The “U” Curve Transition
If you’ve ever read Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, then you may be familiar with the column that appears in every issue called “Aha! Moments.” It usually features someone sharing a particular event, encounter, or experience that subtly or radically changed their perspective or understanding of themselves, the world, or maybe both. I had such a moment at the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians in July. I’m sure my fellow attendees would agree that we were overwhelmed by “flashes of understanding” nearly everyday of the Institute. However, if polled, we would likely name different theories and/or models as having the most resonance.
My “Aha” moment came in the form of the U-Curve. It was introduced on a day when our Minnesota Institute facilitators led a session on organizational culture. No matter the size or the budget, every library has its own unique culture. Future librarians please note that understanding the culture of your organization is imperative for productivity and survival. Does this happen automatically? Of course not, but the U-Curve may help you understand the process.
The U-curve model is a framework that depicts the transition from one culture to another. It is made up of four phases that are referred to by different names in varying sources. However, to keep it simple we’re going to use: Home, Adjustment, Adaptation, and Host. There is no time limit for a phase. The length of each phase is relative to the individual and the impacting cultures. I’ll use myself as an example to discuss the model.
I began my residency in September 2007. This involved moving to another state and to a dramatically larger library. Therefore, the cultural adaptation includes everything from organizational culture to regional culture.
The Home Phase:
Home is the starting point of cultural transition. It is sometimes described as the “honeymoon” phase because it is a time of new beginnings and anticipation of what is to come. Often the person is open to learning new things and working with a variety of people. They are a clean slate with minimal biases and want to establish a reputable rapport with colleagues. This phase is also described as a period when the person is comfortable with who they are, where they are, and what they’re capable of achieving.
I started my residency by telling myself what a great adventure the next two years would be. I anticipated learning new skills, working with seasoned librarians and staff, and gaining experience that would improve my marketability in the field. I felt very confident because I knew I had been chosen over other candidates and felt that I was capable of accomplishing the tasks set before me.
The Adjustment Phase:
It is during the adjustment phase that a person begins to see and feel the differences between themselves and the new culture. The person will often explain differences by shaping stereotypical opinions. This phase is also referred to as the “hostility stage” or the “downward slope” because the person may become unhappy within the new culture, resentful of doing things in a different or unfamiliar way, and possibly unreceptive or apathetic towards making a successful transition.
I accepted the position thinking I knew what I was getting myself into. However, two weeks after I began there was a pivotal moment where I realized how different my previous library compared to the new one. The moment basically boiled down to the fact that there were more people in the single department I was working in than the entire library staff of my old institution. This was very intimidating to me because I realized the volume of work that was taking place. I also began to note the difference in operations of a private (home) vs. a public (host) institution. I experienced a significant amount of frustration with the bureaucratic structure and seemingly endless separation of functions that often slowed the workflow. The difficulty of the transition seemed to be exasperated by my adjustment to the Midwest culture and climate as well. I would often leave work at the end of the day feeling a bit isolated and longing for the southern hospitality of home. I perceived Midwesterners as a mostly gruff and stoic bunch that seemed as dreary as the unending winter season. In addition, two months into my residency I was made acting department head during my supervisor’s medical leave. I was overwhelmed by this responsibility and felt wholly unprepared for the task, hence the downward slope…
The Adaptation Phase:
This phase usually denotes a period where the transitioning person begins to acclimatize to the new culture. They have begun to recognize cultural cues and form relationships with veterans of the new culture. Growing familiarity allows the person to increase productivity and troubleshoot different situations. This phase is also referred to as the “upward rise” or the “humor phase” because a level of comfort and stability is achieved and the person is able to view the transition more favorably.
By the end of my stint as acting department head, I had a different view of myself and my new culture. I was surprised to learn that I was indeed capable of handling the responsibility of managing an entire department. I should point out that the largest factor contributing to my success was the extremely competent department staff. The people I worked with proved to be a supportive and resourceful network. It was also helpful to receive critical yet positive feedback from colleagues and staff within my department. Increasingly, I begin to understand the reasoning behind the bureaucratic operating structure. I still find it frustrating on occasion, but I am learning to navigate the system. Being placed in a leadership position also forced me to become more assertive and assessive. Aside from the benefits in my work life, it also helped me to establish friendships and learn more about my new city and regional culture. While the winter was a shock I had to overcome, I realized there was much to love about the Midwest, especially the people. Slowly, I’ve come to appreciate the differences between my home and host cultures.
The Host Phase:
This phase, also referred to as the “at home” phase, occurs when the person begins to identify with the host culture. There is no longer a sense of discomfort and being an outsider. The person has a better understanding of organizational climate, operational structure, and the tools necessary for success. It is during this phase that the person has achieved cultural immersion and enjoys activities and interactions that once seemed daunting. It should be noted that acceptance of the host culture does not equate with reaching a state of nirvana. Problems will arise, but the person will no longer relate them to the host culture, but as a part of everyday life.
I am approaching the end of the first year of my residency. I was amazed to look at the calendar and to realize what a difference a year makes. I now have a sense of belonging in my host culture and also feel more adept at getting my job done and communicating in ways appropriate to the culture. There are still times when things feel chaotic, but I now have experience to draw upon when needed. When new projects come my way, the first feeling is no longer panic or fear. It is not always happiness or anticipation either, but I do feel confident in my ability and with the assistance of those that I work with to allow me to get the job done.
Seeing the U-curve model and framework during the Minnesota Institute created a genuine “Aha! moment” for me. It allowed me to see that the struggles and adjustments I experienced in a new organizational culture and new city were perfectly normal. It provided some needed objectivity and language to describe the experience. U-curve rhetoric also created a space to share stories and discuss lingering challenges, which lends to an ongoing understanding of myself and the culture.