many times in life when we enter a new situation and we feel compelled to give people advice on ways in which they could change in order to make things better. Although I would always recommend looking for ways to improve processes and would never discourage anyone from sharing their ideas about possible innovations, we always need to be careful when we think that we can make things “better”. This is a common mistake for new managers and it can lead to resistance and motivation problems in teams. Improvements should come about as a result of collaboration between stakeholders in a project or team and should be based on evidence. If you are new in an organization, start by asking questions rather than making recommendations. Find out why things are done the way they are. Find out what changes people have made or tried to make in the past. Recognize the things that are being done well in an organization rather than fixating only on that which could be improved. Finally, recognize that each of our suggestions for what would work better are based on our own experiences and biases and that other people have experiences that are equally valid and worthy of consideration.

Featured image by Laughlin Elkind

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