Using emotional intelligence to manage libraries in times of economic crisis

7th December 2020

Gary Shaffer of the University of Southern California provides some valuable advice for library managers on how the management of relationships is crucial in surviving times of economic crisis.

It appears our long-term economic boom years have suddenly come to a screeching halt due to the advent of the Novel Coronavirus, which has severely upended our lives. 'While the often-cited identification of a recession, [being] two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, is not an official designation'[1], and we cannot yet look back upon two quarters of negative growth, there is likely not a learned person on the planet that does not think we are currently in a recession.

Shortly after the last recession ended, I had opportunity to speak with six award-winning public library directors (all but one has since retired) to talk to them about managing through economic crisis. This is but one formal research study profiled in my latest book Emotional Intelligence and Critical Thinking for Library Leaders.

The study was completed while I was working towards my PhD degree and built on the director of my program’s substantial work on emotional intelligence (EI); he, a highly-published author in his own right. In my study, each director was asked to walk me through a crisis they had faced during the recession. They were also asked to identify EI traits they found most important through the crisis as well as during the recession as a whole. Below I share the results of the study.

The EI framework used was developed by Daniel Goleman and colleagues. You may recall Goleman is the person who popularised the theory of EI with his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman and colleagues Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee subsequently divided EI into four domains, those being:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness (empathy), and
  • relationship management (social skills)[2].

Subsequently, some earnest library researchers identified 96 traits of EI. Each domain is roughly made up of 25 traits.

Collectively, the directors who participated in the study, when viewing the domains through the lens of the Great Recession, focused most of their attention on the domains of Relationship Management (RM) and Self-Management (SM). They focus less on Self-Awareness (SA) and barely, if at all, on the domain of Social-Awareness (SoA). The directors’ focus, or lack thereof, on individual domains is important to note as studies indicate EI can be learned[3].

What to focus on

More than half of the study participants agreed that the most valuable traits to deploy in a recession are the ability to function in a political environment (RM) and articulating the direction for the library (SM). Other useful traits indicated by this study were the ability to gather outside resources (RM) and a sense of humour (SA).

What to leave behind

While social-awareness (SoA) and self-awareness (SA) might rank high for library directors under normal circumstances, all study participants were looking at the domains through the lens of the Great Recession when they scored these domains among the least valued. When one is faced with crisis, soft-touch skills seem often to be abandoned.


In times of economic crisis, the focus should be on the management of relationships and one’s self, with the abilities to function in a political environment and articulate direction for the library as paramount.

Actions to be considered

As labour is typically a library’s largest expense, all directors interviewed for the study indicated that pay increases, for the most part, were frozen, as was hiring. One director asked his management team to take a 2.5% voluntary pay-cut for six months, while one other director, who faced a gutting of his budget, had to institute severe layoffs. Still another director 'right-sized' her staff to match her library system’s new budget through attrition.

At least two directors related that they did not wish to miss taking advantage of their crises. One closed a branch that he felt should have been closed years ago, while another began a much needed fundraising campaign for his central library, which was damaged by natural disaster in the middle of the downturn. Still another, who had to close several branches, worked with her city to identify prospective tenants for the soon-to-close branches. One location is now operated as a Headstart location (federally-funded preschool), another by the Urban League, and still another is operated by a Spanish language nonprofit. 

It is important to note, two directors who had previously passed library bond measures had their new bonds threatened. Although voters had approved the measures in one case, politicians, and in the other unscrupulous actors, tried to get the measures rescinded because of the financial calamity. The politicians were unsuccessful because of community support. The unscrupulous actors, on the other hand, were partially successful because of a technicality. 


Though only six examples, the experiences of these leading library directors will hopefully aid you as you navigate the turbulent waters of profound budget cuts, forced branch closures, and the rough political landscapes of recession.

By following the lead of these heralded library directors, perhaps you can see which traits you must hone and which you may be able to leave by the wayside. In times of economic crisis, the focus should be on the management of relationships and one’s self, with the abilities to function in a political environment and articulate direction for the library as paramount.

About the author

Gary Shaffer serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business Library & Information Management program. A program he once directed. He currently serves as director of the Library, Arts & Culture Department for the City of Glendale, California. Read more about the most important emotional intelligence traits in public and academic libraries as well as critical thinking in Shaffer’s book Emotional Intelligence and Critical Thinking for Library Leaders.

Purchase now through Emerald and receive a 30% discount by using the code SHAFFER30.

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[2] Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., and  McKee, A. 2002. Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[3] Colfax, R., Rivera, J., & Perez, K. (2010). Applying emotional intelligence (EQ-I) in the workplace: Vital to global business success. Journal of International Business Research, 9(1), 89–98.