Motivating the Front Line

(Editor’s note: Looking for a way to publicly honor library employees? Nominate “Star” library workers to the National Library Workers’ Day web site.)

Evolving technology and trends toward user self-service activities have changed the library patron’s experience. But most librarians are quick to point out that, despite these changes, libraries (and their users) still require front-line human interaction provided by circulation, or access services, employees. Front-line employees are the library’s foremost representatives: whether librarians, paraprofessionals, temporary employees or security guards, these workers are usually the first faces patrons see on entering the library and the last they see on leaving. Because of the visibility of these front line employees, it is crucial that these public ambassadors are motivated: their treatment of users determines whether the atmosphere of the library is warm and friendly, or distant and aloof. Moreover, access services employees provide services daily to users of varying ages, intellectual abilities, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and economic status. Thus, every effort should be made to ensure that staff remains motivated in order to handle the challenges of such a dynamic and at oftentimes stressful environment.

Motivation is crucial to maintaining staff productivity, and to cultivating and facilitating healthy group dynamics. Motivation does not result from a one-time seminar or team-building exercise; building true motivation is an ongoing process requiring time and consideration.

Before any attempt is made to motivate staff, supervisors—irrespective of level—must themselves be motivated. Those who are unmotivated obviously will have no desire to motivate staff; supervisors who are motivated, on the other hand, are likely to create an atmosphere which encourages others to motivate themselves and in turn to motivate others.

Second, in motivating others, one must be sensitive to each individual’s needs. Staff and colleagues may be experiencing varying levels of stress and are at different crossroads of life; what happens outside their job will most certainly affect their performance of that job, as well as their interactions with supervisors, peers and direct reports.

There is no single formula for motivating any employee or group of employees. Each person strives toward different personal and professional victories and, understandably, will be encouraged differently. Some may find sufficient motivation in a simple, private ‘thank you’ for a job well done; others find greater motivation in a tangible awards or public recognition. Nevertheless, staff is generally motivated by job satisfaction; organizational growth and development; a positive work environment, and sincere recognition of individual and group achievements.

Two basic motivational approaches are often effective with front-line employees: cross training and staff rotation. These approaches can alleviate boredom and stagnation, as well as create a greater understanding and appreciation for the responsibilities of each position. These two approaches allow paraprofessionals especially to determine what areas of librarianship for which they are best suited, or if they really want to pursue the profession at all.

Excellent communication skills are also vital in engendering positive work attitudes. Supervisors need to listen with empathy and to desist from forming hasty conclusions without the support of factual evidence. It must always be underscored that one should praise in public and reprimand in private. To reprimand front line staff in front of patrons will always be in poor taste. Public reprimands diminish not only staff morale but also the image of the library. Furthermore, if conflict arises between front line staff and a user, even if the user is in the right, the supervisor must exhibit tact in ensuring that the employee does not lose credibility, and that the user is not seen as having authority over that employee.

Employees are also often motivated when they feel they have control in the execution of their jobs. Few employees enjoy being micro-managed, and as a result front line workers should be accorded some degree of autonomy in executing their tasks. They should also, when practical, be able to contribute to discussions of procedure. Ask employees how they would make their work more efficient; staff who performs an activity daily often knows more about that task than does the supervisor. This by no way suggests that all ideas should be implemented. But consider any suggestions and, if an idea is acted upon, acknowledge the employee who offered the suggestion.

Finally, and most fundamentally, libraries must value and respect its workers and their contributions. Without that basic respect and appreciation, library staff will—rightly—feel patronized and manipulated by the administration’s motivation efforts.

The number of ways for motivating front line employees is endless. In focusing on the unique needs of front-line employees, this article in no way attempts to diminish the worth of employees whose functions do not permit a large degree of visibility. Though each employee has a role to play towards the smooth operations of the library, one can appreciate that the contribution of some workers (especially within small societies and small libraries) are often under-valued.