Ten Suggestions for Strengthening Staff Weak Links

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Twenty-first century museum leadership is complex. That’s true, at least in part, because you oversee not only your own performance, but everyone else’s. And, as more and more museums and heritage sites move toward flatter organizational profiles and team-based project management, it’s critical that teams work well together. That’s a leadership challenge. And, it’s a particularly complicated one when team members fail to pull their weight. 

Many of us are introduced to team work in middle school.  There it’s often a dreadful experience, complicated by gender roles, hormones, competition, and snarkiness. There are always one or two hyper-organized students who act as self-appointed leaders;  others toss ideas around while resisting both organization and action.  You may remember your ninth grade angst at the thought of trying to wrangle your peers. The choice was stark: Either you shouldered all the work, enabling weak or lazy students to do nothing or you focused on your own portion of the assignment, knowing the team’s collective grade would suffer. Sadly, we often find ourselves in much the same situation as adults. The only difference between your workplace and middle school is that these days you are the leader, not simply one among many trying to persuade your peers that doing the work is a good thing. So as a museum leader, how do you manage weak staff? Can you make them contributors? If so, how?

As a leader, you are responsible–whether it’s to the whole museum, a department or a program– for everyone functioning as a team, a team that’s neither too dependent nor a bunch of anarchists. You need to know what’s going on, meaning you need a team that communicates. At the same time you need implicit trust that if you’re temporarily vaporized, your team will still move forward, completing the assigned projects. Easy to say, but what about the staff member who’s on permanent coffee break or the person who can’t start a project without asking a billion time-sucking questions or the cranky pants who seems to dislike you and your project, and stalls forever? And then there’s also the pinball person who spouts way too many off-topic ideas to focus or the person who’s quick to take responsibility but impossibly slow to deliver. You may not have hired these folks, but now, somehow, they’re yours.

Some suggestions for dealing with those who are off-track, lazy, or poorly focused:

  1. Offer some understanding: Assume everyone has the skills for their jobs even though they’re not demonstrating them.
  2. If their non-performance makes you angry, don’t go in hot. Cool down before confronting them.
  3. Don’t let things fester. The longer you allow less-than-able work, the more disruptive it becomes, which ultimately reflects on you and the rest of the team.
  4. Don’t assume the person in question has a clue what you’re talking about when you confront them with their failing. If their work was considered okay by their former leader, they may have no idea why suddenly it’s a problem for you. Don’t be oblique. Explain how their work needs to change.
  5. On the other hand, be reasonable. Change isn’t easy. Give them time to make changes, but be sure to circle back.
  6. Reinforce and compliment staff when their work style changes for the better.
  7. If your museum has an HR department, pull them into the discussion especially if change isn’t happening the way you’d like it to.
  8. Make sure staff understand where they fit in your department, program or museum structure. Do they have performance goals? Are those reviewed annually?
  9. If you’ve tried everything else, be ready to let someone go. Remember there’s nothing more demoralizing for other team members, than watching someone–whether staff or volunteer– fail to commit to the museum mission.
  10. And last, always question yourself first: Were you clear in your expectations? Did everyone get the same information, training and opportunities or is there bias in the way?

Joan Baldwin

Image: Savannah State University Professor Nicholas Silberg leading Coastal Heritage Society Interpretive Staff.

 

 

 

 

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