An Anniversary, But Also a Question: Can Each of Us Do Something to Make the Workplace Better?

Juliescribbles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108765177 taken from https://www.scribbler.com/

This coming week Leadership Matters celebrates its ninth birthday. That’s roughly 450 posts written since December 13, 2012. Phew. I started this blog to promote the first version of Leadership Matters, a book Anne Ackerson and I wrote in 2012, and then revised in 2019 as Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. In addition to the blog’s birthday, it’s also the time of year when we look back at the year past. 2021 remains a strange and confounding time. In December last year, those of us who hadn’t been relieved of our positions, found ourselves working largely from home, visiting our collections and sites when allowed.

Without a vaccine, it was a lonely, isolating time. And yet, as I’ve written so many times on these pages, the pandemic lifted the rock off a lot of problems. It didn’t fix anything, but for the museum world, it spotlighted a host of workplace issues around race, gender, pay, leadership and on and on. And now, a year later those issues are still here, made more acute by a new forthrightness. Some–myself included– think we need a do-over or at the very least, a series of conversations about where the world of museum work took a wrong turn, leaving so many underpaid, under-appreciated and angry.

I suggested such a conversation last week, posing a mythical group of people I’d like to see around the table. Whether that can or will actually happen is another story, but in the meantime, I want to underscore that change isn’t something that can be solved only from the top down. “They,” whoever “they” are in your world, aren’t going to sweep in and make things magically better. If you make this a board problem or a director’s problem, you shift responsibility from “ours” to “theirs,” as if this were only an issue of leadership. It is a leadership problem, but it’s also a systemic problem, meaning we all own a piece of it. If you’re enraged even reading that sentence, you, who feels powerless in your hourly job where you’re over-educated, under-compensated, and have far more responsibility than authority, remember how systemic issues concern the whole rather than its parts, meaning you play a part as well. What can you do? Perhaps only small things, but small things are still important. Be the kind colleague. Stand up for your fellow workers. Join the union if your museum has one. Attend staff meetings. Know what your personnel policy says. Don’t have one? Lobby for one. Lobby with your fellow workers. Ask them to lobby for you. Don’t be neutral. Speak up. Remember that even at the most enlightened organizations, women, and especially women of color, are paid less so when you hear complaints about pay, don’t discredit them. There is a pay gap. And it is meaningful. In a very bad way.

This week Fast Company surveyed 6,000 employees about the future of work. Fast Company is devoted to the business world, but it’s likely what their employees say they want has some crossover with the museum world. And what do they want? Flexibility. They’re happy working from home, and they don’t necessarily want to change. Apparently 78-percent of their respondents named flexibility as a top priority. Second on the list? Almost half (49%) want to share values with company leadership. I’ve written a lot about workplace values on these pages. Museum jobs are hard to come by, and precisely because the process is so fraught, I’m not sure applicants ask about organizational values, when they should. Fast Company also commented on how for some companies who hired during the pandemic, many employees have never worked on site, never had a hallway conversation, never been to a face-to-face meeting, and no surprise, it’s hard to hold a team together without human interaction. With many museums open again, staffers are back in the building, but the article underscores once again, the need for imaginative, humane onboarding.

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This is also the time of year when I look back at the top posts for 2021. If popularity indicates readership, the most-read posts confirm the dark place we’re stuck in. For the third year running, Leadership and Workplace Bullying tops the most-read list, a sad testament to the climate and concerns in museum and heritage organization offices. In the second spot is last week’s post Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon? followed by, Is the Chicago Firing So Different from the COVID Firings? and On Labor Day, Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature.

Leadership Matters last post for 2021 will appear next week. Then I will be on hiatus until the week of January 10.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin



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