October 22, 2017

When You Can’t Lead Like Dan Price | Leading from the Library

Steven BellLibrary jobs tend to be low paying. Leading in the nonprofit education sector gives leaders little leeway or discretionary power to raise salaries. Learn what leaders should know about motivating staff:

One of the biggest leadership stories of 2015 was the big change at Gravity Payments. On April 13, a media firestorm ignited when Gravity’s CEO, Dan Price, announced that he would phase in a minimum wage of $70,000 and cut his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000 to help fund it. Prior to this, the average worker at Gravity made $48,000, 23 times less than Price’s salary. Why $70,000? Price based that on the research of behavioral economists indicating that people experienced peak happiness at around $75,000. By comparison, library and information science degree-holders bring in, on average, $57,000 in mid-career. That led Forbes to declare it the worst of all master’s degrees. Library Journal’s annual salary surveys confirm that no one becomes a librarian to get rich. Other library workers earn even less. While no one knows for sure what impact Dan Price’s decision will have on the future at Gravity Payments, and there were resignations and lawsuits involved, many regarded it as an act of bold and impressive leadership.

Hands Tied

No doubt, many library leaders would love to have the capacity to give their workers better salaries. If they could afford to, like Price, some might be willing to lower their own compensation to improve that of their staff. Because libraries are typically in the nonprofit education or government sector, leaders rarely have the power to arbitrarily raise salaries or issue performance bonuses. At best they are limited to prescribed annual merit increases. While the research suggests that more pay is among the least powerful tools for increasing employee morale and motivation, few of us are disappointed by a bigger paycheck. But is the path Price took the right one for library leaders even if they could adopt it?

Options Needed

Even if more money was guaranteed to motivate workers to perform better it would be of little help to library leaders. It’s not a resource they can tap. Library administrators may rationalize the profession’s low salary scale by telling themselves their workers, by choice of career, care more about helping people than money. They still need to confront the realities of the demoralization that eventually affects low-paid workers—just as Price did when he realized his workforce was deeply unsatisfied. Library leaders can’t respond as Price did so they need to explore other strategies to keep workers inspired, enthusiastic, and looking forward to coming to the library every day.

Understanding Motivation

If more money is out of the equation for library leaders, what’s their best approach to motivating staff? One of the better sources of ideas in this area is Dan Pink’s book Drive, based on Pink’s years of analysis of scientific research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For anything other than narrowly defined tasks that require little creativity or challenge, money is a poor motivator. The carrot-and-stick approach is a formula for failure. Pink offer three ideas that would better serve intrinsic motivation and connect with some of the more complex work performed by library staff. First, allow staff to have more autonomy to control the direction of their work. Second, support staff in their effort to develop mastery at something that matters to them. Third, encourage and support staff in their pursuit of a purpose in which they serve something larger than themselves and the organization. None of these things will cost leaders much beyond a willingness to relinquish some command-and-control for employee empowerment. Put into place, this system is more likely to yield the type of creativity and innovation culture leaders want to foster in their organization.

About More Than Money

If all the research is correct and money and other extrinsic rewards are inferior as motivators and determinants of workplace satisfaction, then why did Price reward his employees with money? As I contemplate Price’s noble gesture, it was about more than the money. Price clearly wanted to make a gesture to demonstrate that greater salary equality between CEOs and workers would lead more satisfied workers and a better workplace. It was a personal protest against workplace inequality. It will be of interest to follow the Gravity Payments experiment to see where it all leads.

Be a Multiplier

While Price’s changes are admirable and a good case for leadership studies, I think leaders still need to position themselves as what Jim Kouzes termed “multipliers.” It means leaders need to pay attention to making everyone around them more engaged with their work. Multipliers “make everyone around them smarter” by increasing their degree of choice, allowing them more control of their work lives, and holding them accountable for their actions. Doing so makes improving the workplace about more than money and other extrinsic rewards. Adopting multiplier leadership behavior will help establish the conditions for an engaged workplace. Given the extremely limited leeway most library leaders have to “share the wealth,” becoming a multiplier whose staff is driven by the power of intrinsic motivation is a Price-worthy aspiration.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Govt/NP jobs also don’t tend to have a 250x differential between the pay of the CEO and the lowest-paid workers (or higher)