John Lubans, Jr., author of "Leading from the Middle," and Other Contrarian Essays on Library Leadership (Libraries Unlimited, 2010) sheds a little light on how to build a positive work environment.
How do you -- preferably in a few quick and easy steps -- create an encouraging workplace in which people do their best and, more importantly, want to do their best?
When people ask me this question, I don't have a prepared "elevator answer," one of those 30-second "big idea" pitches the aspiring manager is advised to have ready when on the corporate elevator, alone, with the boss. Pity the boss!
Photo: Cowboy John Lubans, Jr. on right, with Steve Holley, sitting down on the job.
Fred Emery [a pioneer in the field of organizational development] has contributed much to my understanding of what makes for a best work place. Decades ago, he and his research team -- working with hundreds of employees -- developed an abbreviated list of what workers want/need to do well on the job, to be productive. Let me stress that last word, productive. Being productive enables the future.
This April I was in Colorado helping friends clear a building site for their new home. It's in cowboy country, a land of campfires, and cowboy philosophy, with country and western tunes on the soundtrack. It's a place that offers us much to think about for achieving the kind of organization most of us want to work for. Inspired by my recent visits to Colorado and from many years ago when I was a library administer at the University of Colorado, I have expanded--with a western flavor--four of Emery's six elements for improving the work environment.
1. Elbow room (or "Don't Fence Me In"). Workers want control over their efforts; they want the freedom to do the job. Once trained, they do not want to be told daily what to do or to have to ask for permission to improve how they do their jobs. Elbow room, if generously offered, leads to genuine staff empowerment with positive results in helping customers.
2. Variety. People want variety in what they do in their jobs. They want to choose between the routine and the extraordinary. Self-managing teams, with all team members trained in the work (including leadership), offer the best environment for variety, of achieving a healthy balance between boredom and feckless multitasking.
3. Mutual support. A refrain in the song, "Home on the Range" suggests a fundamental basis of both cowboy philosophy and the supportive workplace: "Where seldom is heard a discouraging word."
In spite of our individual inclinations, the workplace can promote unsympathetic tendencies like schadenfreude [taking enjoyment in the troubles of others] or envy in a co-worker’s success. Bureaucratic structures (evaluations, bonuses, recognition programs that pit employee against employee, and other office mores) can undermine a supportive culture. These "systems" encourage competition and, at times, a willful ignorance. Recently a North Carolina bureaucrat told me "It’s not my job" when I needed something fixed. She went on: "I own only a small part of your problem; you really need to go back to the people who sent you to me." She wasn't about to budge out of her job description. Worse, she was referring me back to people whom she knew were incompetent! Indeed, with this lack of sympathy and purpose the country and western song has it right: "You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain."
4. Meaningfulness. The last two lines of Marge Piercy's poem, "To Be Of Use" illuminates our yearning for purpose:
"The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real."
Emery found that staff want real work, and they want to understand why what they do matters. The worker knows that what he or she does can make or break a service. Knowing the purpose of one’s job can make the difference between a library user finding what they need or leaving in frustration, an empty pitcher.
From personal experience and from what other researchers have confirmed, I feel confident Emery’s elements can make for a good place to work, one that keeps getting better. The challenge remains for implementing these elements in ways that serve, not hinder, the realization of an encouraging and productive work place.
Good luck and happy trails!
John Lubans Jr., writes and teaches about library leadership and teamwork. He is a former academic librarian, currently an online adjunct teacher at Rutgers University. In early 2011 he will be living in Riga and teaching at the University of Latvia, as part of a Fulbright Scholarship Lecturing Award. You can catch up with John on his blog.