“As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.”

Josh Billings, quoted in Evan Esar, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (1949)

One of the most successful actions I’ve taken as a supervisor is to regularly ask my employees for feedback on my performance in robust and meaningful ways. In 2022, I enrolled in a leadership course at MPOW that required my direct reports, peers, and supervisor to assess my leadership skills. The results provided me with invaluable information about where I needed to improve as a manager, but also where I could successfully lean into certain aptitudes for leadership. I am incredibly grateful to have had that experience and for the time my colleagues took to answer the survey questions.

Prior to that, I had already implemented an internal mechanism for upward feedback. In 2020, I wanted to ask my team to evaluate my performance. However, I knew two things to be true: (1) It would be impossible for me not to know who submitted feedback (my team is only three people in addition to myself); and (2) not every person on my team had had the same experience with me as a manager. Even the most honest of my employees would likely hold some things back. And I don’t blame them: managers have direct influence over their employees’ work-life and salary. But my team all agreed that some mechanism for upward feedback was necessary, provided it offered a space for honest discussion and psychological safety.

To tackle both these issues, I developed a simple system for upward feedback that provided me with the information I needed about my performance, while still allowing my employees to maintain their anonymity. It also had the added benefit of being a team-building exercise, since they could compare notes on their different experiences of me as a manager. As one of my employees noted, “We were able to ‘norm’ our experiences of you as a manager against our own biases, experiences, and preferences.” The end results was an action plan for my performance (which I tasked myself with responding to and further developing), in much the same way that I do for them during annual reviews each year. 

I’ve posted the entire tool below. You are welcome to use and adapt! (CC-BY-SA)

My department’s upward feedback tool 2020

We all have blind spots that we are not aware of. We all make mistakes. The primary purpose of this exercise is to help me identify my blind spots as a supervisor/manager and address them proactively. Additionally, this exercise will help me identify what you think works well so I can continue to enhance those actions.

As the lead for our department, I want us to be effective, both individually and (more importantly) collectively. This means we need to be more than just a group of coordinated parts. We have to be an integrated, mutually beneficial team. It takes effort to be a team: we share the best and worst of each of us. So it takes some amount of consensus about our shared goals and experiences in order to keep moving forward.

To that end, I’d like to hear feedback from you, whether it be about my managerial skills or work in general. This is meant to be both an assessment mechanism and a team-building activity.

What I will do

Once you provide me with feedback, I will provide you with a written response to each point raised and, where possible, I will tell you what actions I will take to address your recommendations. If I am not able to take action, I will provide an explanation for that.

What you will do

You will work together to draft a single assessment document, no more than 3 pages if possible. It should be authored collectively and anonymously. Any recommendations or comments should be agreed upon by the entire group. Strive for 100% consensus.

In that way, (1) I will not be able to assign any comments to a single person and (2) you can find common ground among your colleagues both in your assessment of me and your recommendations for future actions.

Here are the questions you should try to answer:

  1. What do you see as your supervisor’s greatest strengths?
  2. What area(s) do you think your supervisor should develop in order to be more effective?
  3. Are there other comments about your supervisor that you would like to share?

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me.

What I’m reading

100 things I know by Mari Andrew

I especially like #20. I’ve stopped trying to kill spiders in the house and instead try to help them find their way out. I also say “good morning” and “excuse me, friends” to the bees each day when I water my garden. There’s something profound in acknowledging you’re not the most important creature in the room. 

Proof You Can Do Hard Things by Nat Eliason

“The ability to do hard things is perhaps the most useful ability you can foster in yourself or your children. And proof that you are someone who can do them is one of the most useful assets you can have on your life resume.”

Reading Well by Simon Sarris

“Reading is letting someone else model the world for you.”

Garden update

This is the last of the summer harvest. My tomatoes, beans, and corn have mostly dried up or gone to seed. There are still peppers and butternut squash that could outlast the month. Even one of my watermelon vines is making a Hail Mary effort to survive. But now is the time to start planting winter crops. I already have cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and celery seeds in starter pots.

Links to the past

Overheard online

“I love public libraries not just because of what they’ve done for me personally, but because they are little socialist oases in the capitalist desert hellscape of twenty-first century America.”

Karawynn Long on “The Coming Enshittification of Public Libraries

Recently, a colleague asked me about my daily time management practices. Having had this same conversation a few times already with others, I finally set myself to drafting a “readme” file for my communication and calendaring habits. This doesn’t include all the minutiae of my weekly productivity workflows, but it’s a top-level summary that (I hope) gives just enough detail to help my team understand why (1) my calendar is so booked and (2) why I don’t always respond to email or DMs right away.

My practices are built on the ideas of Cal Newport, Celeste Headlee, and David Allen, all of whom recommend intentional, process- and outcomes-focused modes of work. 

Caveat: The following habits won’t work for everyone. It works for me, in my current position, with my current team and projects, etc. I offer it as an example of what one possible readme statement looks like.

How I communicate

Rationale: As much as possible, I try to reduce the need for unstructured, asynchronous communication in my work (what Newport calls the hyperactive hive-mind) and limit the amount of time I spend context-switching between tasks. Studies consistently show that long periods of focused, uninterrupted work produce higher-quality output and reduce the danger of creative fatigue and burnout. 

Practice: I set aside 30 minutes each day to process my email inbox. Additionally, I set aside 1 hour each day for drop-in conversations (in-person or online): this time functions like office hours and are first-come first served. I do not keep my email or chat clients open when I am working on a project and my device notifications (except from the Library Administration team, my partner, and my parents) are muted, so don’t use email if you need an immediate response.

What you can do: If your request is not time-sensitive, email me and I will respond to it usually within 2-3 business days. If you would prefer, but don’t necessarily need, a quicker response, send me a message on Teams and I will likely respond within 1-2 business days. If you need a response day-of, stop by or DM me during my office hours (usually MWF 2-3p and TR 1-2p). My Outlook calendar is up-to-date and openly readable.

But what if you’re not available? Then you wait. Unless of course you have a way to create more time in the day. =)

How I schedule my week

Rationale: After working as an academic librarian professionally for almost a decade, I have developed a fairly accurate sense of exactly how much time I need to do various tasks that my job requires of me. For example, I know I can stay on top of my collection development work by dedicating 1.5 hours a week to the task. With this knowledge, I schedule my work week in advance using a “time-blocking” method, thus making sure I have adequate time to accomplish as much as possible within the time allotted to me (i.e., time that isn’t set aside for a meeting) each week.

Practice: At the end of each week, I review my tasks, projects, and annual goals and use them to map out the following week. Every hour of the day is given an assignment, with preference for longer periods of concentrated work (e.g., usually 1.5 hr blocks). In order to make time for focused work, I limit the amount of time I spend in-meetings each day to 3 hours. The first 30 min of each day is dedicated to checking in with my team and reviewing our essential tasks for that day. Additionally, because I often work 9-10 hour days, I schedule longer lunch breaks (1.5 hours max). I do not schedule meetings during that time and use that time to step away and recharge.

What you can do: As noted above, I try to leave 1 hour every day unscheduled as an office hour. Feel free to drop in in-person or virtually during that time. If you want to request a time on my calendar, you can schedule a time with me using Microsoft Bookings (external colleagues) or Outlook (internal colleagues). 

But what if you don’t have any free time? It is true that I keep a lot of plates in the air at all times. This often means my calendar is booked for weeks at a time. However, if you send me an email requesting a time to meet (please send me 2-3 available times), I will try to move things around.

The DND sign I sometimes use when I am engaged in “deep work.”

The criticism I usually receive about this style of working is that it is “closed door” (as opposed to “open door,” whatever that means*). Yes, it is true that I do more than most people to make myself unavailable to others. My current job requires sustained periods of concentrated work: to write long-form narratives, design graphics, plan out project timelines, run data analyses in spreadsheets, and proof materials. So much proofing. If I am frequently interrupted during these activities, I risk making critical mistakes that are costly to reverse.

All of us have alternating periods of “available” and “not-available” throughout the day. When I am in a meeting with my dean, it’s simple: I’m not available to answer a phone call. If I’m attending a speaker event on campus, I’m not responding to email. If I’m recording a video tutorial, I need to make sure no one knocks on my door! The question we sometimes fail to ask is: are there other moments when I should consider myself to be unavailable? Ones which, though the surrounding external friction/barriers are weaker, still merit an intentional “attention block” from outside influences? How would the quality of my work and, more importantly, the quality of my experience improve with less context-switching and fewer interruptions?

Just because you don’t have a meeting on your Outlook calendar does not mean you are “available.”

Nonetheless, I make a point to always set aside some time each day for drop-in conversations. During those office hour blocks, I don’t schedule any essential work: my only goal is to be open and available to others. If no one needs to chat, I will often use that time to follow up on requests sent via email. My office hours could alternatively be called my “synchronous communication hours.”

Is this convenient to everyone? No, but it provides an intentional space for things that need day-of input (and, in my experience, most things in academia don’t need day-of input… it’s just nice). I can’t offer you all of my time, but what I can offer, I can offer consistently.

*A note about “open door” practices: For me, having an open door management style is not synonymous with literally having your office door open or (in the case of not having a physical door) being always amenable to interruptions. Instead, my open door management style focuses more on whether I am providing consistent and frequent opportunities for team input, whether I am actively listening to that input, and whether I am able to take what I learn from that input and translate it into meaningful ways to support my team. And sometimes, the best way I can support my team is by closing my door and getting shit done.