Sleepless Nights and Prozac Prescriptions

Posted by jlubans on March 20, 2013

A frequent request I get, like I did after my talk at the Estonian National Library, is to provide library examples of democratic workplaces*. That’s an interesting question to answer since there are no all-out democratic libraries, quite to the contrary. Other realms** offer up examples, like New York’s highly successful Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or, in Brazil, the highly successful and productive Semco Group as described in one of my class readings: “Thought Leaders: Ricardo Semler Won’t Take Control.”
There have been some democratic efforts in academic libraries – I had a leadership role in one – but these are parochial and circumscribed. One research library claims to be team-based and that does appear to be true, but when I inquired about their rationale the official response was similar to other tentative efforts: to make staff feel more involved in the organization, and, from that engagement, to derive greater job satisfaction. That’s commendable but I would have preferred a public statement that the teams will improve on what the library does, will develop new services and will, quantifiably, increase productivity.
I have always held that a re-organization needs a substantial rationale. Shifting people around into a new, feel-good assemblage is not enough. Some good may come from re-organization, but the dozens I have witnessed - including a huge one underway right now - show more imbroglio than improvement.
I have not much history with the Semco Group but from what I read and observe, many executives the world over admire Ricardo Semler, the owner-founder. Few, if any, want to duplicate his democratic workplace. Semler says - facetiously, I think - that there are two reasons for this: That 80% of business people will not give up control. And that the other 20% do not trust mankind, on its own, to do good. Does this absolute ratio, however tongue-in-cheek, apply to libraries? Probably.
I certainly recall a multitude of queasy feelings when I surrendered control over a bevy of departments. Because compensation and status is based on one’s place on the hierarchical ladder, a flat and ladder-less terrain may induce sleepless nights and Prozac prescriptions. Worse, some leaders egotistically do not believe staff capable of self-management (people need supervision!) and/or that none can replace their most excellent leadership. They are certain that the democratic way of work is utopian and naive in the real world of the hierarchy!
Yes, I did find - at some personal cost - that democracy in the library workplace is not for everyone. Indeed some of the library work groups I supervised were unhappy with empowerment and were very passive about sharing power. They abhorred the notion of limiting a boss’ power and freeing up people to do their best, to be all they could be.
Because of this intransigence (plus libraries are almost never stand-alone institutions which further restricts their autonomy) my book
and blog are meant to stimulate and challenge individuals, not to vex hierarchical dinosaurs. So, I encourage the individual - leader and follower - to think about democratic concepts and to apply democratic ways of working to his or her local situation. If you are a department head that believes people work best when trusted, respected and free to make decisions about how to do a job, then be democratic in leading. Or, if you are a hard working follower, then support and practice democratic concepts in working with others.
Even if your workplace is the most constipated and untrusting hierarchy, you can be democratic in what you do and think. If you are required to take part in the ritual of formal performance evaluation, you can coach and advise people separately from the paperwork.
I think the democratic work place appeals especially to the younger, newer professional. Our new librarians – the best ones in my classes in the US and in Riga - are demanding a say, they want something more. We should be paying attention.
There is a glimmer of hope on the library horizon.
A colleague at a conservative research library tells me administrative attitudes about command and control are shifting. Her term for what she is seeing is the “post-departmental” library. Her meaning: the hierarchy is frequently by-passed and that a more matrix-like organization is emerging. While departments remain, library-wide task forces - composed of staff and supervisors - are used to set policies and to avoid departmental turf battles. While this library has a long way to go on the democratic continuum, it may well exemplify what is occurring in other large libraries.
From what I know of my friend’s library, I can well imagine that the executives pine for the good old days of command and control, but they have had to make concessions. If they resist during these difficult economic times, they might discover that their power only exists as long as those whom they supervise want them to have it. I am optimistic that many reluctant administrators, like the room full of managers I spoke to in Estonia, actually may come to like a democratic organization.

*As defined here:
Many leaders.
De-centralized power.
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
Planning involves everyone.
Team-based, flat organization.
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
Managers do “real work”.
No formal performance appraisal.
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
A proactive organization.

**For more examples of democratic organizations, there is the WorldBlu (Freedom at Work) web site for its list of “Most Democratic Workplaces.” There are no libraries or academic institutions on that list, but it is well worth looking at since those on the list are carrying out and helping define what it means to be democratic.

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