April 20, 2018

Make It a Place They Want to Work | Leading From the Library

Steven BellWe look to our leaders to enable us to get things done. We look to them for vision and inspiration, but we also want leaders who make progress and get our organization to the place where the vision becomes reality. What sometimes gets overlooked is the need to create a workplace where people want to be while all the work is getting done.

When you woke up this morning, how eager were you to get to your library? Could you hardly wait to arrive at your workspace and get going on your latest project, to stand before a class seeking your wisdom or to team up with co-workers to accomplish an assigned task? I hope so, but if academic librarians are typical of American workers, then arriving at work with excitement and thirst for a day of challenge is more fantasy than reality. That’s because in almost every survey of both American and global workers, the majority of respondents indicate they dread going to work. For example, in a survey of over 12,000 workers, only 33 percent said they had opportunities to do what they most enjoyed at work. According to a 2013 Gallup survey of employees across 142 countries, only 30 percent reported feeling engaged at work. This data should cause some alarm for leaders, but also force them to ask some hard questions about their workplace, whether their employees find their work fulfilling and what can be done to improve the conditions that would lead to greater worker fulfillment. One of the problems is that those leaders, too often, are suffering from some of the same issues as their followers.


While it is difficult to imagine there are library leaders who intentionally make their co-workers miserable or deprive them of a fulfilling workplace, we’ve all known a disgruntled colleague or two with a bad boss story to tell. It often boils down to clueless leaders who fail at meeting that core need for workplace engagement.  If it is the case that there is some massive disconnect between leaders and their potential followers, what are the leaders doing wrong and how do they learn to create the culture that supports and encourages engaged and fulfilled staff members? Some helpful advice comes from Tony Schwartz in an essay titled “Why You Hate Work”. I’m a fan of Schwartz on the topic of leadership. Whether he’s writing for the Harvard Business Review blogs or any of several publications where his work appears, as a leader who is learning I almost always find something of value.

In this latest column, Schwartz, who heads up The Energy Project, focuses on workplace problems, particularly employee disengagement, with a mind towards improving worker satisfaction – which in turn leads to better productivity. Schwartz’s followers know he is not interested in helping leaders and managers improve productivity through trickery or clever manipulation of employees.  Rather, he seeks to help them better understand that humans are more productive when engaged and fulfilled. The goal is to create the workplace culture that provides the right conditions for it to happen. On a practical level, in our libraries, if our co-workers are dissatisfied and unfulfilled, it’s ultimately going to have a negative impact on our community members, whether its owing to lack of productivity, poor customer service, absenteeism, or any of the other negative outcomes you get when people hate their jobs. The evidence shows that satisfaction makes a good goal because on almost any indicator of a healthy workplace, from high quality customer service to low employee accident rates, companies in the top quartile for employee satisfaction always outperformed those in the bottom quartile.

Start With the Core

Prior research has led Schwartz to identify four areas that leaders need to recognize if they want to develop the right conditions for a better workplace. He identified these four core needs as:

  • Sustainability – Think of it as physical preventive maintenance. What does the employer do to make sure that employees are in physically good condition – or does it wear them into the ground with stress and lack of support for wellness.
  • Security – Mental well-being is equally important so employees need to feel recognized, valued and appreciated. According to Schwartz, only one in ten employees believe they are perceived as vital to the organization.
  • Self-expression – Fulfillment is derived from having the ability to apply individual skills and talents to complete work in a way deemed optimal by the employee. Leaders need to avoid micromanaging, parental treatment and other bad behaviors that make employees feel they are being constantly watched and controlled.
  • Significance – Believing their presence and work makes a difference can make all the difference in employees’ attitude. They also want to believe that the organization they work for stands for something significant and that they contribute to its cause in a meaningful way.

Leaders must take responsibility to determine whether or not, or to what extent, these core values exist in the organization. If this core is non-existent or only partially in place, the leadership needs to rethink its current policies and behaviors and determine what it can do to shift the culture. Schwartz has some suggestions for how to turn things around.

Stop the Hate

Whether you lead a small team, a committee or something bigger, you should be asking yourself – and regularly assessing – what it is you do to create the conditions that engage each co-worker and ignite the spark that excites them about work. If you struggle for an answer then it may explain why workers appear uninspired or why projects never seem to get done. Creating the workplace that staff look forward to being at is rarely where leaders are focusing their energy. It needs to be more than an afterthought. Zappos and Southwest Airlines are good examples of organizations that have achieved success by putting employees first through empowerment and engagement. Schwartz recommends four things leaders can do to start changing the culture. First, let employees know it’s healthy and good for personal productivity to take occasional short breaks during the workday, and encourage them to do so. Second, be supportive and let employees know they are valued by taking action that can be viewed as caring and in the employee’s best interests. Third, create an environment where employees are encouraged to focus on a single task rather than always being pulled between multiple responsibilities. Fourth, work with employees to help them find meaning and significance in the work they do.

What Matters Is How Workers Feel

None of this is to suggest that an employee’s workplace satisfaction rests entirely on the shoulders of leaders and managers. Employees can proactively further their own fulfillment by taking advantage of opportunities to get engaged in new workplace projects, being open to possibilities for change and caring about making a difference. If patrons are routinely perceived as bothersome or annoying by a library worker and it leads to dissatisfaction, that may be beyond a leader’s capacity for creating a culture of engagement. But if the leader knows there are disruptive patrons and does nothing supportive for front-line staff, or ignores a disgruntled staff member whose dissatisfaction creates a dysfunctional unit for others, then increasing unhappiness in staffers is understandable.

Great leaders will recognize when staff are dissatisfied and will ask the right questions to understand how and why their core needs are going unmet. Schwartz writes that perhaps the most important question for leaders is “What would make our employees feel more energized, better taken care of, more focused and more inspired?” Making the shift to a new culture, one that cares about how workers feel – not only because those who feel good and engaged with work are almost always more productive but because it is good for their well being – must often start with leaders. For if leaders fail to care about themselves and their own workplace satisfaction, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be in the right state of mind to understand the difference it makes when you come to work excited about all the possibilities for making a difference and changing lives.

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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