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The accidental library manager – Instalment 7

What staff really want – and don’t want – from their managers

Instalment 6 on managing library staff leads into the issue of what staff truly want – and don’t want – from their library managers. While writing The Accidental Library Manager, I surveyed over 340 library staff members (of whom 71 per cent had a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree, and 78 per cent were employed in a “professional” position); their insights are highlighted in the following sections.

Staff’s top complaints

When I asked survey respondents about the qualities of their worst managers, I found a surprising amount of agreement – both among respondents themselves, and with the principles of participatory management and Library 2.0 that have been stressed throughout this series.

Staff’s top seven complaints about their library managers were:

  1. Micromanagement
  2. Lack of communication
  3. Fostering divisiveness
  4. Abusiveness
  5. Failure to listen
  6. Avoiding conflict
  7. Taking credit for others’ work.

Other high-ranking complaints included an inability to deal with change, burn out, and a seeming lack of interest in moving the library forward, but hopefully these issues will be less prevalent among new managers!

So, how do managers slip into these common negative patterns?


Micromanagement is probably the most common complaint among employees everywhere. A full 25 per cent of those surveyed used some variation of the word, while even more described micromanagerial behaviours. As one respondent says of her own worst manager:

“She could not let go of any project and had to second-guess me every step of the way. She did not trust her employees to do anything but the most mundane tasks without her direct supervision”.

As you progress in your own management career, spend some time thinking about being the boss you’d want – none of us wants to be micromanaged.

Why do people micromanage? Often, accidental managers are promoted because they’re good at their jobs: they’re great cataloguers, great reference librarians. They miss their work, and want others to live up to their standards. New managers can also be bad at delegating; we get worried as new managers about being “graded” on others’ work, and want to make sure it’s done “right”.

Lack of communication

We often assume our staff has the same knowledge we do. Or, we assume knowledge is power, and want to hold on to every bit of that power we can. Or, we don’t want to deal with staff’s reaction to “bad news”. There’s a fine line between micromanaging and a lack of guidance or clear goals. People need information to do their jobs; they need guidance and feedback. As librarians, we need to realize the importance of communication. One survey respondent explains:

“The worst library manager I ever had was a very poor communicator. This always made my job and life in general difficult. I often didn’t have the information I needed to do my job well or at all. I often just couldn’t plain understand her. I often wasn’t sure what she expected of me.”

Fostering divisiveness

This often comes into play between MLS and non-MLS staff, or when managers show favouritism to certain employees (who may have been workplace friends before their move into management), play departments against one another, or allocate work on the basis of people they like. From the survey:

“The worst library manager I ever had did not respect my years of service and my capabilities because I did not have a master’s degree. She did not include me in discussions and in a way ostracized me from my Youth Services team.”

This is not always easy to see in ourselves, but it’s important to be fair. Respect everyone’s contribution – this doesn’t mean you have to treat staff like clones, but does mean that you recognize their work and give staff the opportunity to work to their potential.


When you’re unsure of yourself as a new manager, you may be tempted to overreact or to pay less attention to your interactions with others. As a survey respondent shares:

“This person routinely treated staff as if they were idiots, ignoring staff opinions and sometimes actually yelling at staff in front of others.”

Think about the impression you’re making, and the way your relationships change when you become a manager.

I had one former manager with a habit of responding to questions with sarcasm. One of my coworkers thought this manager was always putting him down, due to their very different communication styles. When this type of communication gap occurs, someone has to step back and change their style. You’re the manager …

Failure to listen

This goes back in part to not playing favourites: Don’t jump to conclusions without listening to all sides. From the survey:

“She did not listen to all sides of a story before passing judgements, a bit like ‘Simon’ on American Idol.”

Also, cultivate a willingness to listen to different options and opinions, and be flexible. My most recent manager tended to ignore any opinions that differed from her own and refuse any input from the front lines. This led to a huge decrease in morale; many long-time staff members ended up leaving the library. Give more than lip-service to the idea of participatory management; realize that good ideas are good, no matter where they come from.

Avoiding conflict

Librarians tend towards the introverted side of Meyers-Briggs, so dealing with conflict can be difficult for us. One of the worst things you can do, though, is to ignore brewing conflict and let it fester; as one respondent’s manager did:

“... avoided confrontation to the point of destruction of teamwork and morale, staff fell apart”.

This ranges from an unwillingness to back up staff who follow policy, to an unwillingness to deal with personnel conflicts in your department. The sheer perception of an unwillingness to deal with conflict also hurts you as a manager – if people feel that you won’t listen or want to deal with issues, they won’t bring problems to you. You can’t resolve issues of which you are not aware.

Taking credit for others’ work

We often do this without realizing it; hearing an idea that trickles back into our consciousness weeks or months later. Be sure to note where you hear good ideas, unlike this manager:

“Before you even opened your mouth, her answer was ‘no'. And then, two days later, this was ‘her’ idea and it was implemented.”

Give people the responsibility and ability to run work projects on their own, which also goes back to autonomy and creating a sense of ownership. Then, give them credit for their good work. People are motivated by recognition – which is especially important in libraries, where we often need to find motivating factors other than money.

Staff’s top compliments

I similarly asked about the qualities of staff’s best managers, and again, found a surprising level of agreement. While it’s always easier to dwell on the negative (and people waxed much more eloquently about their bad experiences), staff also highly appreciated managers who:

  1. Encourage growth
  2. Provide autonomy
  3. Look out for staff
  4. Respect everyone’s contribution
  5. Lead by example
  6. Communicate and listen
  7. Provide leadership and vision.

Other top-ranked qualities included a sense of humour, and the ability to make decisions, and you’ll note right away that the top-ranked positive managerial qualities tend to express the flip side of the negative qualities: People are consistent!

This is also fascinating in that we often assume that people don’t know what’s best for them – whereas we as managers do – but respondents’ ideas about what makes a good manager line up very well with current thinking in the management literature. So let’s talk a little about each of these as well.

Encourage growth

People go into this profession expecting to continue to grow and learn, which is easier with supportive management. As one respondent gushes:

“I am encouraged to think outside the box and am always given the benefit of her guidance when I need it, her advice when I want it, and her support when the best-laid plans go awry. I grow every day under her tutelage.”

Try not to look at professional development as a place for “painless” budget cuts, work with your staff to find free online and low-cost local workshops, and schedule regular in-service days. Don’t leave training just for major events; you don’t want a burned-out staff – or one that can’t deal with change because they are stuck in a rut or never exposed to anything new.

Provide autonomy

This, obviously, is the opposite of micromanagement. Trust people to do their work. Provide time and training so that people can learn to do their jobs effectively; provide support without looking over people’s shoulders – they tend to rise to your expectations. Also, encourage your staff to take a leadership role, which can help them grow in their careers and help pay it forward to potential new managers. As one respondent explains:

“I most appreciate a manager who treats employees like adults – assumes that we’re all professionals, and we will get the job done, although some of us have different styles.”

Look out for staff

Again, we all know managers who are afraid of conflict or won’t back up their staff. If you don’t back up your staff, why will they back you up? You have a personal stake in staff’s success – get to know and care about them as people and professionals, like this manager:

“He looked out for us as his number one priority. He always defended us and our workload/workflow with the administration. He realized that we are who make him look good or bad, so he took very good care of us; not by coddling or by flattery, but by respect.”

Respect everyone’s contribution

The need for recognition is universal; it helps keep up morale, motivate staff, and keep people involved. Respecting multiple contributions and points of view also avoids the problem of group think and getting stuck in a rut; you need the input of many voices, including those on the front lines. One respondent explains:

“Managers should most definitely praise good work when they see it, as this helps to motivate the team. Lack of appreciation can be very demoralizing.”

Lead by example

This comes into play in terms of spending regular time on the front lines, as well as in areas as big as dealing with change, and as seemingly minor as coming in on time. There’s no room here for “Do as I say, not as I do”. Managers who spend time on the front lines and are able to pitch in as needed make a big impression on their staff:

“Even though she was management, she still worked the desk right alongside us and helped out when staff was short. She was a great reference librarian and kept up her research skills.”

Communicate and listen

Organizations where information flows freely simply work better. People are then able to understand the reasons behind decisions – and don’t tend to look stupid in front of patrons when they lack the answers. Listening to staff members, again, exposes you to a variety of perspectives. As one respondent shares:

“The best manager that I worked for allowed for open communication, even of difficult issues. She was open and honest and made herself available to employees to discuss whatever might come up in the workplace.”

Provide leadership and vision

Staff need their managers to be able to articulate a vision of change and lead people through. If you’re going to manage in a twenty-first century library, you can’t be scared of change. Again, this all goes together – staff with a stake in the organization and their own projects are more likely to get on board.

Get enthusiastic about where your library is going, and be able to convey this to others and bring them along. We often make the mistake of thinking this is a “personality thing”, when in fact it can be learned – and most of us originally got into this profession because we’re excited about where it’s headed. Hold onto that feeling.

“The need for a leader with clear articulated goals is so vital. The ability to make the vision a reality and make staff excited to be a part of it.”

Hold on to that vision as you take staff’s expectations (and disappointments) into account; work together to help move your library forward.

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