Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Article Note: On staff motivation in tough times.

Citation for the article:

Topper, Elisa F. "Keeping Staff Motivated in Tough Times." New Library World 110.7/8 (2009): 385-387.

Read via Emerald.

This short essay is a reminder to managers to make sure they praise and keep their workers motivated. I would think this is common sense, but apparently managers need to be reminded every so often if the market for books on how to motivate workers is any indication; you can see the article's further reading list for a sampling of such books. Are we librarians nervous about the economy as Topper's article suggests? Sure we are, but most of us don't spend our waking hours worrying about it. We have work to do for starters. I was going to just note that I read this, but as I started writing the draft, I found myself expressing some additional ideas. These are things that I have learned, some via the School of Hard Knocks, about motivation in the workplace. Thus I wanted to jot those ideas down as well.

As a lot of the LIS articles are prone to do, this one has at least one glaring statement of the obvious. Here it goes: "You may be surprised that monetary rewards do not produce long-term performance and productivity results anyways" (385). Besides stating the obvious, I had to wonder if this small article qualified as an LIS article. The question came because I found myself asking the following: how many libraries do we know where librarians or library workers get monetary rewards for productivity or performance? Not too many, if there are any at all . Even in tenure line situations, the idea is tenuous at best when it comes to getting higher pay for performance. You may get a raise when you go from assistant professor to associate professor, for instance, but you don't get paid more if you publish more articles or teach more classes. I know. I have seen enough P&T plans to have a sense how things work. Let me give a different perspective.

My better half works for a company that actually gives monetary bonuses for performance and productivity. You sell so much product, you get a bonus. You meet certain service targets, you get something extra on your next paycheck. All targets, goals, and requirements are made perfectly clear, and you rise to the occasion. Do you see now how it works? You produce more and perform better, you get paid in real money. This concept is pretty much non-existent in libraries, academic or otherwise. My cataloger does not get a nice addition in her paycheck if she processes more books within a certain time frame. My instruction librarian does not get fifty to one hundred bucks extra on her next paycheck because she taught more classes. My point is that libraries do not operate on the monetary reward system in the first place. If you ask most librarians, monetary rewards are not the main reason they chose this profession. If that were the case, I would go work for my better half's company or other company that actually understood and implemented monetary rewards. So to be honest, why Topper brings that idea up is puzzling to me since it seems to be a non-issue. And with the tight economy, libraries are in fact cutting back on expenses, and that can include things like raises. And yes, the better half would concur that money bonuses could be the wrong motivation for some workers, but at least she is in a setting where such apply. Libraries are not businesses no matter how certain members of the librarian celebrity circuit want to argue otherwise.

So since libraries do not have the money carrot, managers need other forms of motivation. Topper gives some basic tips in her article, which can work or not depending on the workplace. The best piece of advice for managers, which is found in the article, is to ask your workers. Find out what does work, then do it. Allow me to take some liberty and tell you what works and does not work for me. I am doing this for illustration purposes, not because I am some ideal librarian that you can draw generalizations from.

Something that works for me is something that I rarely get: appreciation and gratitude. These can go a long way. I don't need the public thank-you at a staff meeting. In fact, I hate being put on the spot. For me, this may be a remnant of the school days when teachers had the bad habit of praising some kid in front of the class because they aced a quiz or something else (this was before the whole self-esteem nonsense took over schools). You knew that either a beating or getting shunned by your classmates during recess would be following afterward. So just keep the recognition private. You really want to reward me? Write up a nice letter that can go in my personnel file. Send me a copy of that letter so I can use it in my portfolio as testimonial later. It's simple, discreet, and practical. And if you do it right, it's personal and sincere.

Let me tell you what does not work or the quickest way to kill morale. Don't go questioning my work or the work of my team because of some perceived failure. The turn out at some event was not as big as you wanted? Learn from the experience. Look at what we can do better to have better promotion and marketing for next time. Don't go telling me right after we walk out of the event as we are tidying up that maybe we should not be doing X again, that it is too much effort, too much hassle, or some similar statement. That is extremely demoralizing to someone who, very often, took a good amount of risk to personal reputation, not to mention the library's reputation, to help make the library a better place and better promote it to the academic community. You going to bat for me is what I expect, and it goes a long way in terms of morale. Yes, I have had the negatives described above happen in one form or another not only in outreach work, but also as an instruction librarian. I could go on with this topic, but I will move on.

And I will even toss in a bonus of something that does not work: don't go taking the word of some second hand gossip monger who has little to none to do with the work of my team but feels the need to criticize anyways. Leadership means you lead by example. It also means you surround yourself with the best people for the tasks you need done. We are the experts; you should be listening to us first. Or you can listen to those other people anyways, since you are the manager after all, and just kill our morale faster. When it comes down to it, the good people simply leave because they know that good hard workers with a strong work ethic will always find work. It has nothing to do with the money or a bonus. At the end of the day, it is the simple human element. Traits like common courtesy, respect, recognition, gratitude, and appreciation will probably get you a lot further in motivating your workers, especially in tough times, than some trinket, treats, or some plush trophy you pass around. By the way, if you are too cheap to buy a small trophy/plushie/trinket for every individual you recognize and have to pass it around instead, you probably should not do the whole thing in the first place.

Just a thought.

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