February 27, 2017

Library Leaders Ignore Organizational Politics at Their Own Risk | Leading from the Library

Steven BellDo we do ourselves a disservice when we believe that hard work and playing by the rules are enough to be a successful leader? As leaders, do we hurt the library when we fail at institutional politics?

Politics. It’s a word that often strikes fear in the hearts of library leaders. After all, we’re hardly made from the stuff of Machiavellian schemers. Most librarians are drawn to the profession because they want to help people find information. Many of us have only the best of intentions and a belief that we all succeed through equitable collaboration. Even when we decide to start climbing the administrative ladder, it’s rarely a lust for power that motivates us. Initial encounters with organizational politics, especially if it is particularly messy, can leave a librarian feeling their blissful world corrupted by some senseless evil. We want no part of it.

Why exactly do we equate politics with all things nefarious? Perhaps it’s because our education and leadership development leave us largely unequipped to understand how organizational politics works and how we may use it to our advantage. A grasp of politics may provide library leaders with better skills to dissect, analyze, and understand organizational situations in order to achieve beneficial outcomes.

Bad Vibes

Cluelessness about organizational politics could certainly describe my own position when I first moved into an administrative position. It was not uncommon to find library administrators at conference meetings or on discussion lists who felt the same way, whether concerning their own library or the larger organizational structure within which it operated. Be it a matter of manipulating people to achieve personal goals or designing internal power plays to take over resources, it was painful to figure out how politics worked. It was equally mystifying to understand how to leverage political action to get things done or avoid being on the losing end of an organizational change. No aspiring library leader could be blamed for developing bad vibes about organizational politics. But what if the problem isn’t the politics but our own inability to grasp that it is part of the normal functioning of our organizations, and that we need to learn how to put this into perspective and even use politics to further our own objectives?

Don’t Fear It

That’s the basic message. Don’t fear it. Accept it and learn how to manage it. It’s from a book familiar to leaders, Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal’s Reframing Organizations. From the book, we learn that organizational structures have multiple frames in which the players operate. Frames are perspectives we use to understand our world, politics being one among several that Bolman and Deal identified.

A suggested metaphor for the political side of organizations is a jungle. It takes power, cunning, competitiveness, and occasionally conflict to get what you need and where you want to go. Savvy leaders acknowledge the other frames, such as structure (think organization charts) and human resources (think people and relationships), and can reframe a situation to understand it from a completely different perspective. It may be convenient to explain how a particular college or academic department gets more resources as viewed through a political lens, pointing to gamesmanship or favoritism being put into play. A more refined perspective considers the interplay of other frames that may offer other explanations, such as institutional traditions (the symbolic frame) that favor one unit over others or the quality of relationships (the human resource frame) between decision makers. Politics can and do play a role, and the point of the four frames interpretation of organizations is to encourage leaders to reframe how they view politics in order to understand that it is just one among several ways in which organizations work. Learning this helped me to better grasp organizational politics, adopt it, and make more effort to politically engage in order to succeed as a leader. That said, it’s a leadership skill that requires ongoing effort and reflection to achieve a state of competence and comfort.

Embrace It?

Are library leaders less adept at politics than other deans or community leaders? If so, it may be that we come from cultures that reflect our professional values of neutrality, fair play, equity, and other “Kumbaya” leadership ideals. We’re cooperative types and we believe that if we play nice others will too. That’s a philosophy we need to rethink, according to Michael Chang Wenderoth in his Harvard Business Review article “Great Leaders Embrace Office Politics.” Rather than avoiding politics and dismissing “political people,” Wenderoth writes that we should instead step back and study “how they communicate, network, and strategically manage their careers.” He believes we self-handicap by “shying away from using techniques that would otherwise expand the ways we can get ahead.” While Wenderoth’s take on politics may be unsettling to some, and appears to contradict many leadership experts who promote the virtues of ethical and fair organizational practices, there is value in educating oneself to be realistic about toxic colleagues who interpret all organizational dynamics through the political frame. Understanding more about how those political people operate and what motivates them may help leaders with different styles employ new techniques that Wenderoth says “may not feel intuitive.”

Becoming More Political

Suggestions to become more Machiavellian would certainly be off-putting to library leaders. But there’s more to it than that. What Wenderoth promotes is better understanding the politics of interpersonal relationships in order to be a more effective influence builder. The capacity to influence others to follow or support a vision is at the core of leadership. It is ironic that librarians demonstrate considerable political savvy as advocates for any number of causes, from fighting for public funding to influencing legislators to adopt reforms. We can operate in the greater political domain, but less so in our own organizations. We may be uncomfortable discussing organizational politics in our professional leadership development programs, although library leaders who attend Harvard’s programs gain exposure to Bolman and Deal’s four frames. Are we doing enough to educate our leaders on these essential tools for diagnosing organizational problems and developing solutions?

Learn From Those Who Know

I am uncertain of what works best for library leaders who want to learn how to be more adept at organizational politics. It’s hardly the sort of thing one easily learns in a classroom, and finding practice opportunities is equally difficult. Harvard-like case studies might help library leaders to better recognize situations that call for political action and how to respond. They might demonstrate how being a networker, coalition builder, or influencer is a path to better leadership. Here is what I would do: Identify people in your organization who appear skilled at leveraging organizational politics. Observe these people. Get to know them better. Learn from their behavior in meetings. Find out how they learned to use organizational politics to their advantage. Then take what you learn and incorporate it into your leadership practice to help position the library to better serve its community. Savvy library leaders will learn the lessons of working with political engagement before it works against them.

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. Dear Steve,
    Thanks for the timely article and this perhaps set the beginning of a new skillset that each library leader needs to embrace in the future. Interestingly, I had lunch with a friend who had retired from the civil service for a while and he shared the opinion that if everyone just focus on their work even by just 70% and not play politics, productivity will jump immediately and the world will be a much better place. But we know this is not going to happen because the world has changed and is still changing. For example, we used to be able to take a bus or a plane without worrying if someone else is carrying a bomb or not. I can only hope that whatever it is, leaders can change for the better so that others can benefits from a better society.
    Best Regards

  2. Hi Sung. Thanks for sharing your comment.

    Things in the library world are always subject to change.

    But organizational politics, maybe not so much. It is a persistent part of our organizational structures. What seems to change is how we relate to it as leaders – hopefully – as you say – for the better.

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