I’ll be talking to my staff soon about employee engagement and, in particular, a survey they contributed to at my place of work. While I’m pleased that they reported that they were, for the most part, highly engaged, I don’t take credit for that. What has struck me, though, as I prepare for this meeting, is how simple it can be to create engagement, how often we fail to do so, and how difficult it is to identify what makes a difference.

I’d like to be crystal clear, for those few people who monitor my posts for wrong thinking, that this post is not about my current workplace. Rather, this post is more about my own thinking and experiences. I happened to open up Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last this weekend too, so I’ve drawn a bit of inspiration from that.

I’m on the fence about Leaders Eat Last. I’m only about halfway through and there’s a good deal of waffle. I do think it’s strong on emphasizing that a leader can grow from within, and that one doesn’t necessarily need consultants and outside expertise. I’d encourage you to give it a look but I’m mostly just trying to get back into reading.

This is also not really about the industry of employee engagement either. Corporations hire consultants, survey their staff, get feedback, rinse, repeat. As one of these consultancies notes, despite the widespread interest, employee engagement remains low. So whatever companies are doing – beyond surveying their staff – may not be working.

If someone asked me how to create highly engaged employees, I’m not sure I could point to any particular thing that I do that is definitive. It’s a bit alchemical, with lots of simple, straightforward, hard work required and that demands a leader be flexible. I’ll note that, in the organizations where we’ve done these engagement surveys, the library and information teams have consistently been highly engaged. But can I take credit for that?

It’s not that easy.

Leadership and Your People

If you’re a library director, your library’s most important asset is your people. Full stop. Your number one job is to figure out how to achieve whatever your mandate is. A successful library director will be able to create the environment where those valuable people are able to achieve that critical mandate.

I went to a leadership course about a decade ago. I was still new to Canada and testing my preconceived notions. I remember asking the faculty about a particular issue I was struggling with and, after discussion, realizing that, no, US and Canadian law libraries were pretty similar and the issue I had was most likely a person, not a profession. A lot of the things we know as leaders are portable but we need to adapt to the individual people and also the organism that is the team we lead.

It can be hard to know how a leader is successful. You can read a lot of books or go to seminars or even pick the brains of others. But at the end of the day, I’ve found I learn and improve the most by just tending to my own knitting. Leadership for me has been both growth and renewal.

I was recently talking to some people about management style. I don’t really like the question because it’s asked in a generic context but you apply it in a specific one. Other than the basics – curiosity, empathy and kindness, initiative, communication and clarity – it can be hard to provide someone with enough specificity to assure them that you don’t have three heads.

It will also morph to reflect the environment in which you are attempting to lead. If you work in a low trust environment, where trust outside your team is low but you have a high trust team, then your role may be to protect your folks from the negative impacts of that low trust environment. For example, do silos exist because we have a low trust organization or do we have a low trust organization because of our silos?

Reagents and Catalysts

Unfortunately, understanding what it is that makes your team engaged can be tricky. Even in a high trust environment, where people are comfortable discussing difficult issues, no-one wants to be a complainer. And if you have a team that works well together, we may ignore some of the rough edges for the overall result. When I say rough edges, I don’t mean things that get in the way of staff getting things done (harassment, bullying, the like). But we all accommodate the quirks of our coworkers in a variety of ways.


One recurrent theme in employee engagement is the need for recognition. I had to laugh out loud while reading Leaders Eat Last. It described some research where the least engaged staff got no recognition, but even those who got only negative recognition were more engaged! Recognition matters.

But what form does it need to take? The conversations I’ve been involved in have tended to focus on using financial equivalents, like bonuses. I think that, when you’re in a non-profit or government context, that may make less sense than when you’re in a commercial environment. But they do not seem to be effective in creating engaged staff either way. They can be arbitrary and, once given, can create an ongoing expectation that they’ll continue to be given.

What happens when you have a recognition system that is focused on activity or project success but not all staff perform that type of work? For example, reference librarians grind away, answering questions day in and day out. A project-based recognition approach is hard to square with someone whose work doesn’t have that type of finality. You could create projects to invoke the recognition system, but that seems artificial (never mind the extra, unnecessary work).

The managers that I try to emulate don’t use money or gifts for recognition. If anything, they say thanks often and sincerely. It means the leader is investing time in the people rather than money, even though those are both valuable, finite resources. You have to know what people are doing to be able to thank them. You need to know the person to know whether they want to be recognized in front of a group. You may need to assign someone a task or role in order to be able to recognize their work in an authentic way.


Another idea I nodded along with in Leaders Eat Last is the idea of investing in your people. It can be easy to hire a consultant or a third-party contractor to temporarily or permanently provide your library a service. That can certainly be easier and faster than training your own staff.

But as I was discussing with some other law librarians recently, we aren’t a ladder-climbing profession. We have a lot of law librarians who love their work, which often does not involve management. While some of us move into management, there are many (most?) who are happy to remain in roles that allow them to grow their subject matter expertise.

This can cause organizational conflict. If your organization is focused on hiring entry-level people and promoting them through the corporate hierarchy, your law library culture may not align with that approach. This can mean recognition and growth opportunities for staff are also misaligned, since they are aimed at goals that your staff do not value.

We can grow in place. Growth should be work-related but that limitation is, in large part, within the hands of the leader. In my experience, it can come in a couple of ways, including:

  • finding a way to do something that we are expert at, or has become routinized, in a new way. It could be a new process, learning a new skill, or adapting a new technology. Video reference or remote training, anyone? It needn’t – shouldn’t – be just more work.
  • retraining staff who are energized to do it in a new direction. For example, this could be taking developers who have been strong in one language – but not in the language or technology required for future directions – and building on their current expertise. I’ve seen this mostly with technical people but it can tend to make them more marketable if they ever decide to leave while also ensuring you are delivering modern technology that can be easier to hire for.

One thing I tried recently was to involve more people in an activity that I would normally be expected to do by myself as the library director. This created some friction outside the team because it was perceived as delegating my responsibility. But people who are not managers may not experience something otherwise until they are managers. I’ve found that staff having insight into a new process doesn’t necessarily mean they expect to have decision-making on it as well. I may want to know how my car works but I do not want to tell the mechanic what they should do.

Another approach is to let the staff have some flexibility in getting to the library’s goals. Embrace the staff’s need for agency, to have some control and input into how they work and what they work on. There is almost always more than one route to a goal. Staff who can have some say in that route – one that makes them less stressed out, one that allows them to learn something new, one that challenges their current skills – may be happier.

A simple graphic showing a Start and a Goal, and multiple (blue) paths to reach them. Given an opportunity, I tend to choose the least straight path if there is a chance of exploring and learning something new.

I had a conversation about growth recently and it occurred to me that there may be a reluctance to grow someone’s skills in case they leave. That seems backwards to me. We should want to have people at their best. If, for whatever reason, they leave better than they arrived, that seems to be a worthy outcome. It’s the leaving we should focus on, not whether staff grew and benefited from that growth. I am totally fine with all of my staff leaving, if they leave despite being happy working with me and for something that is better than what they can achieve with me.

The People We Work With

I think this is an underappreciated element. It can be largely out of the hands of leaders and managers so perhaps we overlook it. It isn’t something we can change as readily as other parts of our environment. In my 20+ years in law libraries, I’ve been involved in single digits of hirings and firings. You obviously want to get the right people but sometimes you inherit a team. Your job is to figure these people out so that, whether they were high performing or not when you inherited them, they will be when you move on.

It can be an eye-opening experience to come into an organization where your team is down-trodden. It is an incredibly satisfying feeling to see that turn around, using simple skills like communication or kindness. Leaders Eat Last touches on this. Not being a jerk goes a long way. Also the Golden Rule. But when the people who work together enjoy their work and their colleagues, that can overwhelm other activities that are negative. The worst case is that we’re all in this together.

Obviously, the leader’s job is to minimize those negatives. I sometimes view my role as a firewall, to ensure that trust-damaging actions or decisions don’t flow down to the team. A toxic decision somewhere else in an organization – where the engagement may be lower, generally – can undermine your team despite your best efforts.

Postscript on Leaders East Last. I finished the book between writing this post and publishing it. It suffers from a lack of leadership examples that don’t involve men. Conversely, I agreed 100% with certain sections, and Chapter 15 encapsulates a lot of what I value in my own leadership (Dunbar’s number and networking, rewards and recognition, etc.). I really appreciate how the author spelled out that, if you have developed your team well as a leader, your departure should not endanger the team’s ability to function without you. I enjoyed the book but I think there’s room for improvement.

Credit Where Credit is Due

As I get ready to talk to my folks about the employee engagement survey results, a lot of what I’ll talk about is them. The other managers who do such a good job nurturing their staff, people who I don’t necessarily work with directly. The staff themselves, who engage in discussions that might be risky if they didn’t feel they could trust their managers and me. The team as a whole, an organism that is uniquely a sum of its parts, and which adapts to and overcomes the challenges they face as a group.

Not everything is positive – we have things to work on, I have things to work on. But there’s always room for improvement and a survey can help you to focus on the things you can impact and the things you can’t.

Leaders may be the face of success but they’re rarely the sole source of it. I may get some recognition for my engaged team but it’s hardly something I can take credit for. I’m mostly grateful that the deliberate actions that I take to create a good environment seem, on the whole, to be a positive addition to the admixture that is employee engagement.