From the Trenches: Triaging Problems and Locating Authority

As the weekly reports came trickling in over the past month, our managers faced some struggles in common. The RISWS reporting system gives the managers data about what is working and what isn’t for team members and, understandably, each of us wants to jump in and solve problems where we can. The most exciting and fulfilling part of managing people, for me, is this feeling of success: If I can advocate to make my employees’ work-lives easier and free them from unnecessary obstacles and complications, they’re going to be happier and more productive at work and, as a result, my department as a whole is going to function better. Everyone wins.
At least, that’s the dream. To make this work, the manager needs to have the authority, skill, and political will to enact or enable those changes on behalf of her department. Analyzing this first batch of reports, we noticed a few common issues with authority and advocacy that impair the manager’s ability to address team problems in each of our libraries.

1. Responsibility without authority: Employees identified problems that the manager has the responsibility (but not the authority) to solve. For example, it is the manager’s responsibility to make sure the public service desk is covered during open hours. But the manager does not have the authority to approve existing employee overtime or hire temp staff if that is needed. Appealing to higher-level supervisors may be effective in certain settings, but the manager is left feeling inadequate and hamstrung as she tries to solve a real problem that is “her job.”

2. The org chart: Fact or fiction?: Managers try to solve the problems people report but there is no obvious, solid chain of command to work through to get things done. Academic libraries do have reporting structures on paper; in fact, our managers report both formally and informally to a complicated array of VPs, deans, chairs, and department heads. However, it is often unclear in daily practice who really does what and when they can or should do it. Our managers wonder if and when it is appropriate to pull in the big boss to help solve a problem. If the manager takes the initiative to involve upper management, she can look like a great advocate for her team, but runs the risk of appearing useless and ineffectual as a middle manager if problems don’t get solved or get taken out of her hands.

3. Things fall through the cracks: Crossover of duties among employees or between departments (managed by different people) creates confusion. Weekly reports from our employees have shown some overlap in duties that isn’t terribly efficient. Sometimes, critical projects and functions are completely neglected. This is a subset of the org chart problem, where the right hand team doesn’t know what the left hand group is doing and there’s no one assigned to monitor the project or function as a whole. In some cases, the manager can step in to provide that critical oversight or project management role and smooth the way for the team to do their parts. Other times, it means things just aren’t getting done because no one is explicitly responsible.

4. The tyranny of the team approach: This is the problem of decision-making by committee. When everyone is in charge, it means no one is in charge. No one is vested with the authority to make a thing happen. While this consensus style of democratic decision-making is sometimes essential for project buy-in, it is definitely not the best way to run every project in every circumstance. A flat organizational structure generates learned helplessness because no one can authoritatively answer the question “who does that?” or “who’s in charge here?” That non-answer quickly becomes an excuse: “Well, I don’t know whose job it is. But I know it’s not mine.” Employees begin to justify not doing their best work (or doing any work at all) because who does what and who they are supposed to answer to just isn’t clear.

So, what now? As our managers try to tackle these problems, Magda and I recommend a triage approach. Managers will consider: What can I fix immediately? What do I have the authority and support to realistically fix soon? What seems impossible to address given current structural realities? A side effect of the weekly reports is that they force a manager to confront her own limitations as a problem-solver within the organization. I’ve found it’s important to be transparent with my team about those limitations so that they know I’m doing the best I can while I work to effect greater organizational change.

This process of uncovering authority gaps and untangling the org chart within a department can help managers start difficult conversations about how to realign job duties, rewrite job descriptions, and shift reporting lines so that we are all empowered to do our best work.

More next month.