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The accidental library manager – Instalment 8

Motivation, team building and leadership (oh my!)

Effective management boils down to targeting people's efforts towards meeting the goals of your institution, which requires motivation, team building, and leadership skills. Instalment 7 talked about what staff really want – and don't want – from their managers. Luckily for us, people do tend to want to move their institution forward. And, as always, embracing the concepts of participatory management and Library 2.0 both helps empower staff and helps us reach those goals.


Given most libraries' limited budgets, we need to find non-monetary ways to motivate staff. Fortunately, studies have shown that salary is rarely the biggest motivator. So, what other motivators are available to us as library managers?

Recognition of a job well done

Remember from Instalment 7 on what staff do and don't want from their managers the importance of giving credit where credit is due. Make a point of telling people when they've done a good job. It's so easy to focus on the negative, but positive reinforcement is always more effective – and more fun! Think of simple and inexpensive ways to reward those who go beyond. One library gives out US$25 gift cards to staff who contribute a useful suggestion or an idea that the library implements, while another director writes personal notes of thanks to staff who have made an especially helpful contribution over the past month.

Open lines of communication

Again, people are motivated when they understand the rationale behind decisions, when they feel they have had input into those decisions, and when they feel empowered to work towards the library's goals. Previous instalments stressed the importance of giving staff a vested stake in the success of the library and getting them involved in any initiative. Communication goes both ways; back up your words by empowering staff to act.

Helping staff find meaning in their work

Again, lucky for libraries – especially public libraries, where many enter the field because of a commitment to the principles of librarianship or feel that this is an area in which they can make a difference. Show that you, too, find that meaning; lead by example.

Providing ongoing opportunities to learn and grow. Just as libraries can't afford to remain stagnant institutions, library staff need to retool, refresh, and keep up their skills in a environment of constant change. Encourage your staff to do so, and look for ways to enable their growth.

A commitment to fairness

Staff who believe that you are showing favouritism towards other employees easily lose the motivation to do well, since "it doesn't matter anyway". Emory University did a fascinating study with a group of monkeys that they taught to exchange stones for bits of cucumber. When researchers started exchanging grapes with certain monkeys, rather than the less-favoured cucumber, the other monkeys that saw this inequity simply put down their rocks and stopped playing. Give your staff credit for being slightly smarter than monkeys: they know when you are treating them unfairly, and you and the library will suffer the consequences.

Respect and support

Don't get the reputation of being the boss that blows up over minor errors; your staff will lose confidence in their own abilities and any motivation to go beyond. Don't get the reputation of being the boss that won't back staff up; this only builds resentment.

All of these motivating factors really come down to treating your staff with respect and embracing the principles of participatory management that we've talked about all along. Do this, and motivation will follow.

Team building

Team building goes hand-in-hand with motivation and leadership. Motivation includes motivating staff to work in teams, leadership includes providing guidance and vision to the library's various teams, and your job includes getting sometimes very different personalities to work together effectively. Realize that, while this can be frustrating, the strength of a good team really lies in its ability to bring together people with disparate experiences and viewpoints. This helps avoid groupthink and helps ensure that teams' efforts reflect library needs, not just one person's perspective.

The most effective teams are often vertical teams, which deliberately draw from various departments and levels to ensure a variety of voices. Creating and leading effective teams, vertical or otherwise, requires knowing people's individual strengths and helping blend them successfully. It also requires giving each team the time and tools they need to complete their mission, and ensuring that they have a clear picture of that goal. Clear goals and the completion of set projects allow team members to feel a (very motivating!) sense of accomplishment.

Some libraries have a more formal team structure than others, but in any library staffed by more than one person, staff need to work together to accomplish common goals. Whether you call this a team or just part of your day-to-day duties, the same basic principles apply. Building successful teams is part of being an effective library leader.


We tend to view leadership as an inborn quality rather than something that can be learned or assumed. Leadership qualities, though, are often built up over time and with careful attention to the impact your actions as a manager have on the people you lead. Realize that your entire library career has contributed towards your leadership abilities now: every successful project, every decision, every vision of your library's future has contributed to giving you the background to lead successfully.

Leadership in libraries requires the ability to inspire others – to motivate them to work towards the goals of the institution, towards your goals for your own department or piece of it. Leadership flows naturally by example; your commitment to library goals and ability to communicate your vision for your institution or department will inspire others to follow your lead.

Leadership also requires the ability to make tough decisions when necessary. While you need to keep people in the loop and be open to input, someone has to make the final decision. When you accepted your management position, you accepted that responsibility. Indecisive managers risk losing the respect of their staff – a demotivator for you both! Yes, you'll make mistakes. Learn from them, and move on; don't let the fear of error paralyse you and keep you from making necessary choices.

Instalment 9 addresses the importance of good communication, which underlies all of these abilities. Continuing to learn from your staff, while communicating your vision and the reasoning behind decisions clearly to them, goes a long way towards establishing your effectiveness as a leader.

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