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The accidental library manager – Instalment 6

Managing staff

As instalment 5 discussed, the ability to manage and nurture relationships is key for any library manager, accidental or otherwise. Your relationships with your staff alone can make or break your library management career, so here I discuss ways to maximize the effectiveness of your connections with the people you manage. Your main job as a manager is to direct your staff’s efforts towards the mission of your institution, which requires you to meet their needs both as employees and as individuals.

Gaining respect

Most importantly for the smooth running of your institution or department, you need to earn and maintain the respect of those you manage. Lose their respect, and you have lost any hope of effectively managing your staff. Easier said than done, yes, but there are a few simple strategies that will help:

  • Deal with situations as they arise. Many librarians have difficulty dealing with conflict, but when you became a manager, you accepted the responsibility to resolve tough situations. Whether this involves resolving a conflict between staff members or handling an angry patron, face the problem head-on and resist the temptation to delegate responsibility or postpone the inevitable.
  • Spend regular time on the front lines. Library staff respect managers who know what they do and what they face. This can be as simple as working the reference desk a couple of hours a week; just make the effort to put in the face time.
  • Treat your staff with respect. Respect breeds respect; your staff can easily tell when you fail to take them seriously or to treat them as adults, and will respond in kind.
  • Do your own job, and do it well. As a new manager, especially as an accidental manager, you may need to “do the time” before you can earn real respect from your staff; they will reserve judgment until you have proven yourself on the job. This is only fair: you likely do the same with your own bosses and managers. Just go about your business with the knowledge that, especially from the outset, your staff will be scrutinizing your performance to see if you are the sort of manager they can respect.

While the previous suggestions may seem obvious, sometimes we overlook the simplest strategies or need to take a step back to examine our own behaviour. Look back at your own management style over the past few months: Have you spent time on the front lines? Put off dealing with a difficult situation? Responded in an angry or disrespectful manner to a frustrating employee? Review these incidents and think of ways in which you might have handled them differently.

Building trust

Library staff need not only to respect you, but to trust that you look out for their best interests and that you take their input and opinions seriously. Part of this goes back to our earlier discussions of the importance of communication and participatory management; staff who feel empowered and appreciated naturally put forth their best effort towards institutional and departmental goals.

Building staff’s trust also involves showing that you will support them in various situations. This involves:

  • Backing them up when they follow library policy.
  • Not contradicting them in front of library patrons.
  • Giving them the tools they need to do their work, which includes everything from supplies, to training, to encouragement, to running interference with upper management.

Trust goes hand in hand with respect: you respect your staff by showing that you trust them to do their jobs and make decisions. You trust your staff and gain their trust by supporting them, especially in public, rather than disrespecting them and making them look foolish in front of others.

Creating connections

All too often, managers connect with library staff only at annual evaluations, dropping in to impart wisdom from on high and then going back to their regular daily concerns. Make an effort to connect with staff on an ongoing basis: you can’t effectively manage someone if you neither get to know them nor have a true idea of the work that they do each day. Get out from your office or behind your desk. Walk around and talk to people. Ask them about their work – and about their weekend!

Give your staff ongoing feedback about their work, rather than saving it up for their yearly evaluation. Comment positively on a project they just finished, or show that you’re aware of recent less-than-positive incidents and want to give them fair warning and time to improve. If you communicate on an ongoing basis, then your staff should already know your opinion of their strengths, issues, and progress. Make sure staff have goals to work towards so that they and you can keep tabs on their progress and have constructive topics to talk about at review time.

This has the added benefit of giving you a realistic picture of people’s strengths – and of who holds the true power within your organization. As you build connections of your own, cultivate an awareness of others’ connections and influence. Power in organizations isn’t always official, and you will be better off if you know the influencers in your library and make a point of first getting them on board with any changes or major projects.


As a manager, part of your responsibility to your staff is to “pay it forward”, or to give staff the guidance and tools they need to move forward in their own careers. This can obviously be a mixed blessing: some managers fear losing their best people by encouraging them to move ahead. Think of your responsibility to the larger profession, the mentors who encouraged you as you moved forward in your career, the possibility that people you mentor will thrive and move up in your own institution, and the possibility of hiring new people that managers in other institutions have helped out in the same way.

Good managers know that people do better work when they can see they are progressing professionally, and that as people’s abilities grow they are more of an asset to their organization. Help your staff grow and develop their own skills and careers.

Building healthy relationships with library staff boils down to treating them as individuals who deserve your support and respect. In the next instalment, we talk about what staff want – and don’t want – in their library managers, and how this dovetails with the principles of participatory management we’ve been talking about all along.

This series is based on Rachel Singer Gordon's book The Accidental Library Manager (Information Today, Inc., Medford, NJ, 2005;