August 17, 2017

Asking for a Friend: Tough Questions (and Honest Answers) about Organizational Culture | ALA Annual 2017

L-R: Susan Brown, Richard Kong, Megan Egbert, Christopher Warren, Natalie Nation

Do you have questions about your library’s organizational culture? You’re not alone. On Monday, June 26, more than a hundred people attended a standing-room only session on how to work toward change within library management structures, whether academic, public, school, or special. Audience members were able to submit questions beforehand and via Twitter, creating an interactive experience.

Panelists included Susan Brown, Director of the Chapel Hill Public Library (NC); Richard Kong, Director of the Skokie Public Library (IL); Megan Egbert, District Programs Manager at the Meridian District Library (ID); Christopher Warren, Director of the Auburn Public Library (AL); and Natalie Nation, Branch Manager at the Boise Public Library (ID). They emphasized that this was neither a gloat nor gripe session; instead it was intended to remind people that they are not alone.

As the only non-director on the panel, Egbert said began, “From the questions we’ve received, it sounds like a lot of you have [not-so-great] bosses.” There were nods as agreement when Brown stated, “Organizational culture is defined by the worst behavior a director allows.”

Warren recounted his experience of still being referred to as the new director after four years; his predecessor had held the position for 42 years. “If you’re trying to define organizational culture, you can’t do it alone,” he pointed out. ” It will take longer and be more difficult than planned.” However, he advised those working toward change to not get discouraged if they take a few steps forward and then a step back, as change is rarely a linear process.

Managing Up

Throughout the panel, members of the audience were encouraged to offer advice and ask questions. One suggestion was to lead from where you are; de facto leadership does not necessarily require a leadership position, and those who hold those positions are not necessarily leaders. Follow-up questions related to handling workplace difficulties, such as what to do when there are a lot of insecurities at the top of the hierarchy, and how to retain younger workers when there is no room for growth. Brown answered both questions with, “Look at who you’re trying to serve. Is it patrons, staff, or both?” Kong replied that all decisions must come from a place of compassion. “You can’t judge staff or patrons,” he affirmed.

When asked how middle managers working for a toxic director can create a better work environment, Brown noted that all managers have the ability to mold a team. Warren reminded listeners that creating a sense of safety and security among the people you supervise is a manager’s primarily responsibility. “You need to make sure staff have all they need to do their job,” Warren noted.

Another question referred to managing personalities; what to do when you accidentally create “princesses” (allowing admiration for their competence to create an expectation of veto power) and how to remove their tiaras. Is it better to wait until the person leaves on their own? A suggestion offered by panelists was to ask yourself, what am I doing to contribute to the problem or what can I do differently, since in these situations, it can be easy to blame everyone else.

Planning Change

In relaying advice about managers not communicating with staff, Brown mentioned that management may relate better to what you say if you tie it something bigger. “Say you can’t complete your goals because you don’t know what the larger picture,” Brown advised. “It’s impossible to over-communicate.” Responding to a question about what to do where there is a lack of trust in an organization, Brown shared words of wisdom from a friend: “Trust is when you say you’re going to do something and then do it.”

Among other statements that received nods of agreement from the audience were the statement that you’re not supposed to fix a problem by making someone feel like their feelings aren’t real. “If someone feels like they don’t fit in, there’s a genuine reason for that,” panelists maintained. Warren advised managers and directors against being non-reactive when staff are fatigued or frustrated. To boost morale, Brown admitted that it took making time to sit down with staff and simply listen to them.

Inviting Feedback

In responding to a question about staff not agreeing with management decisions, and how transparent they should be in communicating the course about which they have reservations to their own reports,  Kong explained his process of meeting with each staffer, including circulation staff, and asking for feedback. When replying to someone who had a question about breaking down silos, Kong suggested that tension isn’t always bad, depending on how it’s handled.

For a change of pace, Brown recommended giving people a little more responsibility than you’re comfortable with and seeing how they handle it. When hiring, she invites people from three departments—children’s, tech services, and reference—to meet with potential candidates and offer feedback on both the candidate and the hiring process.

Kong also discussed his experiences of often being the only non-white person in the room when asked how whiteness influences decisions made within libraries. Egbert cautioned that hiring managers can’t just look at who applies for jobs. “People only apply if they see themselves in the position,” she mentioned. The Meridian District Library offers a junior library program for high schoolers who may feel that librarianship is out of reach. Warren earned much applause when he asserted, “If you’re a white guy like me, you need to be aware of your privilege…and work to fight against it.”

All agreed that libraries need to focus on equity and inclusion as well as diversity, reminding listeners of their options to empower and influence. Kong concluded by reiterating that every decision requires empathy and timeand that change is worth fighting for.

About Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Great article! Just a note, the Auburn Public Library with Director Christopher Warren is in Auburn, AL not Georgia.

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