Library Leadership

109. Navigating Middle Management with Amanda Scull

How do we navigate the role of middle management that so many of us find ourselves in at one time or another in libraries? On this show Amanda Scull, Head of Education and Information Services at Dartmouth College Biomedical Libraries, shares why this can be a tough spot to be in and ways to handle the dual position of day-to-day operations plus administrative responsibilities. This conversation gives practical steps that all of us can use for navigating middle management.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How do we navigate the role of middle management that so many of us find ourselves in, at one time or another, in libraries? On this show Amanda Scull, Head of Education and Information Services at Dartmouth College Medical Libraries, shares why this can be a tough spot to be in, and ways to handle the dual position of day-to-day operations, plus administrative responsibilities. This conversation gives practical steps that all of us can take for navigating middle management. Enjoy the show!

Amanda, welcome to the show.

Amanda Scull:

Hi, thank you for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: It’s my pleasure. And today, we are going to be talking about navigating middle management. As we start, many people in libraries hold middle management positions. Why can this be a tough spot to be in?  01:35 

Amanda Scull:

Well, you’re in a position of being all things to all people. You have to both lead and follow. You shift back and forth throughout the day between interacting with people over whom you have authority, and the people to whose authority you answer yourself. 

There’s a really great article from the Harvard Business Review that I like. The authors are Anicich and Hirsh. They describe middle managers as both the “victims and the carriers of change.”  I love that because many of us, I’m sure, have been in the position of having to implement a policy, or a change that we didn’t agree with—or that we knew was going to be unpopular. But it’s our job to bring people along, and to make things work—even if perhaps we have that knowledge on the ground that it’s not the best plan, or maybe it isn’t going to go over well with staff. 

This often puts us in the position of knowing what the concerns and complaints are of the staff who are below us in the hierarchy, but we might have limited power to actually do anything about it. I find that communication is really the trickiest thing about being in the middle.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: How can middle managers handle the dual responsibility of day-to-day operations, plus administrative responsibilities?  02:54  

Amanda Scull:

Delegating is really important in setting yourself up to be in a position where you can delegate. I’ve been lucky to have really competent people on my team. One of whom is himself a middle manager at a different level of the hierarchy. I know that I can trust the people on my team to manage the tasks that I’ve given them and do them well. Or to handle issues that arise if they don’t require my involvement, but there’s definitely some up-front work involved in that—in training people, and giving them space to develop their confidence and to prove themselves. That might mean that they make the wrong decision a time or two, and you have to coach them through that. But, it’s absolutely worth it in the long run.

I also think that transparent communication is really important. I’m very open with my team. I share what information I can from further up the chain. If I can’t share something, I tell them that I can’t. I want them to feel comfortable bringing their questions and their concerns to me.

Because of that relationship and transparency I benefit from that in the other direction because I can tell them what’s on my plate and, This week I might need more support on the day-to-day operations, while I take care of something that needs to be done more on the administrative side.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: Often when people step into middle management, they’re not entirely trained or prepared. How can this be overcome?  04:19 

Amanda Scull:

Yes, this is so true. It’s true for me, and I know it’s true for many people that you get promoted into this space because you’re good at your job, but have not necessarily had training in how to actually supervise and manage people.

I think middle managers need to be really honest with themselves about the gaps in their skill sets, and commit to addressing them. I recommend seeking out training opportunities that are specifically related to management within your institution, because every institution is different in terms of procedures and policies and the way that things, and people, are managed—also within the profession. I attended the ALA Leadership Institute a few years ago and I really got a lot out of that. 

I also think that more general trainings from other fields through things like Linkedin Learning, or business and leadership conferences can be really beneficial. Because the way that we do things, at least in academic libraries, isn’t always the most efficient, or the best way. I’ve found that it can be helpful to learn management skills from outside of the profession.

The other thing I recommend is creating a community of peers—finding other middle managers either within your institution, or from across other kinds of institutions. I actually have both of those things. I have a group of people within my institution, as well as a group that I meet with regularly from across different types of libraries. 

I find that regularly meeting with peers gives you a sounding board, gives you some moral support, and also provides a space to get feedback on management challenges that you may be facing—to be able to say, I’m dealing with this thing, have you had any experience with this? What do you think about this as a potential solution?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: And I know you talk about the concept of emotional agility in this space. Can you share with us about that concept?  06:08 

Amanda Scull:

Yes, emotional agility is a concept developed by Dr. Susan David, who wrote a great book on the topic. I think the best way to describe it succinctly is to actually start by talking about the opposite of emotional agility, which is emotional rigidity, or getting hooked by thoughts and behaviors that don’t serve us—is how she describes it.

These are usually your autopilot responses. They’re based on experiences—internal narratives. They might be based on incomplete information. They can be based on long standing things—like maybe you distrust authority figures because of things that happened in your childhood, or they could be more immediate—like maybe someone cut you off in traffic this morning and now you feel like the world is out to get you today. When a challenge arises at work, for example, that day you might respond defensively, or angrily, because of that autopilot response, which then feeds this loop of negative emotions. 

Emotional agility, by contrast, is about being flexible in your thoughts and feelings so you can respond more optimally to these everyday situations. You use your emotions as data, and process them as data in order to respond accordingly. Part of this, that I think is really important, requires accurately naming what we’re feeling and recognizing that an emotion is not necessarily who you are. There’s a big difference between saying, I’m stressed. And saying, I notice that I am feeling stressed. Creating that separation between yourself as a person, and your own self-image and self-worth, and the emotion you’re feeling is a really important skill. 

If you’re being emotionally agile when a challenge arises you can see your autopilot response coming, and you can separate yourself from it and interrogate it. I noticed that I immediately felt defensive there. What is causing that? How do I separate my emotion from this situation in order to figure out the best way to respond that is not going to have a negative emotional impact on me?

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: So, what does this mean when leading from the middle?  08:19 

Amanda Scull:

When I first learned about this concept and connected it to middle management—the way I started thinking about it is that emotional agility is, first and foremost, something that I do for me, which is how I distinguish it from emotional labor, which is something we talk a lot about in libraries. I think about emotional labor as something that I do for other people, whereas being emotionally agile is something that I do for myself, because it moderates my own emotional responses to a situation, and therefore protects my own well being. 

Some days this is going to be easier than other days, because we do bring our whole selves to work. Managers are people. But, I actually like to think that this practicing of emotional agility when we are able to actually model that to the people around us—to the people who report to us, reminds them that we are here as whole humans. Some days I might be more emotionally rigid, and that’s because I’ve brought some autopilot responses into my work today because I’m a person, and that’s just the space that I’m in. But we need to work to minimize the emotional impact of difficult interactions at work in order to avoid burning out, frankly. I think demonstrating to people that you are making an effort to have that emotional distance from challenges that you’re having in your everyday work life, is a really great thing to do—not just for yourself, but to model for the people who are reporting to you as well.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: What practical steps can middle managers take to maintain job satisfaction and avoid burnout?  09:52 

Amanda Scull:

Well, some of the things that I mentioned earlier like training, and creating that community of peers among middle managers definitely apply here. Those are things that I find are really important to me. In addition to that, I would suggest—figure out what you like about your job and make space for it, if you can, within reason. We don’t want people piling more stuff onto their already full plates. But things like side projects—or if being engaged professionally in organizations and conferences, things like that is something that interests you, make sure you make space for that.

During COVID I worked on a digital humanities exhibit, because management was really hard during that time. I needed a project that I could get excited about, and it was something I was able to give one or two hours a week at most, in order to have something to be excited about, and counteract all of those challenges that I was dealing with managing people remotely during a pandemic.

I also think it’s important to set boundaries, and remember that doing that also sets an example for your staff to do the same. So that means, take sick days. Unplug while you’re on vacation. Don’t work after hours. Say no when you’re at capacity. I have historically been really terrible at setting boundaries both professionally, and personally. But about a year and a half ago, I asked the staff who report to me to complete an upward feedback exercise on my management style—what was working, and wasn’t working for them.

One of the things they pointed out is that my being on email on a day when I was home sick, or on vacation, made them feel like they were supposed to be on email if they were sick, or on vacation. I really consciously tried to stop doing that, and you know the library survived without me on those days. I was able to get the distance, and the space, and the rest that I needed to come back to work recharged and ready to go.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Is there anything else you would like to share?  12:04 

Amanda Scull:

I think it’s important to say out loud that middle management is hard in libraries. We are susceptible to this idea that we’ve all been talking about, a lot—that vocational awe. That feeling that we should sacrifice ourselves to this higher calling of service. We do all sorts of things in the name of loving what we do—accepting lower salaries, poor treatment, taking on more work than we can handle. That’s not healthy. 

It’s important to remember that a job is transactional. You are trading your work for a salary. That’s okay. It’s taken me a long time to get okay with that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do my job well, or that I hate every minute of work, or that I don’t find meaning in it, but it’s what helps me create a healthy boundary between my work and my life—recognizing that the role of work is to support the rest of my life, and that allows me some space when I’m dealing with middle management challenges to practice some of that emotional agility, and acknowledge that the difficulty of the situation that I’m in is separate from myself and my personal life, process it, and respond in a way that doesn’t over engage my well-being and lead me to burn myself out.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources and why?  13:23 

Amanda Scull:

I love the Ask a Manager blog. I read it every day. I find the advice to be really useful, but I also find that I get a lot of perspective on my own challenges reading about other people’s challenges, particularly since most of them are not in libraries. Sometimes there are really crazy things that happen in the workplace that it’s just, Oh, wow I’m glad that that’s not my workplace. I find it instructive and entertaining. I tell everyone I know that they should read it. So, check out the Ask a Manager blog.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Yeah, that’s a great one, thank you. Amanda, in closing what do libraries mean to you, personally?  13:58 

Amanda Scull:

You know, I’m actually finishing up my last couple of weeks in this position at Dartmouth College, and then I am leaving—not only my institution, but I am in fact, leaving libraries to work in a nonprofit research position. I’ve been in libraries for over a decade, and I feel like I’ve had a lot of impact there, and I’ve had some really great successes alongside the challenges. 

Libraries have so much potential. They really are a remarkable institution that can mean so many different things to different people. I’ve often felt in academic libraries that we get in our own way a lot—that the politics, and the hierarchy, and the slow movement of the gears can impede that potential. I think that’s part of this shift for me, that I’m ready to tackle a new set of hurdles in a different atmosphere. I’ve learned a lot, and worked with a lot of great people in libraries, and the people are really the strength of this profession. I think it’s really important in order to help people to grow and stay in this profession that we support each other, and ourselves—and maybe I’ll be back, who knows.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

You never know. And, best of luck in your new role. I appreciate you taking the time to share what you’ve learned during your last decade of librarianship with all of us, because so many of us have found ourselves, or are currently, in middle management positions. This information is really helpful, so thank you.

Amanda Scull:

Thank you so much for inviting me to talk about it.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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