Stuck in the Middle with You

Eva —  August 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

As I mentioned at the end of Up, Up, & Away, managing across–as well as managing up and managing down–is an important skill for leaders. Lots of us are in the enviable position of having cooperative relationships with our other middle managers. When it’s clicking, everyone is on the same page; managers talk to each other on a casual, drive-by basis, not just at scheduled meetings; managers support each other, and feel supported; surprises and gotchas are minimal; and ideas seem to just flow as you bounce them off of each other. There is no doubt that the entire library–the patrons, the staff, the community–benefits in this scenario.

Sometimes, though, being a manager feels like you’re in a Stealers Wheel song. I have seen several libraries where silos are the rule; where collaboration, while (maybe) not actively discouraged, is not encouraged, either. I’ve seen this lead to epic pissing contests between managers, each jockeying for position and currying favor with the director in order to suck up every scrap of resources and goodwill. A manager starts a new collection without telling the other managers; a branch starts their own procedures for their location; IT rolls out new computers to every department except yours. The infighting and territorial disputes filter down to staff, and can devolve into situations reminiscent of middle school–who talked to whom, who said what, who got dissed, who got revenge.

Sometimes directors and administrators let these behaviors carry on through benign neglect; sometimes they like watching people fight over them, like the 8th grade Queen Bee who enjoyed the fawning too much; and sometimes they know it’s happening but have a misguided notion that survival of the fittest applies to libraries. (News flash: It doesn’t.)

A good manager will recognize the dysfunction of this situation and want to change it. I assume this is you, and I can tell you that it will be difficult. It can be tough to break out of this negative cycle of me-me-me vs. you-you-you and refocus your colleagues on the notion that, yes, we are a team, particularly when certain managers may be benefiting from the dysfunction.

You can’t control others’ behaviors, but you can control your own. Take the first step by committing to end the pissing contests. Reaching out to your colleagues in the spirit of stopping the territorial disputes and dismantling the silos is humbling (for you) and can be viewed as dubious (by them). As we all know from reading this blog, there is no room for ego in leadership. We swallow our pride and make the conciliatory gesture because that’s what we do as leaders.

How do you do this? Start small–give a compliment in a management meeting to the other manager. The compliment must be sincere, work-related, and given in front of other people. When your staff come to you to talk about an issue that crosses departmental lines, encourage them to get feedback from staff in other departments–asking their opinions costs you nothing but time, and you can take them with a grain of salt. When you have an idea that crosses departmental lines, you should talk it over with the other manager–again, it costs you nothing but time, and it gains you goodwill.  When the time comes to present the idea to your director, do it with the other managers to present a united front. When something good happens, give credit to others, and thank the other manager and their department for their role/support/assistance.

Repeatedly model this collaborative behavior, and over time you should see a difference. There will be some backsliding, but remind yourself that you are working for the greater good and try again. Now, I know that sometimes there is that one manager who will just be a jerk to you no matter what. Build consensus and relationships with the other managers, and together you should be able to minimize the negative impact of this manager.

If your administration encourages or tolerates infighting, work together to present this same united front of cooperation to your director. It will take time to sink in, and for every couple of steps forward you will have to take a step back, but remember that it took a while to get into this mindset, so it will take time to get into a new mindset. Do not bad-mouth other managers to the director–retrain yourself to stay positive and to focus on the positive. Rather than saying, “Debbie never returns my phone calls! I have call logs that prove it!” you could say, “I know Debbie’s been busy; I have a couple of messages in to her, and I’m sure she’ll get back to me on this soon.” Because let’s be honest: We all know that Debbie’s a sandbagger who never returns calls, but by making a statement that gives her the benefit of the doubt you’ve both a) stated the problem and b) kept yourself above the negativity fray. (That said, if something illegal or unethical is going on, you should absolutely say something–if not to your director, then to the HR manager.)

If your director is open to direct, blunt talk, you might consider an intervention–again, present a united front with the other managers (particularly HR) to lay out the situation and (this is important) how the management team will work together from now on to end the turf wars. Ask your director for their help in keeping you all on the collaborative track.

Do these ideas always work? No. When they don’t, when you feel that you’ve exhausted all of your tools, then you will have to decide what to do next. Maybe you decide that you should look for another position–though I recommend that you continue to take the high road while you look. Maybe you accept the minimal dysfunction that comes from the clown to the left of you and the joker to the right, and decide that the positive relationships you’ve built with some of the other managers is enough of an improvement to make your situation tolerable.

What tips do you have to share on managing across?



Eva Davis is the Director of the Canton Public Library in Canton, Michigan--not Canton, Ohio, or Canton, Massachusetts, or Canton, Mississippi. (It is an easy mistake to make.) Eva honed her supervisory and management skills working in customer service, research, and publishing before heading to graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Information. She became a librarian in 1998. She was an intern and then the teen services librarian at the Plymouth (MI) District Library before moving to the Ann Arbor (MI) District Library, where she was Head of the Youth Department at the Downtown library, Head of Youth Services for the system, Head of Branch Services, and finally Associate Director for Public Services. Eva has held her dream job as the Director of the award-winning Canton Public Library since 2008. She received the Michigan Library Association's Frances H. Pletz Award for Excellence in Teen Services in 2003, and is a graduate of both Leadership Ann Arbor and Leadership Canton, where she learned that she is moderately Affiliative according to MAFF, her color is "Green" on the Four Color Personality Test, and her Myers-Briggs Type is INTJ (although she has worked diligently and consistently on improving her Sensing, so she now leans ISTJ). Follow @CantonLibrary and @EvaDavisCPL on Twitter. (Photo credit: Susan Kennedy)

2 responses to Stuck in the Middle with You


    Good management tips, Eva. I see this me-me attitude very often when facilitating meetings with clients. The most frustrating part is when the director or the governing board allows it. If we all just took the first step…

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Found: July 29 – August 2, 2013 | Library Lost & Found - August 3, 2013

    […] We unstuck ourselves from the middle. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s