June 18, 2018

How About a Little Kindness for Library Leaders? | Leading From the Library

One of our profession’s most popular pastimes is beating up on the boss. Are library leaders just lousy at leadership and management, or is there something particularly anti-authority about people who work in libraryland? Maybe it’s time to show the boss a little love.

Every librarian writer, whether a regular columnist, blogger, or just occasional essayist, thrives on readership. Among my past columns are a few quite popular reads, but most split between nice, meh, and who cares. The top-of-the-chart outliers are most always the ones where I take library leaders to the woodshed. A column on micromanagers ranked at the top of LJ’s most read articles for multiple weeks. It garnered more comments than just about anything else I’ve written. Excepting a few commenters who cynically claimed library workers were better off being micromanaged, the stories about horrific micromanaging bosses poured forth. The reaction makes it tempting to just churn out columns on everything that make library leaders awful bosses. Guaranteed readership.

Formula for Charting

Tapping into readers’ desire for content that confirms their existing biases could be a formula for future success. I’m planning more columns that would easily fulfill library workers’ passion for reading and commiserating about bad bosses. These future columns should secure my place at the top of LJ’s “most read article” chart:

  • How to Survive Your Toxic Library Leader
  • Top Ten Things Library Workers Hate About Their Bosses (listicles always do well so a listicle on bad bosses is a dream column)
  • Why Every Library Leadership Workshop/Academy/Program is a Waste of Time That Fails to Turn Horrible Managers into Even Halfway Decent Leaders
  • Just… All Library Bosses Are A-holes

In addition to generating plenty of comments, pro and con (well, mostly pro), that micromanaging column also inspired other librarians to speak out against their micromanaging bosses. Apparently this one generated quite a bit of discussion in the public library sector. Why? Is it something about this particular topic, micromanaging, that resonated so strongly with librarians or was it, as I believe, deep contact with the anti-administration raw nerve that permeates the American workplace? According to the Global State of the Workplace Report, half of all American workers have quit a job to escape the boss. Is the library workplace truly a morass of low morale, as this article would have us believe, or is there hope that our profession has its share of well-liked and possibly even beloved library leaders?

Another Core Value

If library leaders are truly as bad as the stories library workers share about them, then, as a profession, we need to take this problem seriously. Every profession and industry has its share of toxic leaders. Is it possible that librarianship is somehow even worse? The presence of toxicity in library organizations is certainly not the sole domain of its leaders and managers. Library staff are known to quit jobs just to get away from problem coworkers. Friction between staff and administration is a phenomenon that seems as much a part of this profession as any of its cherished core values. I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve worked at one time or another, no matter the library or my position. Is there a chance we can do better? We must, and it needs to start with our leadership.

Choose to Improve

Just as with self-awareness, leaders may think their current leadership style connects with staff, but they can be cluelessly unaware of how badly they may be failing to do so. Here are several suggestions for ways to start doing better:

  • I’m calling on all library leaders and managers to read Zenger and Folkman’s “Are You Sure You’re Not a Bad Boss?” and check off the boxes for those “fatal flaws” that must be owned.
  • Being a better boss means paying attention to what workers want. My second required read is “The Three Things Employees Really Want.” Delivering on these three, allowing greater autonomy, building a community of respect, and creating a workplace of purpose, give staff a reason to come to work and feel good about what they do and who they do it with.
  • Though not without flaws, consider conducting a 360 review. It offers leaders and managers an opportunity to obtain direct, anonymous feedback from staff. A do-it-yourself review will require effort to identify good questions and establish the survey, but abundant resources for doing so are available on the Internet.
  • Pay more attention to existing data on boss behaviors that lead to poor relations with employees. While it may be difficult to admit to faults that drive staff away, any leader or manager can make a commitment to avoid these behaviors (e.g., take credit for staff ideas; set confusing expectations).
  • Humility goes a long way. Consider learning more about servant leadership and adopting some of its principles to give workers more ownership, autonomy, and responsibility.

One thing I feel comfortable generalizing about all bosses is that they can all get better in some way. Pick a flaw. Be honest and choose one thing to improve on in the next few months. Start somewhere. Avoiding the responsibility to continuously improve as a leader will only lead to more organizational dysfunction.

Empathy and Appreciation

Creating a better library organization starts with the leader, but staff have some responsibility here too. The problem, as I’ve experienced it, is that library workers have a tough time seeing how organizations work from a perspective other than their own. Put simply, we all have a tendency to think the boss is a jerk and that we could do a better job running the library. Sometimes it’s true, but it’s also possible the boss is actually getting it right and workers fail to appreciate their leader’s good qualities. Having been on both sides of this fence, I know it’s easy to be critical. There’s no risk in second guessing what the boss does or criticizing perceived flaws. It’s much tougher to have empathy for what leaders and managers do, particularly those hard decisions to make the unpopular yet necessary choice. The boss may be less than remarkable, but as long as they avoid toxicity and demonstrate a commitment to improving their leadership, the result should contribute to a good workplace. As one of those who left a comment on my micromanager column wrote, “I will never again take a good boss for granted.”

Though I began by poking some fun at how much library workers dislike the boss, this is no laughing matter. When library organizations are dysfunctional, the ultimate loser is the community member who wants and deserves the best possible library experience. Toxic bosses and disgruntled, disengaged employees is a formula for a user experience disaster. That makes it critical for our profession to figure out if there is a culture of poor leadership that afflicts our service quality and effectiveness. If it is true that librarianship suffers an epidemic of poor leadership and misguided management, then it requires our attention. Despite the availability of more leadership and management programs than can be counted, we may need to take even more radical action to fix a plague of bad leadership.

Now I’d like to hear from library workers who truly like or admire their boss. What is it they do to gain your trust and support? We need to know because if our profession is to develop better leaders, library workers need to do more than gripe about what’s wrong in the administrative suite. They need to let current and aspiring leaders know what works, what’s right, and what leadership and management behaviors lead to a workplace populated by engaged, motivated, autonomously driven staff. Our future could depend on it. I hope you’ll reinforce my belief that our profession does indeed have some well-liked, well-respected, even admired bosses by sharing your story as a comment to this column.

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. Bob Holley says:

    While a bit off topic, I’d like to give an example of what I consider to be the wrong type of management training, I attended a webinar recently on difficult communications between managers and employees. Though a manager during much of my career and a management professor later on, I was offended deeply by the first speaker’s implied assumption that the manager was perfect and that the only point of the conversation was to transmit the manager’s views, to give instructions to the employee on how to improve, and to outline the negative consequences of not following these instructions.

    I would recommend that a much better strategy would be for the manager to listen to what the employee had to say including any extenuating circumstances and to consider the possible validity of any employee counterpoint. In preparation for such a meeting, I would suggest that the manager be sure about conforming with all laws, policies, and union contracts. The manager should also ask whether she has provided clear instructions and appropriate resources. Finally, the manager should make sure that she conforms to the same standards asked of the employee. I remember clearly how angry my librarian spouse was for being criticized for taking a long break when the administrators’ breaks were even longer.

    • stevenb says:

      Thanks Bob for sharing your perspective on how managers/leaders can do better by listening to their staff members – and not taking advantage by making exceptions for themselves that do not apply to others – always a formula for creating disgruntled staff.

  2. Candace says:

    I have found, in my 20+ years in public, special, and academic libraries, that (in my own personal opinion) most library leaders sort into one of two categories. 1) Those who got into it because they wanted to be at the top of their organization/profession, and who basically did so for personal gain in one way or another (doesn’t mean they can’t be good…). 2) Those who got into it because they truly wanted to make a difference for their libraries and their staff. The former are somewhat common, and can be good, but that’s also often where the worst bosses come from. I think the latter are generally the best leaders.

    • stevenb says:

      Thanks Candace for sharing your observations on this. I think it gets back to what Jim Collins found in his leadership studies of CEOs – the worst ones were all about hubris while the best ones were all about humility. That’s why I mentioned “servant leadership” as something for leader-types to explore. That really speaks to your leader #2 – what can they do to support those they lead.

  3. In the public library sector, many library boards NEVER review the performance or goals of the library director. I see a direct correlation between library success and directors who receive some sort of annual review. I value the 360 reviews that I receive, which also include comments from local elected officials.

    I am so fortunate – most of my library bosses have been outstanding people. I received feedback, felt respected, and appreciated the support of superiors and coworkers as I cycled through the usual challenges and milestones of family and community life. That said, it was also formative for me to have one of the WORST bosses ever, many years ago, who was a local government leader. Eventually fired, this was a person who demonstrated the extreme damage done to personal and institutional psyches by jealousy, mismanagement and abuse of authority. To have contrasting examples is the best possible training.

    • StevenB says:

      Thanks for sharing your insights Cathy and your boss stories. While we would always want to avoid having to deal with a dysfunctional boss, you point out that it can benefit leaders in the long run by having a great example of what not to do.

  4. Will Stuivenga says:

    I thought my first library boss was wonderful. She never micromanaged me, in fact, she provided almost no direct supervision at all. She was an “old school” reference librarian, who had hoped to retire before the library was automated–she didn’t quite make it, but almost. She did provide detailed and effective training on how to do reference in an academic library setting. However, I learned several years later (I was oblivious at the time) that she was a completely different boss for the women (librarians) who worked under her, micromanaging them to the nth degree, and hounding them mercilessly if they were so much as 1 minute late (she ignored my routine tardiness). Apparently, to her, because I was a man, I could do no wrong, and because they were women, they could do no right. No woman lasted much more than a year under her supervision before they moved on as quickly as they were able. That was the first time I experienced (and benefited from) such blatant white male privilege even though I was mostly and naively unaware of it at the time.

    • StevenB says:

      Thanks for sharing your story Will. I don’t doubt others have experienced this sort of thing where a leader will treat staff differently based on gender. It’s unfortunate this boss made female staffers miserable with micromanaging behavior. Interesting point about how we can miss something obvious about our leaders if we’re the ones who are being treated well while others are not.

    • Joneser says:

      I believe this is changing, but boy did this night/day approach depending on gender flourish in the profession during the past several decades (and probably before that as well). It got to the point that many of us (women) assumed that the men were chosen/promoted for this reason and had to prove to us otherwise because it was so widespread.

  5. Cindi Wynia says:

    I have a great boss who has guided me, supported me, and encouraged me every step of my library career. I started as a Youth Reference Assistant and have worked my way up to Assistant Director of our library system. I earned my MLS along the way and now find myself in the position to offer the same support to my coworkers and newly hired staff. It has been a wonderful ride so far.

    • StevenB says:

      Thanks Cindi for sharing your story about a great boss who helped you to become a supportive leader. As others have indicated, we can all learn to be better leaders when we have good role models.

  6. After working under 5 different library directors I would say the things that have improved morale and the workplace is acknowledgement & appreciation from the director about the job being done. It’s also nice to be asked for your thoughts on a project and your opinion be taken seriously not just for appearances sake.

  7. Hillary Theyer says:

    A wonderful leader is like clean air – they don’t always make the news, they don’t always win awards, they don’t jump up and down about themselves. They just are. It takes an astute person to realize the benefit of ongoing excellent leadership when there isn’t a crisis, and there is no comparison. We take it as the baseline, we take them for granted. It is when you experience the difference that it becomes apparent what you had. I’ve worked for many amazing people whose names only those who worked with them would know. The City Librarian whose office I sit in today was one of them, and upon his retirement (after 25 years at the helm) his staff wrote him an original song, then we all sang it as a group. That made no paper, got no press, and only we remember now. By the metric of articles written, comments made, likes given, this amazing Librarian Leader does not exist. Yet, his legacy is one I strive to live up to, every single day.

    • StevenB says:

      That’s a wonderful story that you’ve shared about your boss Hillary. There’s a lot of truth to what Jim
      Collins discovered about humble bosses being the best. They’re not in it for themselves or kind of recognition you mention – they are about making their libraries the best for staff and community members. But as you point out, they often leave a great legacy for others to follow.

  8. Joneser says:

    There really needs to be more differentiation made between management and leadership; too often I see these words used interchangeably. Just because someone is in a leadership does not mean that they are one (let alone a good manager). Being a good manager is very difficult and in some ways harder than being a leader. And a good manager may not want to be an official “leader” – more power to them.

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