ASSOCIATES (vol. 7, no. 1, July 2000) -

Will Teams Alleviate Low Satisfaction in An Academic Library?


Bruce Taylor
Library Assistant
The Libraries of the Claremont Colleges

For over two years library assistants and librarians at the Claremont Colleges have participated in Critical Process Teams (CPTs). Team assignments were added on to primary duties in service groups. Many assistants also take part in Special Project Teams (SPTs) that spin off from the CPTs to accomplish specific goals with personnel on board who have necessary skills and involvement to solve particular problems under study. This new management structure, which somewhat flattens the organization, replaces one that relied primarily on Department Heads carrying out decisions by the Library Director, consulting a few of the higher status librarians as well as the Assistant Director and the Directors of the three campus libraries. Power in the organization is now more decentralized, with many projects initiated from below, but the Library Director is still ultimately in charge, assigning agenda items to particular teams, treating team decisions as merely recommendations, in many cases.

Since team leaders are paid extra, they seem eager to prove they are actually earning their money. As a result, team agendas can be very long indeed. Teams must write up reports of their progress, and this too encourages participants to get down to business and have something to show for their time together.

For the library assistants, there are many new experiences. On the one hand, working side by side with librarians is refreshing. Assistants are writing reports, leading training sessions, and planning projects. The new structure allows assistants to argue against ideas that earlier would have been put into operation by their superiors, no questions asked. Assistants find themselves engaging in managerial level concerns for the first time. Often they interrupt their primary duties to prepare for CPT meetings. They sometimes attend meetings during lunch. They even take work home in the evenings. Several assistants are better educated than most of the librarians, and the team structure finally enables these overeducated, underpaid workers to display their value to the organization and to be recognized.

On the other hand, assistants are not professionals in the same sense as librarians. They are not paid the same, and they resent having more work thrust upon them with no additional compensation. They regard much of the team agenda as busywork to make team leaders look good, and they feel put upon carrying out the pet projects of librarians. They know that the Library Director will veto anything that she dislikes, and they see the Director being consistently influenced by the same two or three librarians. Many assistants wish the teams were voluntary, and the cynical reading on the mandatory nature of the teams is that it eliminates lack of opportunity to participate from the reasons library assistants might give for being unhappy.

Whereas more participation clearly makes some assistants happier on the job, others are less happy. Some assistants are poorly educated and are lacking in confidence in complex discussions. Some are under pressure to be more productive at their primary duties, and they fear that CPTs will cause them to fall behind and eventually to suffer humiliation. Some are just not eager to become professionalized in ways demanded by the team structure, preferring for whatever reason to work at a job with clearly defined duties and hours, their minds and hearts directed toward non-career activities: travel, families, religion, self-development, and civic participation.

Unhappiness is expressed in answers to survey questions measuring staff satisfaction. It appears less overtly when assistants forget to appear at meetings, or when they show up but refuse to participate actively, whether out of resistance or anxiety.

Whether the team structure has increased overall job satisfaction is a subject of speculation in the library. Before teams there was discontent due to a downsizing of operations in 1994. Many also did not much like the upgrading of computers to Windows 95/98/NT, but most of the bugs have now been squashed and everyone has adapted well to email by Netscape Navigator.

Left over from the downsizing is a continuing complaint from some work units that there are not enough people, especially during peak times at the beginnings and endings of semesters. A few assistants express guilt over their inability to keep up, and they report feeling like they let down their fellow workers by taking vacations at certain times during the school year. Others complain bitterly about being understaffed, yet no suggestion for correcting the problem—temp workers, more students, a 6 hour day—seems without a down side that prevents it from being implemented.

On the other side, a few think that we actually do have enough people, and the only staff members with a right to complain of overwork are those who frequently volunteer for additional tasks. Management by teams leads to an unfair distribution of work, insufficient reward for people who do more, some of the wrong people making important decisions, and too many meetings.

Many of the critics of the flat organization, whether librarians or assistants, seem to thrive on direct service to customers. They enjoy helping scholars save time, and they do everything they can to ensure that customers are well served, including scolding other staff. Some of these critics think that teams are interfering with service, even though the team leaders continually repeat that the mission is to improve work processes in order to serve library users better.

Not everyone working in the library has direct contact with customers. Or, the only contact one has involves enforcing rules in situations of anger and confusion. Satisfying library work for these staff members comes from interaction with fellow workers. They like and admire their work mates, and cooperation in the local work unit—the service group—results in flexible scheduling, which enables assistants to accommodate work and family. Some service groups have, indeed, become more team-like, with some scarcely supervised by higher ups at all. The work groups that have retained traditional supervisors are also expected to act more like teams, but in the ones with higher morale, the supervisors were already working collegially with their employees. Extremely close supervision, micro-managing, is more apt to be resented today, although it remains to be seen how well assistants will do in the long run operating as teams without supervisors to referee.

Almost no one mentions good pay as a reason to like the job. The last cost of living raise was about 2.5%, and the Library Director openly frets about being "overstaffed" budgetwise. Librarians are on a recently implemented merit system with steps up in salary determined by a complex calculus of productivity. Assistants receive significant raises and reclassifications only by changing jobs. A few have switched frequently in order to climb ahead in their careers, while most have become resigned to making the most out of dead end jobs.

Of all subjects that could be discussed in Critical Process Teams the salary structure is the most taboo. The salaries of staff members are confidential, but it is known that certain younger, aggressive librarians are paid a great deal more than some of the old timers. A consultant on team building recently exclaimed that workers are really not motivated by money. This was at an event sponsored by the Human Relations Department of the Claremont University Center attended by supervisors from all the central services including some from the libraries. "Just look at nurses and school teachers," cracked the consultant, "they hardly make anything at all." Many in the audience approved of this comment, but library staff was not impressed. In Claremont the beginning salary of a public school teacher is $37,000. A library assistant starts at about $22,000. Even librarians, with their superior professional credentials, at entry level are paid less than school teachers. And their pay does not increase as quickly, although that might change with the new merit system for those who put out.

Salaries might increase if the economy continues to improve, but only if assistants are willing to leave for other jobs. This option was never seriously considered by many assistants during the previous decade. In a tight job market, with downsizing the trend of the times, assistants felt lucky to have a job at all. Some went to library school to earn an MLS but were not even interviewed for openings at the library, so left for jobs as librarians in other cities. Most who work at the library do not want to leave Claremont. In many cases their spouses have jobs here too. Many families would never make it without two incomes.

Although no one will discuss salaries in the CPTs, merit pay for assistants has been talked about frequently. Reaction to this is mixed, with most disliking the idea. The case for merit pay in some ways cuts against the team concept. Merit pay to individuals tempts them to place personal goals ahead of team goals. Or, an individual who craves merit recognition may manipulate the agenda of the team in order to come out on top. The majority of each staff member’s work is not done in Critical Process Teams, so merit will always be accumulated primarily in service groups. This will tend to retard the development of teams, as self-interested workers spend more time and energy on projects that will pay off.

On the other hand, merit pay is proposed to remedy a problem with teams already mentioned—the problem of non-volunteering. Some team members are taking a free ride. When the tasks are distributed in a team, the same people seem to step up and accept extra work. And some people never seem to volunteer. Eventually the volunteers become bitter. Merit pay—or withholding of merit pay—is one of the ideas often brought forth in discussions of this matter. Implementation of merit pay on the team level would require CPT leaders to evaluate team members, or some kind of peer review process would be undertaken. Most of the time people on the team do not include an individual’s day to day supervisor or fellow workers back at the service group.

Greater reliance on Critical Process Teams will result in more stress for staff who are also members of service groups that are short of workers to take care of primary duties. When this happens, staff must choose whether to neglect CPTs, service groups, or neither. As the non-volunteering problem increases, and the few with a superior work ethic carry on heroically to get the work done, it will seem to make sense to provide merit pay and other status rewards to these heroes. But it is unlikely that non-volunteers will be induced by such measures to share a fuller portion of the burden. The prevailing work culture has taught most assistants not to think in terms of more money for extra work. Moreover, the closer supervision that would be necessary to impose a workable system of evaluation/rewards/consequences/merit pay would directly oppose the culture of flexibility and autonomy that many assistants now enjoy and that the team environment encourages when implemented in service groups.

Primary loyalty is in the service group. Stress is alleviated by mutual support from close friends. Overwork is born as gracefully as possible, and meanwhile, when there are calls for volunteers, someone else usually picks up the ball, and there is no punishment for dropping it.

Critical Process Teams are here to stay because more projects are getting done by more people. With more participation allowed, assistants now have a chance to use their special skills and talents, and the administration has employed them more fully. The question is: will teams alleviate low satisfaction? The answer seems to be negative. Some members of the staff are angry that the organization takes advantage, gives too little in rewards, and allows some to take a free ride. Some dislike teamwork, alternately trying to control events in the teams, then railing against them for their failure to deliver wiser and more efficient actions and policies. On the other hand, most assistants cheerfully tend to their primary duties, cooperate well with immediate work mates, and somehow weather the storms of overwork that blow in at the start of each semester. Occasionally the wind blows harder as team projects become unavoidable.

A final word. Of course the teams are not the sole explanation for low satisfaction. But teams were sold partly with the promise that they could at least mitigate some of the moody behavior and near burn out that was so evident in the aftermath of downsizing. The official line now has changed. Low satisfaction can not be conquered, and it is a mistake to try to eradicate it. A certain level of radical dissatisfaction is inevitable in organizations, so get used to it. In other words, instead of trying to understand why teams do not alleviate low satisfaction, as was supposed would happen, the category of satisfaction is simply being tossed overboard. As a result, teams will be evaluated on grounds that are clinical and non-controversial, for example the number and types of projects completed. This is unfortunate, because radical discontent is preventable. And it doesn’t take a team to figure out that unmitigated discontent will sink the sturdiest of ships.

[These buttons are no longer active. To return to Table of Contents for this issue, click here.]

Go Back ArrowReturn to Top of Page