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Managing relationships with your staff: Part II

[The First Year Director: Strategies for Success, 4 of 8]

My previous post discussed managing the relationship with staff from the perspective of the director's immediate reports. This post will discuss the more general role of setting an organizational culture.

First, directors should be aware that a new director means a new culture. While long range plans matter, while training programs provide some continuity, while Human Resources practices build employee expectations of the employer's promises, almost all organizations promptly take on some characteristics of the new boss. The question is how purposeful those characteristics are, which itself is a measure of the mindfulness and emotional intelligence of the director.

Part of this near-instantaneous shift is simple survival. Employees look to the director to see what matters to him or her. It's easy, at this point, to list all of the behaviors a new director should not adopt. For instance:
  • Nothing irritates staff like hearing how great things were at the director's previous library. If it was so great, why did the director leave?
  • Along the same lines, directors who say "you" to mean "the staff" rightly perceive this as distance. A director who is committed says "we."
  • Staff are alert to the general tone of comments about previous practices. While there are many gradations along this continuum, the two extremes are these: critical/negative on one side, appreciative/positive on the other. Adopting the critical approach is more offputting to staff. This isn't to say that the staff have been behaving in ways that can't be improved. But directors who begin by talking about all the things staff does wrong tend to provoke defensiveness and in some cases, hostility. By contrast, directors who begin from a standpoint of appreciative inquiry earn points for positivity, for early evidence of respect, and for friendly curiosity.
What employers are trying to figure out is the director's values. What the director should be trying to figure out is how to signal an interest in an organization that is healthy, and growing in capacity. One of the most direct paths to this is to put the question on the table: who do we want to be? The second question: how do we want to be? That is, how will we treat not only those who use our services, but each other?

My favorite example of this comes from a library that had been dispirited for years. The director was sure that nothing was possible because they had no money. That pattern of "we can't do that!" was strong. When she finally left, the new director did something brilliant. She asked library workers, one by one, "how would you like people to think of us?" Staff would often use words like "creative, curious, playful, passionate." The director smiled and wrote them down.

Then, at a staff meeting when a new idea would be floated, some staff would lapse back into the previous behavior. "That will never work!" "We can't afford that!" The director, quietly, would capture their eyes and ask, "What would be a creative response? What would it look like if we offered a playful and passionate approach to our services?"

In brief, she managed the staff by appealing to their better selves. And her staff responded, soon becoming one of the cheeriest libraries in the state. Although managing by aspiration works because most people do want to live up to their deep beliefs, notice that it was the director who wrote down the words that were in keeping with her own intent: to build an organization of people who knew their work was meaningful, and approached it with something approaching joy.

Most healthy library cultures have many things in common:
  • A sense that service is an overriding value. The patron/customer/user is at the center of the institution.
  • A director that "walks the talk." Directors have to model the behavior they seek, or risk alienating the staff, and encouraging cynicism.
  • A sense that staff is valued. This has several subcomponents:
    • Interactions with staff are marked by respect, goodwill, and humor when appropriate. The director makes eye contact, smiles, listens.
    • Staff input is valued. That requires a thoughtful management of communication in the background. Leadership talks about what's coming up. When appropriate (most of the time, as it happens) staff are asked for their ideas, and the best ones are taken. When they are not, the director gives some context: we chose this approach because of the following factors.
    • Staff decision-making is valued. My grandfather used to say, "You can teach a monkey to follow the rules. It takes a human being to make an exception." That isn't to disparage the value of training. Staff want to feel competent, and a rigorous, well-structured orientation is essential to that end. But no operating manual, however painstakingly created, will cover every circumstance. In a healthy culture, staff may make mistakes, and directors may have to take steps to correct them. But they still trust their staff to step in and do their best in order to deliver that quality service.
    • Staff development is valued. It's a powerful thing to recognize staff interests, and deem them worthy of encouragement. It's even more powerful to find a way to tie those interests to compelling library needs.
  • A compelling institutional story. We are defined by our stories. Directors should be alert for those service transactions that exemplify the best examples of institutional intent. That story can often be boiled down to a phrase: "we saved downtown," "we build eager readers," "we transform lives and build community." Then fill in the story with real people: the time we really did save downtown, the reader who hits 1st grade running, the community that found its purpose because the library was there to invite people in, supply them with resources, and see them come together around a significant purpose. People may forget details or statistics. They remember stories.


Unknown said…
Jamie, I would like to add my two cents' worth on this one, having been a "new" director in 1980, 1985, and 2011.

New directors sometimes encounter an actively hostile or resistant staff. This may be an expression of an organizational culture that is extremely change-averse; a belief that a favorite insider, not the new outsider, should have been chosen for the job; or general demoralization brought on by a history of budget cuts, layoffs, bad press, or other misfortunes. It's no fun to be welcomed by people with folded arms, not open arms.

The new director's own emotional response is the key to turning this situation around. For me, a constant self-reminder that this is not personal, not about me, was very important. I was actually able to laugh when one staff member justified her foot-dragging work by saying, "I just don't like you." As much as possible, the new director needs to set aside anger and other negative feelings, focusing on the organization and its mission and its movement toward health and well-being. Jamie's emphasis on the staff's values is an excellent tool for this. When the director holds steady in a chosen direction, most of the resisters come around, depart voluntarily, or act out in ways that lead to their involuntary departure.

In my own experience, the focus on values went like this. I went around asking people, "Why are we here?" The vast majority of the responses: "We're here to provide service to the people/neighborhood/community." The follow-up question: "Since we're here to provide service, why do we treat the people so poorly?" The fact that most staff members had no answer for that question provided the opportunity to align behavior with values. Since most people find it easier to change their behavior than their beliefs, we could go forward by saying, "We believe in service. Let's act like it."
Jamie LaRue said…
Agreed. We need to remember that an angry or resistant staff took a while to get that way, either because of conflicts with the previous director(s), or because they acted badly and got away with it.

While a new director will almost certainly inherit some level of dysfunction, I think your point about emotional intelligence--not taking it personally, keeping an eye on the big picture and core values--is the only respectful way around it. I repeat that most library directors don't and probably shouldn't walk in the door knowing everything that has to change. Ask questions, keep trying to distill the issues. Let them know that you, the director, are trying to clarify direction. That's the time for people to participate. Once the direction is picked, and communicated, then staff need to focus NOT on on whether they are going to play, but how they can help. If they don't, that's a different story. And most new directors WILL have to confront that non-performance in their first year, with the rest of the staff watching very carefully. I once told an employee that he had a right to his opinion about library direction, but not a right to be paid to sabotage one that I'd already decided. As you say, confronted with clear and consistent communication, staff either come around, decide to move on, or get fired.

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