You can’t learn library management from a book (and you can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd)

It’s inevitable that we’ll work under managers of varying qualities if we are in the workforce (or volunteer-force) long enough. And once you become a supervisor or manager yourself, sometimes your opinions may change about other managers. Sometimes not.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find myself observing and being introspective about management, mostly because I want to learn how to be a good manager. I want to analyze what makes certain qualities good or bad. And after having a reasonable discussion a couple days ago with the head of a volunteer-run library resource website, I’ve been analyzing what about this person could improve. What makes the communication of poor quality? Why does it feel unsatisfying to work with this person? Why did I always feel like I was walking on eggshells?

Some things you can’t learn in a class or a book. Management is one of them. No matter how much you study the theory of management, you cannot learn until you become a manager.

I took a management class for my MLIS, and the readings were rather trite and superficial. I think my detailed deconstruction and critical eye of these readings in our discussion boards didn’t go over so well with the instructor. Especially when I analyzed the weaknesses in the arguments of a couple of her favorite authors. Needless to say, I don’t feel like I learned a lot in that class.

I did learn a lot from observing my bosses and supervisors. I love one of my former bosses because he always took the time to talk about the rationale behind projects and plans, future and current projects, and even library theory. He was a good listener, too, and I felt like he really supported my professional development goals. He was honest, and appreciated feedback. That, I really appreciate.

I love another one of my former bosses. I was skeptical of daily meetings right before the library opened (heck, I was kinda skeptical of meetings altogether), but it turned out to be beneficial to talk about what we saw in our emails from Main, about patrons, about upcoming library events. She also pushed me out of my comfort zone in a supportive way. I felt awkward with library “walkarounds,” which is a smaller version of roving reference, but she kept nudging me to do so. I also turned into a bit of a “salesperson” for library events, so she’d task me with “selling” them to people. I surprised myself with that skill. And she also taught me how to deal with difficult patrons, sometimes by stepping in and talking with the person herself, and sometimes by talking to me about it afterwards.

Those two are my favorite so far. They were honest. They appreciated feedback. They provided real constructive criticism, and they demonstrated excellent communication skills.

Needless to say, I’ve also had a share of mediocre to bad bosses, whether as a paid employee or as a volunteer, and I’ve also taken it as a learning opportunity: Be patient. Let go of the little things. Don’t try to jump in and help if you haven’t done something in a while because you’ll probably mess up the whole system. Accept feedback–even from subordinates (within reason, obviously). Be willing to take suggestions, and do seriously consider them. Talk with your supervisees–you don’t have to be friends, but it is good to know what’s going on in their lives. Support your employees in their career goals, even if it means losing some of your best employees. Be honest and upfront. Don’t place the blame on them (or shift blame away) if something is really your fault.

Lessons like these are really hard to convey in the traditional management books–especially if it focuses on the theory and general principles. Straight-up I/O psychology is probably a better bet. Or communication, though it’s often pegged as a “bird course.” Guess what? It’s far more useful than management. Or even a book of stories and anecdotes.

Or reading one of those excellent websites that aggregates personal (and anonymous) stories about bad bosses. It’s like Aesop’s Tales, but for future and current managers. Just google “bad boss stories” to get yourself started.

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