Saturday, June 30, 2012

Do librarians need a boss?

It's interesting, the difference between opining on a blog as an established librarian and as a comparatively new human resources professional. For the most part, I knew who my potential libraryland audience was, and which segments of it I was potentially going to alienate. HR? Really no clue. Which is unsettling, because I would be very happy to end up with a career in HR. If I ever alienate any HR colleagues, I would rather it be for situations where I've known the consequences of my words, and they've clearly understood them.

So this post is a bit of an experiment, in that I am talking about supervision in relatively flat organizations with relatively individualistic organizational cultures. I happen to have a lot of experience in those kinds of organizations, and I have thrived in them--but it doesn't mean I don't also fit in well in organizations with hierarchical structures and firmly defined roles. (In RPG alignment terms, I am so lawful it's not even funny.)

In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, "Intellectual Freedom and the Library as Workplace," Barbara Fister decries "the way that relationships within the library are so often handled along a factory floor model rather than on the basis of shared governance." I am certainly not a fan of autocratic decision-making made detached from day-to-day operational experience in any organization, including academic libraries. I am unconvinced, though, that her proposed model of autonomous practitioner-professionals is a sufficient corrective for "corporate management culture."

The reason I am unconvinced is inherent in Fister's own argument: "It could work in any organization that held high standards, respected its workers, and developed a culture of shared responsibility and shared vision." Indeed, yes, it could. But in my administrative experience with libraries, churches and non-profit organizations, I have learned that these goals are stubbornly difficult to achieve as organizations scale up in size and scope of activities.

The main barrier is that "culture of shared responsibility." What I have found is that giving people decision-making power without also requiring them to participate in executing those decisions is a recipe for disaster. When people have discrete, well-defined areas of responsibility, there usually isn't a conflict. But there are all kinds of tasks that fall "between the cracks" because they cross those areas of responsibility. An obvious example in academic libraries is the integrated library system. Depending on the library, there may be reference librarians and collection development librarians and systems librarians and catalogers who want to use it in different and sometimes mutually exclusive ways.

"Shared vision" is also a tricky one. I am not sure if people don't assent to sharing a vision because they don't want to have to share responsibility, or if they decline to share responsibility because they do not share others' vision; most likely, people are just hard-headed, and committed and passionate people tend to be even more hard-headed than most. In any case, though, like the joke about the two Baptists stuck on a desert island who end up with three churches, organizations that make an explicit priority out of community often find themselves in the most bitter conflicts over what community means.

Without shared responsibility and shared vision, establishing and enforcing high standards is impossible. Without high standards, respecting workers is impossible or simply irrelevant. (Respecting their dignity, yes; respecting their competence, no.)

So what kind of things make it more likely to work? From my experience, I can think of four, off the top of my head:

-1- The organization is existentially important to each individual worker.

-2- No individual worker is existentially important to the organization.

-3- When the democratic process breaks down, somebody somewhere has the authority to step in and prevent paralysis.

-4- Performance management is about hiring people who demonstrate that they are unlikely to require a lot of organizational resources for managing their performance and firing people who have proven that they do take up a lot of organizational resources, rather than continuing to sink time and energy into giving people third and fourth chances, even if they can perform adequately when they have enough hand-holding.

I know that last one is, well, a bit harsh. But it may be the most important one. The power to act autonomously must be accompanied by an actual ability and willingness to act autonomously.


  1. I am having a rare moment of full agreement with something on the internet! I would love to be in full agreement with Barbara, but what is lacking from her description is "a culture of accountability," which is not the same thing as a culture of shared responsibility. I'm lucky enough to work in a very flat organization with a culture of wild independence and innovation, but as we add new positions even *we* are being challenged to maintain effective decision-making and performance management lines as well as the culture we love as we scale up.

  2. Thanks, Colleen! I hope y'all find some good answers to that challenge.