I’m reading a really interesting management book right now called First, Break All the Rules. I’m reading it rather slowly since I’m busy with putting together the material for the class I’m teaching in January for San Jose State, but I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I’d heard about it (it’s not new, I think it came out in 1999). The authors, both of the Gallup Organization, based the book on in-depth interviews with over 80,000 managers. The found common threads in all of those interviews to understand what truly great managers do. And they also found that no matter what the pay and incentives, if an organization does not have truly great front-line managers who know how to motivate employees and bring out their talents, the incentives will not help.

The authors base the strength of a workplace on how employees can answer the following 12 questions:

“1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel like my work is important?
9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
10. Do I have a best friend at work?
11. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?
12. At work, have I had the opportunities to learn and grow?”

If staff can say yes to all of those things, you have a very healthy workplace. If not, I think that’s a red flag to look at workplace culture and your own management techniques. I’ve had great managers who made me feel good about my work and energized, and I’ve had terrible managers who made me count the minutes until I was free of them every afternoon. I can attest that one’s manager and workplace culture make all the difference between feeling motivated to achieve and doing the minimum amount to keep your job. When I feel like my supervisor has faith in me… when I feel like my efforts are recognized… when I feel like my manager cares about what I’m working on… when I feel like my decisions are supported, that’s when I do my best work. I see this just in working on my class for San Jose State University. Debbie Faires, Assistant Director for Distance Learning at SJSU’s SLIS program, has been so supportive of my course preparation and so encouraging of my experiments with Drupal, that it makes me want to do better. When I feel supported like that, I want to put 150% in. If I was in a situation where everything I did was criticized and where creativity was not encouraged, I’d probably end up putting less of myself into my work. I know that’s terrible to admit, but it’s true.

This really got me thinking about Tyler’s post the other day at Library Garden: Do we encourage our employees to leave? In some situations, I’d say yes. I like what Tyler says here about the fact that there might be factors we’re not even aware of that encourage employees to leave:

“If your system sees people leave and then watches them flourish in another position, you shouldn’t brag that “they started off in this system.” It should raise questions as to why your system couldn’t seem to hold on to him/her. Employee retention has always been difficult in our profession but, sometimes, we unknowingly encourage people to leave.”

While I agree with Tyler that pay, vacation and hours are issues, I think that in many cases, people are willing to take less pay, less vacation and work crappier hours (within reason, of course), for a truly great job in a truly great environment. Professional investment in the development of staff seems like more of an issue, because it says a lot about an organization when it is not willing to support professional development of any kind. Even if an organization doesn’t have money to send people to conferences, they can give employees time to listen to a SirsiDynix talk or to buy employees some books to learn a new programming language. Opportunities for advancement also are an issue for those who want to move up the ladder. Especially at small libraries, the opportunities to move up often are few and far between, so it’s inevitable that some folks will leave if they are primarily interested in advancement. Still, a great culture can often make up for a lack of opportunities to advance and a smart manager would be willing to shift an ambitious employees’ job responsibilities around a bit to give them the sort of experiences they are looking for.

These are things that people have told Tyler they quit over. I think that there are often a lot of reasons why people quit that they don’t talk about. Like the culture in an organization. If everyone comes to work miserable… if all they do is complain… if people do the minimum to keep their jobs and never want to change since that means more work… what enthusiastic person would want to stay there? There are many libraries that sadly reward longevity over initiative and hard work. I’m a big believer in employee recognition programs that recognize good work, not just years of service. People want to feel like there’s some benefit to their hard work, even if it’s just a pat on the back. When people work twice as hard as their colleagues with no recognition of that, they will eventually stop working that hard or will leave for a place that does appreciate innovators and hard workers.

A little encouragement goes a long way, as Janie’s comment on Tyler’s post indicates:

My first year of teaching I had a principal who visited our classrooms regularly both while we were teaching and after hours just to chat. He was not being intrusive, just interested. About once every 6-8 weeks I would receive a quick handwritten note from him complimenting on something that I had done recently. Sometimes it was just two sentences to say he liked how I had done a bulletin board display and other times it would be a paragraph or two summarizing several things he noticed that he liked. I loved working in that school and for that principal. I have never worked for anyone like that again, but during a stressful first year as an 8th grade teacher it help me keep my sanity. I still have those thank you cards tucked away.

I think people also need to feel supported by their managers. They want to feel encouraged to make independent decisions and know that those decisions will be supported. When I was in library school, I worked in circulation in a public library. Part of my job was collecting overdue fines as people couldn’t take out any more books once their fines got up to $25.00. Most people paid their fines, no problem. Others would complain. I remember there was a woman who had lost three books. She didn’t deny never returning them, but she didn’t think she should have to pay it since her taxes fund the library. I respectfully stood my ground with her and she started saying that she’d call the mayor and complain about us. Then my supervisor came out and told the woman she’d wipe out her fines. This teaches patrons that rules don’t matter if you complain enough and it taught me that I won’t get backed up by my boss when I’m enforcing her policies. I felt like I’d been cut off at the knees. When staff don’t feel empowered to make even the smallest independent decisions, how are they going to feel about their job, their manager or themselves?

Though I haven’t gotten too far into the book, I think this is a must-read for anyone who manages others. Many managers often don’t realize the impact they have on the morale of their staff. Some see their job as being about making sure people don’t screw up, giving permission for vacations, and doing yearly evaluations. They don’t see their job as being about support, empowerment and mentoring. And those managers are the sort that ambitious people are likely to run screaming from; regardless of pay or vacation or support for professional development. A bad work environment affects every other aspect of your life and no one wants to come home from work every day feeling defeated.

So, if you’re a manager, how would your staff answer those 12 questions? If you imagine you’d get a lot of no’s or, even worse, you have no idea how they feel, you might want to consider whether or not there’s anything you can do in your position to change that. I know some middle managers don’t have the power to make many changes themselves, but there are always ways to encourage, motivate and support your employees.