Real Talk on Library Management Difficulties

At an ALA 2011 emerging trends discussion group on training and retaining middle managers, an HR official noted that if a manager is doing their job and properly training and documenting, then the HR office helps in the disciplinary process, and there is no reason a manager should have any trouble.

At an ALA 2011 pre-conference on the difficult parts of management, the refusal by some library administrations and HR offices to help managers properly handle disciplinary action with documented under-performing staff was a widely acknowledged reality among participants.

I will admit that I have worked in libraries with fantastic administrations and great HR offices, weak administrations and weak HR offices, and various other combinations. Given that experience, I have to say that the experience of poor management practices at the upper levels of an organization can make the life of a middle manager hell, and it does us as a profession no good to pretend otherwise.

The rest of this post is written under the assumption that with whatever performance problem a staff member has, it has been addressed verbally with a clear direction on how they can improve, with regular follow-up and documentation of any additional training and improvement, decline, or static-ness of performance. (Essentially, I'm assuming managerial due diligence on the part of the lower-echelon manager before they go to administration or HR to initiate any discipline.)

If your administration or your HR system will not mentor you and help you with your performance management responsibilities, and especially if, after all of your development attempts, they stonewall you on the written and established processes for disciplinary action, you have two choices.

(1) You can continue as you are. You can accept that some people will simply not perform their required job duties, and work around them. You can accept that as your lot in management life, and deal with it.

(2) You can job-hunt and leave, and work someplace where you can be an effective manager.

I cannot condone the first choice. If it has been established that your administration or HR system will not help (in the words of one pre-conference attendee, "My dean says that there is only so much you can expect out of some people, so you just take what you can get"), how can you stay? Your staff will see you as ineffectual. They will resent the fact that they work hard for the same salary as the undisciplined slacker. They see you accepting that differential treatment of them when you are supposed to be their advocate. And yes, while it may not be your fault you cannot address the problem,

you staying to work for that organization and perpetuate a system of unfair treatment is entirely under your control.

I'll say that again: you staying in that situation makes you a part of the broken system, and you have to accept responsibility for your part in perpetuating that broken system. It is no longer "they" but "we" when you talk about problematic practices. And you have to own that.

If you stay in a broken system, and practice bad management because of that broken system, that makes you a bad manager.

Full stop. Whatever your intentions or personal limitations on moving.

Even worse, if you stay, what you are doing is setting your successor up for failure. How many managers have walked into departments where under-performing staff have decades of excellent performance reviews behind them? Staff will be surprised when someone new points out deficiencies, HR's hands will be tied due to long histories of someone else saying everything was fine, and the quagmire starts all over again, placing a new manager in a difficult position.

I implore you: do not reward these places with your good work.

I've said this before, both in informal management conversations and at local and national presentations when someone brings the issue up. My very firm stance on this tends to either alienate people or help them feel empowered. Yes, I know it is easier for some of us than others to find another job and relocate. Some of us have spouses, or children, or ailing family members. But you need to weigh those responsibilities against your responsibilities as a professional, against your future marketability (since places with bad management aren't usually secrets once you start asking around), and against your mental and physical health. This creates difficult choices, but it is still a choice.

There is a lot of talk about library leadership and culture change. If there is a chance you may change the organizational culture to attach more accountability for responsibilities, you can work in that arena. I would caution, however, that one person (even two, three and four people) may not be enough to change an entrenched organizational culture. As a middle manager you can often make changes in your local (departmental or unit) culture; if you are dependent on upper administration changes, be both wary of and realistic about how much cultural change will happen under people who perpetuated the broken system in the first place.

If you have done everything within your power to carry out your responsibilities, and the roadblocks you face are your own administration and human resources, exhaust your options. Then look elsewhere. Otherwise you risk becoming the problem, and that helps no one.

Real talk.


Anonymous said…
You're making a lot of assumptions about the choices available to people. Staff may stay in broken libraries for many personal reasons - poor job market, unable to move due to family, etc. Maybe your situation is that you are free to move around the country at short notice - I don't know your personal circumstances. But I wouldn't think to judge you on them. Your lack of empathy towards other library staff makes me less likely to listen to your ideas, because they may all be coming from the same narrow range of experience.
Amy said…
Thanks so much for this post. Your words mean a great deal to me at a time of transition in my life.
Colleen said…
Amy - thank you for reading. Know that there are places where it is both great fun and uplifting to work as a manager (I dont mean to make it sound awful) - if you're transitioning due to being in a rough spot, I wish you much luck finding a great and supportive library (or other place) to work in!
Jeff Scott said…
I've been thinking about this post a lot. I remember times where everything was perfectly laid out for discipline, only to have upper admin balk for some reason. It seems that when faced with doing something unpleasant, some don't want to do the work or make the decision. Then you limp along working around the problem instead of dealing with it. Definitely had that problem in the past and it was time to move on, not just for that reason, but so many similar reasons. Thank you for the post. (By the way, did you get settled for your pre-conference from LLAMA 2012?)
Colleen said…
Hi Jeff! Yep, it's hard and occasionally unpleasant work...but I suppose that's why admin gets paid the big bucks (or at least get the cool titles), right? *grin* Not yet settled on the edits to the proposed 2012 program, pulling together threads and sending queries to the public librarians the committee recommended; another section is also interested in it as-is without changes (i.e., that it was conceived as directed at academic librarians, which the sponsoring LLAMA committee didn't want, and with some speakers who go over well with audience members but whom some LLAMA committee members didnt enjoy as much), so I'm both revising and weighing options.
Jeff Scott said…
Hmm, that doesn't sound like it went the way I thought it would. Couldn't be at the meeting since I didn't go to ALA this year. Will try to find out from Melissa what happened.
Colleen said…
They were very supportive of the idea, but want the panel to be 2 academic and 2 public, and for me to cut a particular name from the program. Theyre not bad changes, just not the program I was interested in moderating :)
Anonymous said…
Pleasant Post. This record helped me in my college assignment. Thnaks Alot
Anonymous said…
In general I agree with this post -- however, I have to say it's not quite as easy to just "get another job where you can be an effective manager", especially given the sad state of the job market. I've left no win situations in the past but 1) that was before the recession and 2) I'm not tied to a region or even another person and his/her career goals.
Anonymous said…
I hope a few good managers stay in our public library system. I was shocked to have been told by one manager that "...we're government workers, therefore no one expects us to be at work on time, and we (new employees) should show up 45 min. late like the other employees at our branch." Luckily, our system assigns us new locations about every two years, and I have had a few good managers. The bad experience made me appreciate the others so much more.
Kid Computers said…
Excellent article! I've been working on a line of educational computers that librarians can also benefit from.... I'll update you when I finish it up! anyhow, keep up the great work... excellent article!
Colleen said…
@Anonymous - I'm well aware that many folks have extenuating circumstances such as family, job market, etc. In fact, I specifically noted that it is a choice to stay in a rough library - sometimes a necessary choice given personal circumstances, but still a choice one makes. And anyone is free to make the choice to stay, but then you also have to take responsibility for being part of the problem if you are a manager in such a situation and not following best practices. You can't simply stay and be blameless for the organizational culture if you become part of the culture's enforcement.

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