How Do You Cultivate (and Keep) Awesome People?

Over the course of the last few months I’ve been thinking about some fundamental questions regarding library staff.  If you saw my contribution over at the “Letters to a Young Librarian” blog you may ask yourself, why on earth would anyone EVER want to work at the library if they had to deal with that kind of drama.

For some people it’s just a paycheck.  But I’ve seen the people who come to work for a paycheck, and they never last.  They find another thing that has better money and less drama and they move on with their life.

Some people think that if they get a job at the public library that they’re going to have a nice quiet retirement, and get to have deep intellectual discourse on a daily basis with people who care about intellectual pursuits.  I won’t lie that there is an element of deep intellectual discourse in the library, but more often than not you’re trying to break up rowdy teenagers and having security escort out the drunk guy who won’t stop yelling at people.  The library hasn’t been a quiet place for a long time now.

But for some people, those special, wonderful people, this is a calling.  It’s not often that you hear people talk about their work in life as a calling.  Normally you hear this about religious leaders or professional volunteers.  But a substantial number of people drawn to librarianship say this as well.  Nancy Kalikow Maxwell has a fantastic little book called Sacred Stacks: The higher purpose of libraries and librarianship that outlines all of the similarities between librarianship and religious vocations.

And those are the people that you desperately want to retain.  You want the passionate, idealistic, dreamers, because those are the people who are going push the envelope and make amazing things happen.

So, how do you keep those idealistic and driven people in the face of the daily grind?  I think a lot of it comes down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs via Wikimedia Commons

If they’ve gotten the job they’ve already, hopefully, got their physiological needs met.  They can pay their bills, their rent, and keep food on the table.  So, they’re one step into the process.

The next most basic step is Safety.  This is not only safety in their work environment; making sure that they trust that when they come in to work that they’ll walk out unscathed.  But also safety in their position; that they will have an element of stability in their work environment that they can trust and rely on.  That the people who come in, will keep coming in.  That their co-workers will be there, day in and day out.  And that they can expect to be a part of something for a while.  Maybe not a lifetime, but for long enough to make it count.

Belonging is what starts to build once you’ve established the level of safety in your work environment.  You get to know your co-workers, and hangout with them afterward.  You have birthday parties for each other, and recognize life milestones together.  The employee feels like part of something more than a team, but a group of friends.  If you’re not sure how that happens, well, it’s all about communicating between people.  Alex “Sandy” Pentland has a great article in the Harvard Business Review on The New Science of Building Great Teams.  Basically they talk to each other, face to face, all the time.

Once you get beyond these social stages we can begin working on personal growth and development.  The employee can finally dig in and feel like they’re making a difference.  It requires management to look at their work and give positive feedback and constructive coaching to constantly improve, to help build their sense of self-esteem.

Only when they’ve gotten to the point of feeling comfortable within their work environment, with their coworkers, and that they’re making headway in the general course of events can they finally begin to move into the levels of awesomeness.  Because only once you’ve gotten that core down, and that the base is solid can you start to think outside of the box. And once people believe that they can dream big, they begin dreaming HUGE.

And that’s exactly where we want awesome library employees to go. Hell, I want ALL library employees to get to that level where they want to do something wild and new.  I want to say “YES!” to the avant-garde, the bizarre, the utterly unbelievable and make it happen.

But we can’t get there unless we take care of the basic core needs first. The other thing to keep in mind is that any kind of sudden structural change in the work environment can shatter that hierarchy and force people to go back to square one, or at the very least re-evaluate their opinion of their job.

So, how do we keep them?

  • Keep it stable.  Let people settle into positions and build up a sense of the team, the customer base, and get used to the work environment.
  • Encourage Staff Camaraderie. Have a couple parties, take folks out to dinner, and do a happy hour every once in a while as a bonding moment.  It doesn’t have to be frequent, but enough to give people a chance to hang out with each other informally.
  • Increase Face-to-Face Communication. Have people work in different divisions or cover other desks for a while to get a chance to talk to folks they may not see on a regular basis.  Have regular all staff meetings to discuss things that effect distinctly different units, and encourage participation.
  • Give Constant Feedback. Attend people’s programs, and check in regularly to see how things are doing.  Talk about public evaluations, and encourage them so that you and the employee can see how they’re doing all along.  Ask them questions about how things are going and have regular discussions about their performance.
  • Say Yes to New Ideas. If someone comes to you with a crazy idea, encourage them to see where they can take it.  Because if they’ve gotten to the place where they’re thinking outside the box you’ve really accomplished something.  Coach them through their brilliant idea and see how it flies.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

One comment on “How Do You Cultivate (and Keep) Awesome People?

  1. don says:

    Eric. I’ve seen many lists of companies supporting SOPA. What would be very helpful would be a link or email address next to the name.

    I could prepare an email and cut and paste the address.

    If I could do that, I could send a personalized email to each of them. Talk about grass roots effort.

    I think that the Senate and House member e-mail address are available but I don’t know where.

    If you could let me know where to find them, (both company address and congress address) I will pass them along.

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