I’ve been hired as a director at a library where the previous manager broke the staff’s trust. How do fix this situation?
By John Cohen, Director of the Ogden Farmers’ Library
“Being trustworthy requires: Doing the right thing. And doing things right.” – Don Peppers
It’s a situation that anyone entering a new environment dreads: what happened before, and how will it affect what I need to do? Hopefully, all will be well. The previous supervisor will have set you up for great success interacting with a great staff, and you’ll be off to the races. It happens. But it also happens the other way around. While it probably wasn’t deliberate, the previous manager has broken the trust of their staff and set you up for failure.
Coming into this situation as an outsider can seem like a challenge, but if you handle it correctly, you can develop a strong bond with your employees that will pay dividends for years to come. And the better news is, all you have to do is behave like a decent human being.
People whose trust has been broken may be reluctant to work with new leadership. As a new leader, there are signs of this betrayal that you can identify, and once identified, you can work immediately to alleviate. In an optimal case, your superior – be it a direct one-on-one boss or a board of trustees – will clue you in to the situation as they bring you on board. But the staff will give you signs too. Some of them might be brave enough to tell you – which is great – but others will adopt a “keep your head down and don’t get noticed” attitude. Others will ask for permission for every little thing, and others will walk and eggshells and seem on the verge of tears for no reason you can identify.
At this point, you first need to recognize them as people and help them identify you more as a person than a manager. A straightforward activity I have engaged in was to say “hi” and “good night” to everyone in the building as I arrived and left each day. It sounds stupid, but that greeting and goodbye every day, every time, gets people to respond to you in a relatively neutral fashion, and that’s one of the things you want from someone with an emotional wound – for them to realize you aren’t going to reopen it.
As you identify specific problems, you can work to rectify them. One way to work through a situation is to have one-on-one discussions with people soon, but not immediately, after starting the new position. While some will be reluctant to talk to you, others will open up about the difficulties they face. It’s important in this “interview” to ask the right questions in the right way. “So, tell me what’s wrong with this library” isn’t going to get you anywhere. But asking about what roadblocks they face to getting the job done properly or asking for one thing they’d change about the job might help. It is also important to give them space to identify what they love about their work and their strengths, so you might also want to ask questions that let them show off what they are excited about.
But none of this will be fixed instantly; you must work at it daily. The best thing you can do is give people the confidence to do things without continuously checking with you. An example: a staff person at your library asks you for permission for everything they want to order, in this instance let’s say it’s DVD cases. My response would be, “Do we need DVD cases?” Staff person: “Yes.” Me: “Then order DVD cases.” By letting them know that ordering supplies – the job they‘re supposed to be doing – won’t get their head bitten off – you will help them regain the confidence that they are capable and able to do their job. Assuming people know how to do their job until and unless they give you a reason to think otherwise will do remarkable things for their self-confidence, and confident staff will perform better.
They also need to see that you’ll work with them. Depending on how your library works, it may not always be feasible to “work in the trenches” with them, but usually, there’s some way you can show that, while you are the manager, you still connect with their job. Cover the circulation desk if someone calls in. Cover the reference desk on a busy day. I’ve built display cases and cleaned bathrooms. The staff knows that in a situation that creates a hardship for them, I’ll stand by them and try to fix it with them.
When you’ve been there a little while and you need to get a performance improvement out of someone, there are ways to do this that will further build trust rather than destroy it. Make it a “we” solution – what can we do to solve the problem? Many people prefer the idea of working with someone rather than just doing what they are told. And there may be solutions you can help implement – maybe it’s a scheduling problem, for example, and you can help them find a coworker to switch shifts with them. And even if the onus to improve is entirely on the staff person, if they see you are willing to help them, they feel better about it and are more likely to improve.
I’m not going to lie to anyone – a complete change from timid, scared, hurt staff to a robust and confident staff can take a lot of time. There are actions you can take immediately, but total healing will take time, perhaps even years. It’s also not a linear process; people may sometimes backtrack. Managing with empathy is an ongoing task that recognizes that staff are people, people have needs, and work is not the entirety of their life situation. I’d like to say the best advice I can give you is to be yourself, but that doesn’t always work. I mentioned earlier that I started to say hello and goodbye every day. That’s not natural for me, but I’m still doing it 10 years later because I set a precedent. It still makes people feel good, so I continue to do it. The best advice I can give is not to be yourself, but to be a good human being. Do the right thing. And do it right.