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The accidental library manager – Instalment 9

Communication time (come on!)

Entire books have been written about ways to become a more effective communicator, so the following discussion just scratches the surface. Previous instalments have already talked about the importance of the free flow of information in libraries, and of both clearly communicating with and listening to staff. This instalment, though, addresses the basics: How do you ensure you communicate effectively, and what are the most important factors to remember?

My top three rules of effective communication for accidental library managers include:

  1. Match your communication style to the person.
  2. If something’s important, communicate it in multiple ways.
  3. If something’s important – or may become important in the future – write it down.

Let’s talk a little bit about each of these.

Match your communication style to the person

I’m a big fan of e-mail. I work from home, have small children around, and am often able to dash out a message or reply to a quick e-mail at a time when I would never be able to carry on a coherent phone conversation. I appreciate having the time to think about my responses, and tend to express myself more easily in writing than in conversation.

However … I realize that some of the people I talk to abhor e-mail. They don’t bother to check it; they don’t bother to reply to it; they value the immediate results of an in-person or telephone conversation. When I need to make plans with or get a response from one of these individuals, you can bet I’ll pick up the phone instead.

Likewise, while you may love e-mail, love the phone, or love in-person conversations, your staff and/or boss may skew the other direction. You’ll soon learn who prefers what. If one of your staff members never really became comfortable with electronic communication, for instance, make the time to engage her regularly in in-person conversation – or, at the very least, show her how to print out important e-mails to file as memos! If you like to feel out someone’s reaction to a new idea in casual conversation, but your director prefers written memos, write your points down – then schedule a chat about them.

Yes, sometimes it would be less exhausting if others made the effort to communicate using your preferred style – and be sure to notice the efforts of those who do – but one of the responsibilities you assumed when you accepted your management position was to direct people’s efforts towards the goals of your institution. To do so well, you need to ensure the free flow of communication. Your effectiveness as a manager requires your willingness to master and make use of multiple forms of communication.

If something’s important, communicate it in multiple ways

This, of course, is in part a variation on rule number one – if you use multiple methods of communication, you stand a greater chance of reaching a greater number of people. If you deal with a large staff, deal with a library board, or deal with the public, you will need to employ a variety of communication methods to reach different individuals and different segments of your audience effectively. For example, if you want your board to sign off on a given proposal, you will need both to put it in writing and to present it at a board meeting. Depending on the make-up of your board, you might also want to hold informal conversations with certain members prior to the meeting or drop them an e-mail giving them a heads-up; you might also want to send a follow-up e-mail or schedule a follow-up discussion after they have had time to absorb the initial conversation or memo.

Communicating important information in multiple ways also gives you multiple opportunities to reach people. Just as in advertising, people may not respond the first (or second) time they encounter a particular message, but over time you build their familiarity with and acceptance of what you wish to convey. If you repeat information, being sure to vary or reword it, you stand a better chance of people retaining that information. Make that follow-up phone call, send out a memo prior to a staff meeting that outlines what will be discussed, and send a follow-up e-mail afterwards. During a performance review, orally discuss an employee’s performance, then provide her with a written copy of the review and of your comments for future reference.

If something’s important – or may become important in the future – write it down

When in doubt, write it down! You need a written record to refer to – you may at this point in time think that “everyone knows” or “everyone remembers”, but “everyone” doesn’t necessarily understand a point in the same way, and memories fade. This is why we have written policies and procedures, so we have material to back up our actions and to refer to when we are unsure of how to proceed. This is why we have written documentation, so we are able to preserve institutional memory and find out how things work, where they are stored, what we should do.

These more formal types of communication require a more formal process. You want to be sure that policies, procedures, and documentation are clear to all, so this is the time to form a committee or team or working group, in order to gain the advantage of multiple pairs of eyes and multiple perspectives.

These more formal types of communication also require regular revisiting to ensure that they reflect common practices, standards, and needs. If your policies and procedures manual hasn’t been updated in 15 years, now may be the time to take a look. If your computer use policy was written up pre-ubiquitous Internet, now may be the time to update it.

Communication underlies everything we do as library managers, and effective leadership and management requires us to become effective communicators. Simply keeping these few simple rules in mind will help provide the foundation for your own future as a great communicator; communication, like leadership, can be learned and improved on over the course of your management career.

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