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Miss Manager, March 2000
Dear Miss Manager:
Is there anything I can do about a paraprofessional who does good work but doesn’t accomplish as much as I’d like? This worker is not lazy, just a tad slow.
This is a hard case. It is always easier to deal with workers at the extremes: exceptionally good workers present almost no management problems, and exceptionally bad workers present problems that can be addressed directly and forcefully. But what about all of those workers who occupy the wide spaces in between? The fact that we are talking about workers who are not at the extremes means that we are talking about the majority of workers. Your good but slow worker is right in the bulgiest part of the bell curve along with the fast but inaccurate worker, the smart but lazy worker, the worker who is great on the phone with vendors, but an inveterate gossip, the worker who works intently and well, but whose stress level drives her colleagues crazy, the worker who will volunteer to do the grungiest temporary assignment, but who can’t seem to get through the normal daily tasks.
What we should notice about these “average” workers (and, Miss Manager regretfully must include average managers in this analysis) is that they are a mixture of good and bad qualities. The thing that keeps your good worker from being a great employee is slowness; the thing that keeps the exemplary volunteer from advancement is his slackness at his regular job. But also remember that the thing that keeps the office gossip from ruining the department is that she can procure anything with a couple of phone calls. The person whose angst spreads everywhere is also a nose-to-the-grindstone workhorse. And that is the hopeful quality about all of us who fall in among the great unwashed in the average pool: there is something positive to start with. An exceptionally bad employee would be the slacker who gossips or the stressed-out lazy worker. These people need to be approached in an entirely different way. But with most workers, there will be a positive foundation on which to build.
The question then is what can I do to make the good-but-slow worker work faster? Or the procurement whiz less gossipy? This leads to the tricky issue of motivation. There is no question that we all respond to carrots and sticks, and most people would much rather be motivated by carrots. Unfortunately, we are often limited in our ability to provide positive incentives. Bureaucracies great and small (not to mention tight budgets) rarely allow us to say, “If you work faster, I will get you more money.” Those same circumstances also make it difficult for us to wield big sticks: “If you don’t work faster, I will fire you.” But such extremism is not an appropriate solution to the sorts of problems we are encountering. We don’t want to lose the decent-enough-employee’s good qualities as the only way of getting rid of the bad ones. And besides, the world (outside Lake Wobegon) is populated with average people, and they are the ones who will be applying for your openings when you do lose your current crop of average workers. So it is undoubtedly best to develop those motivational skills now, because there will always be a need for them.
Miss Manager believes that one reason there are so many seminars and books about the management of people and so much variety of opinion is that there are no perfect solutions that can be generally applied to specific human beings. Like the “economic man” who inhabits some theories of law and who (in those theories) is motivated exclusively by concerns of the pocket book, the employees depicted in most of the management literature are idealized characters. They seem always to be calmed by soothing words and persuaded by reason. But we have all encountered employees who defy logic. If your mixed-quality worker responds to common sense and gentle reminders, you should be able to have a discussion where your concerns are introduced (along with much praise for the positive contributions the employee makes.) Your employee will take your suggestions into account and, with an occasional pat on the back, work better than he did before. But, clearly, not everyone will respond this way. Is there some advice that will work for employees who do not take criticism well, who never seem to improve no matter what you say, who are offended by the idea that their work isn’t perfect?
There are many cases, I believe, that require merely some attention being paid to the individual in question. Those managers who consider themselves to be “hands-off” are very likely at some point to face the rise of the individual employee’s “bad” qualities. Left unchecked, don’t we all allow our natural propensities to come through? So, for some managers, a more active involvement in an employee’s work will help to alleviate the problem. Perhaps the slow employee will learn to work more quickly when he realizes that the manager will be coming by every day to see how things are going. If you wait for monthly or annual reviews and compilations of statistics to inform you of an employee’s progress, you have less chance to engage the problems actively. One supervisor I know explains her work like this: “my job is to make sure other people do their jobs.” That is personnel management in a nutshell; and it implies more than sitting separately off for most of the day hobnobbing with fellow managers (although there is undoubtedly a need for that kind of thing on occasion). And while it is quite possible for a manager to be too hands-on, to be interfering, stifling, and bothersome to such a degree that she inhibits work, the greater danger lies in managing people at too great a distance. Meetings as a solution to the need for manager and staff member to get together are useful under some circumstances, but they are not a substitute for working alongside a staff person to some extent. “But,” the objection speaks almost by itself, “I have too much of my own work to do – I’m the only person who does original cataloging [or collection development or system administration or whatever particular thing or things apply] and I don’t have time to sit with the order clerk or the check-in clerk and suggest improvements.” This lament or one like it is undoubtedly true enough. But I think it can also be stated thus: “I have numerous tasks assigned to me, including the management of staff. I work more purposefully at the tasks specifically assigned to me, and choose to let the staff operate on their own, without much direct input from me.”
Choosing to manage in the extremely popular “hands off” mode is the perfect arrangement for those employees over on the excellent edge of the spectrum. At the other end, where the truly bad employees congregate, an uninvolved approach will produce either workplace disasters or, more commonly, the deadwood employee who has broken so many dishes that she is no longer allowed to do dishes, or anything else. Average employees require an average amount of direct involvement. You do not need to hang over the bindery clerk every second of the day to prevent him from surfing the web or composing chat room ripostes. You need to spend enough time with him to understand how much work might reasonably be expected from a person in that job, how the particular employee might work better, what kinds of approaches and projects work best with him, and come by often enough to make the idea of blatant goofing off at least an occasion for potential embarrassment, if not outright fear.
This analysis may be criticized as not saying enough about positive reinforcement as a good motivational carrot. People really do respond to the encouraging word and the “job well done” expressed in one form or another. But this cannot work effectively unless that encouragement comes somewhere near the point of performance. An employee will no doubt be pleased to hear a month after the fact that his work in rearranging the binding shelves was appreciated, but in order for the positive comment effectively to reinforce the pleasing action, it ought to come in closer to the time of performance. By overseeing more (even, in many cases, just slightly more) closely the direct work of employees, the chances for such reinforcement are much greater and much more efficacious.
This is all terribly unsatisfying if a more perfect answer was anticipated. One may reasonably claim that the individualized analyses of personalities necessary for such close work is not the proper purview of a librarian. Alas, the number of things librarians do that were not covered in library school are legion. I remember no courses that touched on moving microfiche cabinets or providing counsel to weeping staff members who have just broken up or how to take care of the computers in those pre “systems librarians” days. What we were taught was to think about the link between the individual task and the larger work of the library; to see how good searching begets good cataloging which begets good reference (if you will pardon the indiscrete analogy); to know why we are doing the work we do and to make that knowledge part of everyone’s work. One thing that will help all employees and managers, whether they are ideal, awful, or somewhere in between, is a clear sense of the larger importance of the work being done.
Dear Miss Manager:
I’m supposed to come up with a mission statement for my technical services department in a sort of mediocre, run-of-the-mill, academic law library. I need something that won’t commit me to spending any more money, won’t insult any of the current staff, won’t raise hackles in other departments, won’t offend any patron or donor who might read it, won’t draw any attention to our bad qualities, and won’t make my director think she has to do anything different. Got any suggestions?
Don’t have the time
Miss Manager is sympathetic with the reluctance you may feel about writing a mission statement. Not everyone shares in the fervor of those who revel in the cultic atmosphere of habits of people who may or may not be highly effective, but who know how to sell ideas. Still, since someone, presumably your boss, has asked for such a statement, you could make something positive out of something unpleasant that you need to do anyway. If your goal is to remain safely obscure, to neglect this opportunity to discuss your department’s needs with your director and colleagues, and to rattle off inanities in lieu of producing something that might lead at the very least to an awareness of your department’s presence, then any sort of yadda-yadda-yadda will do the trick. But if you want to put out just a bit of effort – Miss Manager is ignoring your contention that you don’t have the time – you can help yourself in at least two ways. First, by discussing your “mission” with your director and your colleagues both in and out of your department, you can get some input from them about their expectations and their vision of what you do. This may actually get you to rethink some of the things you do or don’t do, leading, if all goes well, to an improvement in the work that goes on in your department. Secondly, this gives you an opportunity to write an anti-mission statement; that is, to write a mission statement that counters the worst offenses of the genre – the convoluted phrasing, the inane platitudes, the self-important posturing, and the business-memo jargon, all of which serve mostly to make mission statements unread, or if read, unheeded. If you write a mission statement in clear, unambiguous language, setting forth a true sense of the work you do (however humble that may sound when simply stated), you will have a much better chance of being useful to all of those constituencies you named: your staff, other departments, patrons, donors, and administrators. Don’t let your perhaps justifiable disdain for some administrative trends override the common sense opportunities you are being offered.
Dear Miss Manager:
I’ve been reading books that contend that emulating Shakespeare’s kings will make me a better leader of people. Who is the great example from Shakespeare for a technical services manager?
Miss Manager is such an awful snob about literature. She resents the idea of corporate boobies hopping around delivering bad readings of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to a roomful of minions who must feign inspiration. Shakespeare, or any other great writer you care to read, is an artist, a maker of works that are admired insofar as they are well wrought. It somehow seems debasing to make use of such things of beauty in order to squeeze another percentage point of profits out of the northeast quadrant sales division. Still, great artists do create vivid characters, and some of them have traits suited to our line of work. Shakespeare is most notable for those at the “Department Head” level who are in one way or another angling for the “Director” job. Here are a few suggestions: