How Not to Be That Person

Here’s something I struggle with: When you’ve worked at an organization for a while, if you’re at all alert, you’ve seen a lot. Sometimes it isn’t even meaningful in the moment, and it’s only later you piece together what happened with some sort of a critical eye. So…when you’re in a staff meeting and someone with a shorter tenure than yours, comes up with an idea they are truly excited about, what do you do? How do you NOT be the person that everyone complains about who blathers about a) the way we’ve always done it is probably safest, most efficient, best (pick an adjective) or b) who explains why something won’t work because they tried it.

Maybe some of you have seen Progressive’s commercials on how not to be your parents. They are amusing, at least the first several times you see them. One of the reasons they work is that there is a truth to them. Everyone learns, mimics and imitates the people they know best, and they are often parents. I only bring this up, because when you’re a certain age, have been in your job more than a decade, you find yourself suddenly becoming, not your parents, but the people everyone hates, the Debby downers, the negative Nellies, or perhaps most cutting of all, the Boomers.

So what did I do in our recent staff meeting? I regret to say that in the moment, I did nothing. I decided that silence was safer than challenging ideas in front of my colleagues and my new leader. Was that the right thing to do? Probably not. In retrospect, I wished the folks brimming with ideas had turned to the long-tenured staff and said, “Did you ever do any of these things back in the day?” But that’s probably not their job. So, after some thinking, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say, “You know, we did a project like that, and with hindsight, here’s what I wish we’d done differently.” Perhaps I could have portrayed our past experiences less as something personal we need to guard, and more as something that happened within the particular culture of our organization at a particular time, and what we learned.

Years ago, I worked in the newsroom of a weekly paper. No, it was not The New York Times, not even close, but what it shared with every other paper at the time, was that there weren’t any stars. Everyone’s work was challenged, edited to death, and contributed to a whole. We won when the paper won. You lose your ego in that kind of situation. When your writing, which you always thought was pretty good, comes back line-edited in the extreme, you develop a level of detachment. Maybe it’s that detachment that is missing in content and program discussions in nonprofits and museums. If you enter a discussion with a sense of ownership–this is my idea and I’m going to push it forward or else– collaboration becomes challenging. You may have trouble even listening to colleagues as your first priority is protecting your precious idea.

So even though I’m the first to admit, I have trouble putting this in practice, here are some thoughts to help curb the dreaded WADITW (We’ve always done it that way.)

If you’re the newbie:

  • Be prepared for resistance.
  • Don’t just rant about what you don’t like about the old way. Maybe do a little research and demonstrate what your idea brings to the table that’s new and improved.
  • Give people time to process your idea. Let it gestate.
  • Be willing to collaborate. Few ideas are born perfect. Collaborate with your colleagues and let their ideas make yours even better.

If you’re long-tenured:

  • Listen.
  • Consider not how this idea is different from what happened five or ten years ago, but instead, what you learned from that experience.
  • Look for ways your knowledge of the organization and its culture can make your colleague’s idea fly.
  • Offer yourself as a resource.
  • Recenter yourself to be a collaborator not a dissenter. That earlier project wasn’t yours, it was the museum’s or heritage organization’s. Support your colleagues in creating something new.

Easier said than done, I know, but museum staffs that collaborate are the healthy ones.

I want to close this week with an announcement about workplace bullying. I started writing about bullying in 2016 in part because I was a victim myself, and in part because the more Anne Ackerson and I interviewed women for Women in the Museum, the more endemic this problem seemed. Sadly, it’s still a problem so I want to urge you to attend Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s Circle on Bullying October 21, 2021. The speaker is Tamsin Russell from the UK’s Museum Association. She’s a force and I know this will be a lively discussion so I hope to see you there.

Be kind. Do good work. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin

3 Comments on “How Not to Be That Person”

  1. […] to less-than-welcoming visitor experience because the status quo is protected. It reminds me of this recent post by Leadership Matters. Joan Baldwin articulates what to do in the scenario in which a new person […]

  2. […] when those past projects are used to shut down new ideas? Joan Baldwin wrote in October 2021 “How to Not Be that Person,” from both sides – how to not automatically shut down ideas because you’ve seen […]

  3. […] It wasn’t that long ago that I was a “youth.” Just seven years ago when I started my official, paid museum career, I was a.) already 26 and b.] not finding a warm reception for my activist-leaning suggestions – I didn’t have a chance to be starry-eyed and make my supervisors warm & fuzzy. By contrast, today, the topic of “relevance” has trickled up to museum leadership, and “engaging Gen Z” is the hottest trend since STEM to STEAM. Seven years ago, all I wanted was mentors who would help me understand what actions would truly make a difference, what actionable steps we were taking to to engage different demographics of our community, what battles to choose, what exhibition and acquisition plans we had in the pipeline to call attention to mounting social issues. I wanted to be listened to, but I also wanted a two way street. We won’t get into what I found instead at my first job. Suffice to say I felt very seen by this Leadership Matters post. […]

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