Library Leaders Need Feedback Too | Leading From the Library

There are many ways that leaders can improve, from informal learning to leadership programs. While it seems obvious that honest feedback would contribute to the cause, obtaining it—and effectively responding to negative feedback—is not so simple.

There are many ways that leaders can improve, from informal learning to leadership programs. While it seems obvious that honest feedback would contribute to the cause, obtaining it—and effectively responding to negative feedback—is not so simple.

Have you ever heard an educator, perhaps a faculty colleague or a friend, talk about how much they love teaching but hate grading? If you’ve ever been in that position you know exactly what they mean. Giving students informal feedback to help them improve their skills is a part of teaching that most instructors embrace. Grading papers, projects, and exams in order to formally assess student performance is much less fun, but perhaps no less critical to student learning. Great instructors also know how to give negative feedback, as well as receive it, in a way that minimizes discouragement and maximizes growth.

Those leading in any capacity are called upon to evaluate direct reports or those serving on a team. Feedback may be provided formally by an annual performance evaluation or informally in routine meetings, when debriefing after projects, or in response to a “how am I doing” request. Delivering formal feedback is a part of leadership about which leaders, not unlike educators, may be less enthusiastic. Crafting and delivering feedback to reports or colleagues is a skill that is learned over time through experience. Knowing when to deliver feedback outside of formal performance reviews and how to provide it, especially when the feedback is potentially painful, is all part of the leadership skill set.


How leaders view this part of their work depends, in part, on the attitude they bring. If they see it as a positive approach to helping their direct reports or colleagues improve their workplace performance or develop as leaders, feedback is perceived as an important responsibility. Those leaders who are open to giving feedback will always find opportunities to deliver it. Leaders who find it a loathsome chore bring an unfortunate mindset to their work. Avoiding this essential responsibility will ultimately prove detrimental to staff seeking their leader’s input on how to improve their performance.

What’s more problematic for leaders is capturing feedback about their own performance from staff and colleagues. In the absence of feedback from direct reports or leadership team colleagues, how is a leader supposed to identify areas where improvement is needed? The leadership literature is a source of suggestions for feedback gathering options, but too few of our library workplaces offer formal feedback mechanisms that work for leaders and managers.


As a graduate-level educator, I look forward to receiving formal feedback from my students. In my years of teaching I’ve found that I’m likely to get just a few highly enthusiastic evaluations along with an equal number that are highly critical. The vast majority are somewhere between the two extremes, and I find those provide the most useful evaluation feedback. I’ve struggled to find ways to obtain that same type of productive feedback from my direct reports. There are some possibilities, such as crafting my own version of a 360 Review. That might lead to honest and usable feedback, but even an anonymous survey could raise confidentiality concerns. According to Ron Carucci, in his article “4 Ways to Get Honest, Critical Feedback from Your Employees,” there are other approaches. His suggestions are:

  • Ask for or encourage push back. Just ask for feedback and encourage dissenting opinions. While this is a refreshing idea, I would be concerned that colleagues would be hesitant to share honestly. However it might be received as an opportunity for open dialog and if done authentically it could, as Carucci believes it will, strengthen a relationship.
  • Read nonverbal cues. Leaders may be overlooking nonverbal communication as a source of feedback. Faces and bodies can tell a story if we are open to receiving it. Do staff look away when you speak? Are they unusually silent? When picking up on these nonverbal cues, Carucci advises using them as conversation openers. For example, “How should I interpret your silence?”
  • Monitor how you narrate the story. When asked to rate themselves, people tend to aim high, along the lines of a 7 or 8 out of 10. Leaders can do that as well when it comes to how things are going with their reports. While leaders should avoid becoming overly self-critical, Carrucci advises that they take time to step back and assess more realistically their behavior and reactions to it. Aim for a balanced, informed perspective.
  • Know your triggers. In a prior column on self-awareness I share the importance of knowing what sets you off and ways to keep those behaviors in check. Carrucci reminds leaders to avoid becoming sarcastic, defensive, or passive-aggressive when things turn out differently than planned or expected. He even suggests openly inviting reports to call out their leader on these behaviors to help build self-awareness.

In other words, focus more energy on communication skills, primarily listening and observing. Of course a 360 Review can be informative, but if that’s not a viable option or it provides limited feedback, consider other ways to obtain useful feedback from colleagues.


Ideally all the feedback a leader receives would be positive. But even if that unlikely outcome occurs, it could be unfortunate, signaling that staff are reluctant to offer feedback for fear of retribution or assuming change is unlikely to happen. In a healthy library organization, direct reports and team members should feel they can bring honest, constructive criticism to their leaders. Library leaders need to establish that tone by creating opportunities for the generation and hospitable receipt of feedback. If library leaders seek to truly improve, however that’s defined, they must be open to and able to receive critical or negative feedback. It helps to receive criticism without getting defensive or angry. Library leaders should liken themselves to the libraries or teams they lead. If a part of the operation were underperforming or worse, every leader would be eager to hear about it in order to make the necessary corrections and improvements. Shouldn’t leaders do the same for themselves? Criticism is always hard to take. Owning it, reflecting on it, and then committing to improve is another essential skill that library leaders need to make a difference for their staff, organizations, and community members.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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