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.

The First Challenges

The first challenges our study participants experienced happened right after our first training, when they went back to their organizations and communicated to the people they supervise that they were asking for weekly reports to be submitted every Friday.

Now, part of the training is about how to communicate this request to employees. It’s easy for people who are suddenly (from their perspective) asked to report in on what they’re doing every week to feel suspicious and defensive, even though we’re asking for both positive and negative. Being asked to report in on what went wrong for you that week is scary. Especially if the organization hasn’t created trust in the past, it can feel like a trap to report in on what’s problematic for you. But the intention of RISWS is to create a cycle of trust between manager and team members so that problems are obstacles to be fixed so everyone gets more work done together, and no one’s thrown under the bus.

So we talk about how to present the request to employees so they don’t think they’re being set up, and so they know that the more honest they are in what they submit, the more help they’ll get from the manager in solving stuff so they can just do their jobs, and that they’re leaving a concrete record of all the stuff they’re doing really well. And, frankly, that people who aren’t actually working aren’t going to be able to hide that for long, so this is a way to iron out the problem of freeriders.

But this is complicated in organizations like universities in which employees are not all the same category and often supervisors may have no direct authority over the workers in their units.That’s what we discovered in the first few days of attempting to implement RISWS: Employees in certain categories, who were directly under the authority of our managers, were the first to understand what we were trying to do, and that this was a way to assign responsibility for problem-solving and bring issues to light so we could work on them. But employees in categories that didn’t allow for any direct authority just flat-out refused to do any reports. One employee complained to her union rep about being asked to report in on what she was doing at work. One of our managers was told by her supervisor that implementing RISWS might violate the terms of the union contract.

This is utterly baffling to me, that we’ve set up organizations so that it’s a violation of employment terms for a manager to actually supervise someone who reports to them. And that we’ve built mistrust and adversarial relationships into workflow and work relationships. This seems like an astronomically bad idea, because then you’re paying people to fight with each other instead of to work for the mission of your institution. But I’m just the consultant, so I stayed supportive and just waited to see what happened next…

And it mostly worked out. The supervisor stood down and smoothed things over. Our managers started giving feedback to the employees who did turn in weekly reports, and those employees started seeing value in having a manager understand what was frustrating them (even if the manager couldn’t fix it yet). Our managers also found out that some of their employees were doing some cool things they hadn’t had any format to report in on before.

There were still holdouts, though. Employees in some categories still refused to turn in reports, and our managers couldn’t require them because there was no direct chain. So it started out as baby steps for the first few weeks.

What I learned, again, from this is that organizations with complicated org charts have a harder time getting anything done and fixing problems than organizations with simple org charts do. And that fear kills productivity and engagement.

The solution to both of these things for the manager is to open out toward your employees and be honest about what you need from them and what you can give, and then just stay in good faith. You can’t control what anyone else does, but you can do your best for your people.

Practical Management for Librarians: The RISWS Approach for Effective Library Team Management

Welcome to our project blog. I’m happy to announce the launch of a grant-funded study implementing RISWS in academic libraries. The Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) funded this project for the 2015-2016 academic year. For the next ten months, we’ll be blogging about our process and what we learn about management practice in three library settings.

About the project:

This project addresses the reality that most middle managers come into positions of leadership without a solid base of training and without extra time to devote to grappling with sticky management issues. By combining best practices in employee-focused management with daily observation, reporting, and analysis within our specific library contexts, this project will demonstrate one approach to empowering the “accidental library manager.” Our cohort will follow the RISWS methodology and “learn to routinize reporting of challenges and achievements from their team members so they have an accurate picture of the challenges they’re facing and can make a plan to eliminate those challenges” (Pecsenye).

About us:

The trainer. I’m Magda Pecsenye. I developed the Reporting/Interpreting/Solving Workflow Solutions (RISWS) management approach as a way give managers the skills to interpret a regular stream of data from their team members about how they were working and what things needed to be fixed and how they were excelling. I think most managers already have the normal people skills to be great managers, and just need to have systems in place for using those normal people skills to remove distractions and facilitate excellence in their team members. I’ve been happy but not surprised to see how much success Rana has had using RISWS to manage her team in an academic library setting.

The facilitator. That’s me, Rana. I completed my own round of RISWS training with Magda earlier this year and applied for the CARLI grant because I grew convinced that this agnostic, straightforward data-gathering process could be of great help to my colleagues in library-land. I’ve worked in management roles in libraries for nearly a decade. My first job out of library school (where I completed exactly one management class) was Head of Reference and Electronic Services at a small public library in the Chicago suburbs. I then served in various supervisory positions at the American Planning Association and now work as the Director of Library and IT at Meadville Lombard Theological School. I directly supervise one full-time archivist and one part-time library assistant and tangentially manage one part-time tech support position.

The trainees.

Valerie Neylon graduated from Dominican University with an MLIS in 2013 and currently works as a full-time faculty librarian at Richard J. Daley College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. She supervises five library assistants, two work-study students, and seven library adjuncts.

Gabrielle Toth is an associate professor and chair of Library and Instruction Services at Chicago State University. As the first-ever faculty chair of the CSU Library, it is her job to determine how a chair can best serve a group of faculty who, as part of their profession, organize and manage information, processes and people on a daily basis. 21 people directly or indirectly report to her: 7 tenured or tenure-track library faculty, 2 non-tenure-track library faculty, 1 administrator and 11 civil service staff.

What’s next:

As the cohort goes through training, we will report here on our progress and challenges. We hope to answer some of these questions:

● How do you manage the personnel and political dynamics of your team when you can’t stop the clock and go to a management seminar?
● What does professional development on the job look like when you’re years out of your MLIS program?
● How do you learn an organization’s culture and assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team while doing all the other things that comprise your day job?
● How can you find out what is making your people dread coming into work, find a solution, and put your people to work in ways that engage and empower them and benefit your library?

Thanks for playing along.