Library managers spend a lot of time problem-solving. Hole in the schedule? I’ll fill that. Jammed copier? I will clear it. But what about problems that can’t be solved, or the problems that come up again and again? No one talks about it very much, but one of the best skills a manager can have is the ability to manage tension in their organization.
In 2010, one of our local churches invited me to a simulcast of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit. While focused on Christian church leadership (and I know that there are many opinions out there on Willow Creek and similar mega-churches–this is not the focus of my post), I gained many valuable insights on leadership in general over the course of the simulcast. One of the speakers, Andy Stanley (again, many opinions out there on Andy Stanley, and again, this is not the focus of my post), really struck a chord with me in his presentation on “The Upside of Tension.” He talked about how tensions are different from problems–while problems may be solved, tensions must be managed. Tensions do not have an easy answer or a one-time solution, and ebb and flow over time. There are often good arguments on both sides, and depending on your organization’s focus and priorities at that moment, you may make different decisions each time the tension arises. Successful organizations recognize tension, and leverage it to grow and improve. Asking, “Is this a problem to be solved, or a tension to be managed?” helps frame a situation and response. Andy Stanley’s idea of problems vs. tensions has stuck with me ever since.
I like to think of tension management as a teeter-totter; sometimes it is heavier on one end, sometimes it’s weighted the other way, and finding perfect balance is nearly impossible. Both sides are important to the teeter-totter’s flow, and maintaining the rhythm is important for teeter-totter success.
For example: Noise in the library is not just a problem to be solved once, but a tension to be managed over time. On certain days, and at certain times of the day, you may be more tolerant of noise in your library than at other times–think of after school at your library vs. your library first thing in the morning. My library is more tolerant of noise during summer reading than at other times of the year, given that public libraries host more programs in the summer and see more families with children. Maybe your library has a quiet area or floor, and another area or floor for louder activities. My point is that while I can solve an individual instance of noise (“Keep it down over there!”), on the whole I find that noise is a tension that we have to manage by looking at the big picture, thinking about how we use our spaces, and how we accomplish our purpose and mission.
On the staff side, you may have two employees who personally don’t like each other but have to work closely. You can’t solve their personal problems for them, but you can make it clear that they have to work professionally, and then collaborate with them to manage the tension. You should absolutely resolve a one-time event by counseling one employee on how she could have been more inclusive on a project, and encouraging the other employee to speak up when he felt like he was left out. Recognizing that this is an ongoing tension to be managed, however, provides a broader perspective to get people past a one-time problem and focused instead on the long-term management of the tension.
Recognizing tension can be mentally freeing. I am sure that we can all think of instances where we said to ourselves, “What? This again? I thought we resolved this,” and then tried to come up with a final solution to a recurring situation. I now recognize when something is not a problem to be solved but a tension to be managed. I expect that tensions will rise and fall like a teeter-totter, so I don’t pressure myself or my staff to find a final solution–because there isn’t one. We make the best decision we can at the time, and accept that when we revisit the tension again, we may make a different choice. The teeter-totter will continue its rhythm, as teeter-totters do, the same way that our library will carry on. Thinking of it that way reduces my frustration and helps me accept that there is no final solution–sometimes it goes one way, sometimes the other, and that’s okay.
Plenty of other tensions also exist in libraries: youth services and adult services; materials budgets and programming budgets; in-house programs and outreach; the examples are endless. As you lead in your libraries, I encourage you to ask, “Is this a problem to be solved, or a tension to be managed?” and see if that helps you frame the situation.
Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division