Museum Leadership and Self-serving Bias

 

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Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

If you’re a museum leader, you may have heard you’re supposed to build a team on trust. Perhaps you read that here last week. You may also hear that leaders need vision. If asked, you may respond, you’ve got vision. Every day. And yet, things keep going awry. So here’s a question: Have you thought about the fact that you’re part of the team? That’s not as flip an ask as it sounds. After all, whether you step in and work side-by-side with your staff, chat with them daily or fill in when someone’s sick isn’t really the point. The point is you. Are you the change you want to see or are you just mouthing the words?

Sometimes when we’re the leader, we think we don’t have to change. After all, we’re the visionary. We’re the idea-maker. We can already envision the team, department or museum in its new guise. And yet, when we don’t see the change we expected from our team, who gets blamed? The team. If you were a psychologist, you’d attribute that behavior to self-serving bias, “the tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.” Museum leadership is more than just will and skill; it’s also about personal change that mirrors and reflects the organization and the behavior you expect and want from staff.

Say you’re meeting with your front of the house staff about behavior at the reception desk. There have been complaints, one from a board member, that staff isn’t focused enough on visitors. There’s too much chatting, which has a tendency to veer toward whining. All that might be true, but before you sit down with staff, do a self-check. What is your behavior like around the reception desk? Is it the place you catch up on the group to-do list? Do you meet people there and then head to your office? In short, are you modeling the change you want? If not, don’t meet with staff right away. Work on your own behavior first. If you stop by the reception desk, do it intentionally. Introduce yourself to visitors. Welcome them to your museum or heritage site. Engage them for a moment. Stop buzzing by with little logistical details that take staff’s mind off their principal role: to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. In other words, show don’t tell.

Once you’ve put your personal change in motion, you may want to start your next team meeting by explaining what you’ve done and why. Describe the problem as you saw it–a noisy, sometimes off-putting reception desk where it was hard for visitors to get the information they needed to navigate the site. Explain how you started with yourself first, and a personal check-in. Talk about the results. Without your disruptions, the front of the house staff is more focused. Then be really brave and ask what else you can do differently. Listen. Say thank you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your organization, and more particularly the visitor’s introduction to your site.

At the next meeting, ask staff whether they continue to see change. If not, why not? What’s holding them back? Use this pattern of self-reflection, discovery, re-evaluation, and recalibration for change museum-wide. And always encourage staff to begin with self-reflection.

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Given Leadership Matters’ ongoing posts about the need for equitable treatment of museum workers, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tenement Museum, the most recent of New York City’s museums to have its education, retail, and visitor services staff unionize. This is the third time the Tenement Museum’s staff has tried to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), the union that is also home to workers at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society. Since collective bargaining just began, it will be awhile before staff knows whether their issues with overtime compensation, low wages, and no health insurance will bear fruit. Whether pay equity and closing the gender pay gap is also on the table isn’t known.

Joan Baldwin

 

 



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