ON COLLABORATIVE MANAGEMENT
Did you see the "How Do You Manage?" scenario in Library Journal recently in which the library director introduced a new circulation system over the course of one weekend, without previously discussing this move with his staff? To me, this seemed implausible, given the amount of planning and training that should go into implementing a key system, but it does play on an unfortunate fact: some libraries ARE run as dictatorships. The directors decree, and the underlings do what they're told.
I would hope this kind of management is uncommon, because it involves such a tremendous waste of resources, knowledge, and ability. A library is a special kind of environment that attracts good minds. Many bright, talented people are willing to work at well below the salaries they could otherwise earn, just so they can work in a library.
Which means that they apply their minds to what they're doing. They're not just following mechanical procedures in a rote manner, they're thinking about how well or how poorly those procedures work, and whether they might be improved. They're not just chatting pleasantly with patrons, they're mentally noting what patrons are disappointed at not finding. They're not just enforcing library policies, they're noticing when those policies annoy people, and noticing new problems there are no policies for. When patrons don't find answers to their questions, staff members are mentally noting that the library needs more books in that subject area. Because they deal with patrons everyday, they have a good understanding of what library users want and expect to find.
Even if library directors don't want to consider their staff's ideas, they would be fools not to use the observations of their frontline people. If patrons prefer to print articles off a screen rather than using indexes and then trudging over to the journal collection to find the articles, the director needs to know this and think about purchasing full-text databases. If regular customers are being driven away by homeless people who have come in from the cold, the director needs to know this. If there are no rules in place for dealing with patrons who are hogging the few internet terminals, the director needs to know such a policy is needed. If patrons are having a hard time with our new machines, the director needs to know this and think about changing the interfaces or putting up instructions or offering training. But directors can only know these things if they listen to their staff, make them feel their comments are welcome.
But it also makes sense to ask library staff what ideas they have for dealing with specific problems. Some of them may have worked in other libraries, or worked on committees with staff from other libraries, and thus know how those libraries are dealing with similar situations. Each of them has some different perspective to contribute to problem solving -- one may have background in public relations, another may know something about law or local politics, another may have thought long and hard about ethics. They also are part of, and have insights on, the community the library is serving. Each of their perspectives or solutions may be too narrow in itself, but each can help in coming to a fuller understanding of a problem and the pros and cons of possible solutions.
Ultimately, of course, the directors are the ones who have to make the final decisions, because they're the ones who are going to be held accountable. They're the ones who have to take the flack from journalists and politicians and enraged citizens if their policies are not well-understood or well-received, and they're the ones whose jobs are on the line, so the final call has to be theirs.
But being a director is about leadership. If you want people to follow you gladly, solicit their ideas and give everyone a stake in the decisions and policies they're expected to implement. Even when you don't accept their ideas, the fact that you've given them a fair hearing goes a long way toward reconciling staff to your decisions. Listening to staff is the proof of respect, the surest sign that all the talk about being part of a team is not a slogan but a reality.
This isn't just my opinion but my experience. The libraries I know of that have continual staff turmoil and frequent turnover are places where dictatorial directors have discouraged or ignored staff ideas and observations. The library I worked in for 22 years, under two different directors, gave us a chance to contribute to every important decision -- acceptable use policies, budget allocation, hiring decisions, scheduling, even the layout and furniture selection for our work areas in the new building. We have a lot of long-term employees, talented people who could get more pay elsewhere but who prefer to remain in a place where they can look around them and see their ideas turned into bricks and mortar and policy.
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Extremists think "communication" means agreeing with them.
Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere
And build them a home, a place of their own:
The Fletcher Memorial Home for Incurable Tyrants and Kings.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.