The Information Business; The People Business

Law libraries are in the information business. To act as superior guides to this information, we must also be in the people business. We must be concerned with the people who seek our information. And we must be concerned with the people who guide those seekers to the information (i.e., our staff).

Contrary to popular belief, it's not easy to be a staff person in the rigid hierarchy of an academic law library. Particularly at a time when law libraries are facing increased budget pressures that require staff to do much more with much less. This is especially challenging with longtime staff who have seen their jobs change dramatically since they were hired. Many of these folks were not formally trained in librarianship, and they may be resistant to the flexibility needed in today's law library.

Given these challenges, how do we motivate our staff to be the very best guides to our information?

To that end, there was an enlightening program at the AALL Annual Conference in 2013 that discussed staff motivation. Luckily, Bonnie Shucha attended this program and wrote a review for the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin. That review is reproduced, in part, below.

Presenters Johnson and Parr began by explaining the three laws of motivation:

  • Law #1: Financial incentives don't work
  • Law #2: People will do what they want to do
  • Law #3: The boss is usually the problem
Law #1: Financial incentives don't work:

To underscore this fact, the presenters highlighted a survey where managers were asked how they thought employees would rank certain motivating factors. This was compared with how employees actually ranked them.

Law #2: People Will Do What They Want to Do

There is a difference between doing what you have to do and doing what you want to do. People would rather do what they want to do than what they have to do. And they will do a better job when they are doing work that they enjoy. No big revelations there.

Effective managers understand this concept and use it to help their staff stay motivated which, in turn, increases morale and productivity. So, managers, do you know what type of work that your staff members enjoy? What drives then to come to work every day?

Conversely, are their aspects of their job that they would change if they could? Are there new directions that they would like to go? Projects that they would like to take on? Skills that they want to develop?

How do you find out all of this, you may ask? That’s easy – just ask them! And listen to what they say.

Law #3: The Boss is Usually the Problem

When employees are unhappy and unmotivated, it’s usually the boss that is the problem. 

It’s a manager’s job to create and maintain a healthy work environment. Unfortunately, there are numerous roadblocks that can get in the way: a lack of trust, lack of respect, hostility between co-workers, micromanagement, fear of harsh consequences for failure, etc. Managers that fail to remove roadblocks for their staff, or worse yet create them, prevent employees from doing their best work.
Effective managers address the problems that create roadblocks for their employees and resolve them when they can. Communicate this to your staff and encourage them to come to you when they encounter a problem. Then get out of the way and watch them thrive.

Advice for Managers

Presenters Johnson and Parr wrapped up with advice on how managers can help staff library members motivate themselves.
  • Assign challenging work. Avoid assigning busy work.
  • Concentrate on results. Tell staff what needs to be done and let then figure out how to get there.
  • Trust staff to deliver results.
  • Know what motivates staff. Ask them.
  • Consider individual strengths for growth. Give people a chance to do what they love.
  • Define expectations and set clear parameters for failure and success.
  • Hold people accountable. Failure to hold under performers accountable, will demotivate everyone else.
  • Be appreciative and show staff that the work they do is meaningful. Be specific – for example, say “Thank you for doing X. It is exactly what I need to do Y.”
  • Give feedback throughout the year.
  • Applaud and encourage innovation. 
  • Treat staff as adults. Don't try to protect them from bad news to prevent them from getting upset.

These types of motivational principles can go far to help ensure that law library staff are motivated to act as superior guides to the information that our patrons seek. 


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