Workplace Bullying is a Work Problem: 9 Tips to Deal With It

personal-injury-bullyThis week a colleague of mine was lied to by a co-worker in an effort to coerce a change in plans. He also accused her of stealing, something so serious it’s a wonder she wasn’t rushed to HR by security. But she wasn’t. That’s because what was said to her was part of a pattern of bullying that goes back at least 24 months.

Sadly, bullying doesn’t just happen in our feral middle school years when everyone seems to behave badly. For many, it continues into adulthood, flourishing in offices, meetings and break rooms. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as threatening, intimidating, unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm and control individuals who feel powerless to respond. The fact that there is a Workplace Bullying Institute indicates how badly we treat one another.

Nationally, some 75-percent of American workers witness bullying, with 47-percent reporting as victims. In the museum world–which is still waiting for a serious workplace behavior survey–we know from our 2018 Gender Discrimination Survey that 66-percent of museum workers responding experienced being talked over and having their opinions and ideas go unrecognized; however, there’s a lot more to bullying than those two topics.

Like its cousin, sexual harassment, workplace bullying blossoms in a work environment that chooses not to stand for anything, meaning it has no workplace values which it asks staff to follow. As hideous as workplace sexual harassment is, it’s prohibited by law. That’s not the case with bullying, particularly if your bully is clever enough to divorce bullying from gendered stereotypes, meaning your bully isn’t only targeting young women, but is instead an equal-opportunity jerk.

But enough background, what I really meant to write about was how I admire my colleague. She held herself together–fortunately there was a third party present–and displayed neither her anger nor her pain in front of her bully. Nor did she cave and concede to what the bully wanted. She’s a strong person, not a frightened, wilting flower, and contrary to the memes and metaphors in films and novels, it’s strong staff members who are frequently bullied. So…. if there’s a bully in your museum workplace, what should you do?

If you’re a leader:

  • Recognize what bullying does to your workplace culture: It creates a toxicity that’s quick to take over. And if you don’t stop it, you’re part and parcel of that toxic culture. Maybe you got into museum leadership with loftier aspirations than arbitrating personnel disputes, but understand your inaction costs your museum money. Why? Because bullying victims quit. And before they leave, they take sick days and time off for therapists, because coming to work fills them with dread. That costs your organization money too. Bottom line: happy staff are productive and creative; bullied staff are fearful and angry. You choose.
  • Acknowledge how important trust is: If, as a leader, you let a staff member come to work every day vulnerable and unprotected, they will cease to trust you about everything because they see your museum or heritage organization through a scrim of injustice.
  • Remember this isn’t about you: Do not impose your own narrative and biases on your staff’s experiences. If you’re a 50-year old white woman, you have no idea what it’s like to be a 24-year old woman of color or a Latinx gay man. Respect what your staff tells you. It’s likely you haven’t walked in their shoes.
  • Acknowledge bullying as a work problem: Talk about it with your whole staff. If you and your HR department don’t feel comfortable discussing workplace bullying, find someone in your community–a counselor or therapist–who specializes in bullying in group settings and have them talk to staff.
  • Work with your staff, board personnel committee, and HR to create a museum values statement: Discuss what norms your ENTIRE staff want to live with and draft your values statement. Are you eye-rolling? Well, imagine how much easier it would be to speak with the staff bully if you had a values statement. Your workplace is a community. And a collectively agreed-upon set of norms that’s in the employee handbook, there for all to see, defines acceptable community behavior.

If you’re a staff member:

  • If you’re witnessing behavior, but not reporting it, you’re enabling it. Talk to the victim, tell them how uncomfortable and distressed you are for them, and that you hope they’ll report it, but if they won’t, you will.
  • If you’re a victim, marshal your personal resources: Do you have access to a therapist or counselor? Do you have friends and family who are good listeners? Make sure you know how your workplace expects you to report bullying.
  • Know the rules: Understand the policies and procedures that govern your museum or heritage organization. Know where they are written and how to access them. Is there any mention of bullying? If yes, how are those situations supposed to be resolved? If there are no instructions, and you’re charting unknown territory, use the Workplace Bullying Institute Resources to help make your case in the strongest manner possible.
  • Does your organization have a values statement? If yes, has your bully violated any part of it? Every state has a different take on bullying. Know the law (if there is one) where you live.

Bullies are everywhere. Sadly, working in a fancy museum with a huge endowment doesn’t guarantee anything except you likely have access to an HR department, and working in a small one only guarantees you know the whole staff well, not that there isn’t a bully among them. Preventing bullying, like so much else about creating humane museum workplaces, depends on all of us. We need to be kind, empathetic, to support one another, to look out for one another. You’re not just a curator, an educator, a media specialist, an exhibit designer, you’re also a colleague. When one of the team hurts, you all do.

Joan Baldwin

Image: johnhain / Pixabay
In Post Image Credit: WilliamCho / Pixabay
https://www.dandalaw.com/personal-injury-of-workplace-bullying/


Leadership and Workplace Bullying

bitch-in-the-workplaceFirst, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Nexus LAB’s work on leadership released this week. Leadership Matters’ own Anne Ackerson was part of the team that worked for four years, talking, writing, designing better paths to leadership for museums, libraries, and archives. If you haven’t taken a look at the Layers of Leadership, print it, stick it up over your desk, and see where you and your colleagues are.

Next, we’d like to talk about an issue common to many workplaces not just museums. In the past month we’ve observed two organizations where staff were essentially hounded out of their positions. Neither organization is unsophisticated nor underfunded. Each has layers of leadership, and yet at the critical assistant or associate layer there was and is ongoing failure to lead. The “why” is not something we will ever know. The “how” speaks to executive directors who may believe their leadership teams function well, and not realize what’s going on. That in itself is a bit scary. As an ED, shouldn’t you be aware of everything that’s going on particularly when it comes to HR? And how well do you know your leadership team if, at the end of the day, they’ve forced someone to leave? What message does that send to remaining staff?

In a nutshell, both individuals, at very different organizations, were made aware that their performance wasn’t up to snuff. No, this wasn’t done in an annual performance review, nor was it done in a series of calm meetings with advance notice provided, where expectations were laid out and timelines set. Instead, associate/assistant directors criticized, berated, and belittled. The end game seemed to be to make the employee leave of his or her own accord. Whoa, you say, does that really happen? Yup. Probably more than anyone acknowledges.

There is no law against being Cruella Deville in the workplace. In fact, it’s one of the few places left where as long as you don’t cross the Title VII lines, you are allowed to be a bully. Should you be? Heck no. But can you be? Sure. These situations rarely happen once. They are often a series of incidents, that accrete over time; where, for example, responsibilities are subtly increased while authority is diminished. Or where an employee is constantly the victim of understated remarks about performance, ability, and organizational loyalty, often in public. Just to underscore how bullying this behavior is, it’s sometimes coupled with comments about the employee’s emotional state—“You seem angry;” or “You seem upset;” What can we do to work on that?” or “You know you need to keep your emotions in check at the workplace.” The latter is one frequently aimed at women. Public displays of emotion, particularly in the workplace, are hugely gendered. Studies show that men demonstrating anger makes them seem competent and may lead to promotion. Not so for women where anger–especially if it is coupled with tears– is perceived as the exact opposite–a lack of capability.

So, if you’re an executive director of an organization large enough to have a leadership team supervising staff, what should you do?

  • Make sure you are apprised of all ongoing HR issues. Ask questions. Ask for transparency. If things are going as they should be, you’ll receive all the evidence you need. If they’re not, push back. Don’t assume.
  • If you don’t have an HR office, seek advice from a professional particularly when an employee appears to be struggling. Does he or she have a job description? Has she had an annual performance review? Have her abilities changed overnight or has her supervisor changed? Who’s new on the team, and how was that transition handled?
  • Make sure you have an equitable HR policy coupled with job descriptions for all staff.
  • Know workplace bullying when you see it. Don’t tolerate it.

Joan Baldwin


The Leader’s Role in Facing Workplace Bullying

bullying

There are many reasons to become a museum leader. You have a platform for the ideas that percolate in your brain. You can take a stand when necessary rather than mutter behind your coffee cup. Salaries and perquisites are often better. Above all, you can make a difference. But if you’re going to be a leader, you also need to care about your staff. By caring, we don’t mean giving them bottles of wine on their birthdays, although that is nice too. We mean watching out for them. Keeping their best interests at heart, encouraging professional growth, and helping them be the best people they can be a work. And that means stepping up and dealing with workplace conflict when it happens.

This week we received a heartbreaking email from a curator, who works at a mid-sized museum with no HR department. The writer emailed to ask our advice about office bullying. Think about that. It’s 2016 and a museum curator goes to work everyday to face bullying. In case you think that’s something that only happens on elementary school playgrounds, think again. According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey 27-percent of us experience bullying at work while 72-percent of employers discount, deny or defend it. Just to add to the mix, a recent Gallup survey says American companies choose unqualified managers 82-percent of the time. Is it any wonder then that employers fail to stop office bullying when so many of them shouldn’t be leaders in the first place? And do you really doubt that the museum world is immune to these issues?

I wish that the email we received was an anomaly, but we know from our research for Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge 2017) that bullying is alive and well. Just to be clear, here’s how bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute:  It is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is : threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or involves work sabotage, preventing work from getting done, or verbal abuse. Our emailer is called names, is badmouthed to both the public and fellow employees on a regular basis, and has been isolated by the bullies (there are two) who withhold information necessary to move projects forward. And, like many museums, this one has no HR department so naturally the emailer approached the director who responded that he couldn’t take action because he hadn’t witnessed the bullying himself. And no, bullying is not against the law. Only when it becomes harassment, meaning an employee is targeted because of race, gender or sexual orientation is it actionable.

Before I respond to that, I should say that I too was bullied at work. However, I work for a large, fairly sophisticated organization with a multi-person HR department. I only approached them because I truly couldn’t stand it any more. I know now I had all the classic signs of a bullied person: I didn’t want to go to work even though I love what I do; I obsessed about work at home; I exhibited a boatload of stress-releated health issues; and worst of all I was ashamed I couldn’t manage this problem. Eventually my issue was resolved, at least to the point where the gossip, rumor and innuendo stopped. Only the bully’s resignation brought it to an end.

But back to our email. In a perfect world, what should a museum leader do when she discovers workplace bullying? First, listen to the alleged victim. Take notes. There are two sides to everything, and believing you know what’s going on isn’t helpful. The next step will be to hear the bullies’ story. If you feel ill-prepared for that conversation, reach out to folks who might help: a board personnel committee; a nearby non-profit that has an HR department; your local chamber of commerce or museum or other non-profit directors. (All of those sources might also help if you are the victim of bullying.) Further, if you are a museum director–even if your organization is too small for an HR department–do you have an employee handbook? Does it spell out how grievances should be handled? If not, put that on your to-do list going forward.

Last, don’t under any circumstances label this as workplace conflict and leave it to employees to “work it out.” Bullying isn’t a tiff over who failed to replace the milk at the coffee station. Bullying is verbal violence. Your employees need your care;  demonstrating that this is important and not the type of behavior your museum condones is important. Still not convinced? Think of it this way: You are paying one or more people who apparently have the time to belittle, mock,  and gossip about another employee. Can your organization waste that kind of time and money? Studies show that victims of bullying are often more talented, altruistic and empathetic than staff bullies. Forty-percent of the victims leave their jobs because leadership won’t deal with bullying. Can you afford to be left with the meanest staff members with the poorest work ethic?

As always, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re experiencing bullying at work, here are some links that may help: Workplace BullyingIs Workplace Bullying IllegalGallup and Why Great Managers Are So Rare; and Washington State’s PDF on Bullying.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Make Employee Performance Reviews Intentional Opportunities, Not Tests

images (1)

It’s February. In the academic world, where I work, spring break looms in the distance like Oz. But before it arrives, there are annual performance reviews. Like much in life, performance reviews deliver more when you invest more. Sadly, though, in the imperfect world of the museum workplace the whole experience has all the appeal of a root canal. An overburdened leader with too little time on her hands needs to press pause long enough to meet with her staff or team individually, while cramming their jobs and personalities into a form designed in HR for one-size-fits-all. That’s the leader’s side. From the staff point of view, it may be a once-a-year conversation with a boss they don’t know very well that’s eerily reminiscent of their job interview, except there’s always the hint that the whole conversation is like a principal’s office visit, and whatever happens is GOING IN YOUR PERMANENT RECORD. The result is an experience, visited on us annually like a virus, potentially fraught with tension and the desire to have it over, where the highlight is often checking the box.

Apologies if that sounds hugely negative. Maybe you work in a museum or heritage site where annual performance reviews are one in a series of ongoing conversations with your director or team leader. Maybe they’re full of laughter, encouragement, and questions like, “What was your best moment at work this year?” Sadly, that has not been my experience. For seven years I had an increasingly toxic relationship with my then-leader. He failed to treat me equitably in a 36-month period of bullying by a colleague, leaving me at best cautious and at worst mistrusting. Over time, we whittled the required annual review down to the briefest exchange. It was totally pro-forma and completely unhelpful.

That said, I remain hopeful. I still believe performance reviews are opportunities not tests, and, like much in leadership, they should be intentional acts. But maybe you lead an organization that doesn’t have performance reviews. Maybe after decades of not meeting with staff on an annual basis you’re not sure what the fuss is about. You get along fine. And you may. It’s likely, though, even without the review’s structure and forms, you must make decisions regarding promotions, title changes, and pay. An annual performance review process, when done well, takes the sting of subjectivity and randomness out of the process by asking for employee participation.

Successful reviews start by touching base with mission and clarifying goals with your departments, teams or, in the case of a small organization, the whole staff. Measure team performance overall. Were their 2019 goals met? If not, why not? Once group reviews are complete, individual reviews make more sense. If you’re the overall leader, ask your leadership team about their departments. Who were the standouts? What does good, better, best look like on their teams?

From your leadership meetings, you can move on to individual reviews. You are neither a psychologist nor a wizard, so focus on the work. Ask them to describe a great day at your museum. Ask them if they could have a do-over, what experience comes to mind? Ask what they’d like to do more of? Less of? Ask how often they collaborate and with whom? Ask whether they feel safe, seen and supported, and if not, why not? Point the conversation back toward mission. How can their good work and great skills, continue to push the museum forward?

Ideally, were we not all overworked and struggling with too little time in the day, performance reviews wouldn’t be a one-time meeting akin to our annual physical. They would, instead, be a capstone to a series of ongoing conversations. I can feel the eye rolling here. Who has time for that? Likely you could, though, and if it improves communication, builds trust, and creates a better more transparent museum workplace, what’s not to like?

Remember:

  • Annual reviews are not productive if they are used to catalogue an employee’s failings. Start positive and move forward.
  • Our memories are fallible and subjective. If you supervise a leadership team, ask them to keep a journal with a few key performance episodes for team members.
  • Make sure each staff understand their connection to the overall museum operation and mission.
  • Ask questions that get at the heart of what they’re doing. What works well? What doesn’t?
  • Check your bias–both implicit or explicit–at the door. Imagine how you’d feel if you started your museum day cleaning the restrooms or dealing with toddlers from the local pre-school. Be respectful because your entire staff is important.

Performance reviews are something that seem to matter more in the for-profit world where achievement results in bonuses, raises and advancement. In the museum/heritage organization world, where jobs are tight and pay often abysmal, reviews sometimes feel as though they don’t have a larger purpose either for employee or employer. Yet we blather on about the importance of mentoring, of networking, of having a career plan, of speaking at conferences. And yet what are performance reviews but the 2.0 of mentoring? They are the opportunity to support staff, to point them in the direction of colleagues and opportunities, to invest in them. And, as we’ve said so many times in this space, your staff is the heart of your organization. Pay it forward. Hopefully, your gifts will come back tenfold.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


4 Workplace Pledges Worth Making (and Keeping) in 2020

download (2)

To begin, we want to thank everyone who reads and supports Leadership Matters. Since  2013, it’s grown from 823 views in 26 countries to 63,523 views in 186 countries last year. It’s an honor to write for you, to meet you at conferences, and to hear from you, and we wish you all the best for 2020 and the decade to come.

Before the holidays we asked for your hopes and wishes for the museum world this year. We weren’t overwhelmed with responses, but we did receive these two awesome wishes.

  • I wish for sustainability and everything that entails—a society that values culture, institutions and human diversity, wages and benefits that reflect the training and experience held [by] my museum workers, and safe and equitable work spaces.  Kristy Griffin-Smith
  • Challenging systemic biases that are so ingrained we often can’t see their true impact. Karen Mason-Bennett

No surprise, we have some wishes of our own. Some echo the two above, a few don’t.

  •  We wish museums and heritage organizations could collectively acknowledge climate change as a key issue for global museum life in the next decade. As the University of Manchester wrote in 2018, “Museums represent key sites for climate change education, engagement, action and research. There are over 55,000 museums worldwide. They represent an existing infrastructure. Many museums are already connecting their work with climate change education, research and management.” Like many issues that “feel” political, this is not one you should ignore in the hopes others–perhaps bigger, better-funded museums–will do something about it. This problem belongs to us all, and if we don’t collectively own it, we can’t possibly help remedy it. From the way you ask visitors to dispose of trash, to decisions regarding capital improvements, to the context you offer around historical and scientific questions, museums have a climate change role. Like so many issues, not playing a part in this one is, in fact, taking a side. Don’t be neutral. If you feel you don’t know enough, assemble a team of advisors. After all, if 17-year old Greta Thunberg can be an international climate change activist, you can probably create a plan–beginning with small, sustainable changes– for your museum or heritage organization.
  • We want museums to acknowledge the ways they disadvantage various demographics. You may believe decolonization is a word for big-city museums. It’s not. Instead, consider it as hierarchical, outmoded thinking, privileging one group over another in explicit and implicit ways. For some of us it’s habit, a habit we hope museums will work to break in the coming year, maybe by experimenting– only exhibiting work by women or women of color or by sending the organization’s youngest staff to conferences instead of its older team leaders or by changing traditional label narratives or, frankly, the labels themselves. Do it until what is outside the box feels normal and every day. Don’t get me wrong: Museums need people of privilege. They are generous, many to a fault. But museums can’t act as though a white, predominantly male, narrative is the only one of importance, and everybody else is other than. So make 2020 the year you shake things up.
  • Women are now 50-percent of the museum workforce in the United States. Women’s problems are human problems, and it is not a woman’s job to solve them. (Believe me, if that were possible, it would have happened ages ago.) Our wish? That in 2020 museums and heritage organizations, led and supported by their service organizations, will end the museum field’s gender pay gap, and pledge to stop sexual harassment in the museum workplace. (You can do your part by signing GEMM’s Pledge now.)
  • Leadership matters. No kidding. A lot. We wish museums, heritage organizations graduate programs, and boards of trustees would recognize leadership is a key ingredient in creating strong, sustainable organizations. We understand many museums, particularly larger ones, need recruitment firms, but the museum hires the recruiters, not the other way around. Are you comfortable with firms who tell female candidates what to wear, but not male ones? Are you comfortable with firms who preselect based on their vision of what your museum should be? Whether you’re a board member or a museum leader, don’t leave hiring decisions to others who may not understand your organization’s DNA. And remember, boards with the courage to step outside the white male box, hiring people of color and LGBTQ candidates to fill the top spot, change more than the director’s position. They show their communities what community means.

The new year is a time we all pledge to be better humans, change our habits, exercise more, eat healthier, meditate. A week ago, we published the top Leadership Matters posts since 2013. Sadly, the one that garnered the most views was “The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It,” followed closely by “Workplace Bullies.”What does that say about the museum workplace? So among all your other behavior changes for 2020, let’s make this a year of kindness. If you’re a leader, remember what it was like when you worked for an ogre, and be someone different. If you’re a follower, be the person you wish your leader were–or, if you’re lucky–the person your leader is. Bottom line: exercise a little kindness to each other, our communities, our planet.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Take Another Look: Leadership Matters’ Top 2019 Posts

Our first post of the new decade will premiere next week. In the meantime, here are Leadership Matters’ top five posts since our beginnings seven years ago. And fair warning to all museum leaders: the top post since 2013 was “The Silent Treatment and What to Do About It.” There’s something sad about that, but without further ado, here they are to ponder and enjoy.

1. The Silent Treatment and What to Do About It.

Silent Treatment

2. Leadership and Workplace Bullying

bitch-in-the-workplace

3. Museum CEO — Lowest Full-Time Staff Salaries

bigstock-wealth-85345043

4. Why is Museum Definition So Important?

download (1)

5. Making the Moral Argument for Museum Pay

Marabou_Museum_Funding

6. And as a bonus, our post,Museums as a Pink Collar Profession, made the American Alliance of Museum’s top-10 posts for the year.

Best wishes for the new year and the new decade.

Joan Baldwin

 


10 Tips for Addressing Toxic Staff

toxix

We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog describing the effect of Devil Wears Prada leaders on their staffs. Today though we’re offering a little air time, not to toxic bosses, but toxic staff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends 44.4 hours a week at work. That’s 44.4 hours of disruption if you’re dealing with toxic employees. In addition, the Harvard Business Review, which defines toxic employees as folks who engage in behavior that is harmful to the organization or its people, helpfully points out these employees are also expensive. In fact, HBR says their behavior costs the average for-profit business $12, 489, while a superstar worker costs the business $5,303. In museum land where there is rarely money to burn, clearly it’s better to employ superstars.

There are as many types of toxic workers as there are humans. Their behaviors run the gamut from sociopathic harassers to individuals with poor or no time management, to the perennially disorganized, the angry, the victim–don’t worry about me, I’ll just work an extra 20 hours this week– to the party person, and everyone in between.

Unless you started your museum career a week ago, you’ve likely run across your fair share of toxic co-workers. If they’re your colleagues, perhaps you’ve learned to keep your distance or developed work-arounds to circumvent their ongoing behavior issues. But what if you’re the boss, the executive director, the team leader? Then solving these issues is your responsibility. Why? Because ultimately if you have two members of the Education and Engagement team who can barely sit at a table together or one exhibition designer whose time management skills are so poor that it puts everyone else on edge, it’s disruptive. Hugely disruptive. And costly. And no one else wants to be at the table with them either.

So what do you do?

  1. First, know what you don’t know: Who is the problem and how? How is your team, staff or program suffering? And most importantly, how and when has it impacted work? Has the individual in question suffered a life event that may be causing problem behavior? Can you offer time off or find them counseling? Will that help? And understand, in some cases, it won’t.
  2. Have any legal lines been crossed? In other words, is the uncomfortable, disruptive behavior the result of harassment, workplace bullying or racist or gender-based stereotyping? If your museum has an HR department you may want to have a conversation about how to protect your employees, but also to make sure your actions don’t make a bad situation worse. Know your state and federal law regarding workplace harassment. You can’t force an employee to report harassment or bullying, but you can suggest it, and you and the victim should document what you’ve seen and/or experienced.
  3. Assuming no laws were broken, talk to the staff member(s) in question. And for the love of God, do not suggest they need to fix it themselves. Too often people are unaware how they present to others, and they may be genuinely surprised. So provide concrete workplace examples demonstrating where things went off track.
  4. Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
  5. Be clear in your expectations. If you have an HR department, work with them to determine how to tie your expectations and needs to consequences. If you’re dealing with someone with terrible time management issues, and they’ve asked to work from home a day a week, weigh that ask against their work load. Can they meet deadlines? What will happen if they don’t? Do you have time to monitor them to make sure deadlines and check points are met?
  6. Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in. 
  7. Document everything you do. Should you have to fire someone, your life will be its own special hell if you can’t document what you say has happened.
  8. Remember you are not a counselor, psychologist or mediator, and most people don’t change. That said, most of us would rather be happy than sad, and most enjoy feeling valued. A job well done, whether a short term project, or a years-long exhibit planning effort deserves the best team you can muster.
  9. Understand, the reason you’re involved is because this person’s behavior affects the whole workplace. Support other team members. Let them know they’re valued. Try to help them collaborate without being caught up in whatever baddy-baddness is going on. Be the person who doesn’t indulge in gossip.
  10. Don’t forget about your own work. You’re still a leader with a million things requiring your attention. Don’t get so deep in the HR weeds you forget about leading.

Joan Baldwin


Managing Museum Workplace Conflict

images

Recently I heard a story about a colleague’s child who was bullied at school. As heartbreaking as the actual bullying was, the more alarming part of the narrative was the school administrators’ reaction. They took the position that unless an adult witnessed the bullying, it didn’t happen. Sadly, this behavior affects not just middle school students, but working adults as well. It’s a neat trick, saying that something didn’t happen unless you’re there. It diminishes the victim, making her feelings and experience invisible. Imagine how much of life you could relegate to the “not my problem” column if you said, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, so it didn’t happen.’

How many of you have finally summoned the courage to see your executive director about a workplace conflict only to be asked “Well, have you tried talking to Jane?” as if talking wasn’t the thing that brought you to the Director’s office in the beginning? And how many of you who are leaders have responded with some version of “Well, I’m sure John didn’t mean it that way.” Really? If you need an explanation of why that’s a completely useless sentence, read on.

In the for-profit world, experts tell us as much as 42-percent of workplace time is spent trying to resolve conflicts, and their resolution can involve 20-percent of a leader’s work week. To my knowledge, no one has studied whether the museum world’s statistics are similar, but even if museums are half as conflict ridden, that’s still eight hours a week of open disagreement, passive aggression or conflict avoidance.

And to all the museum women out there, know that workplace disputes, especially those pitting one woman against another, hurt you more than disagreements involving your male colleagues. Why? The short answer is there is a lot bias about women in the workplace, but to begin, men and women judge conflict between two women more harshly than between a man and a woman or between two men. Men’s arguments are not termed ‘cat fights,’ for example. Men are expected to be aggressive, and forgiven for being rude, while women are expected to play nice, be nice and smile, and a woman’s “nice” facade may mask anger and back biting. Further, women perceive other women as more judgmental than men. As a result, they avoid female colleagues in an effort to sidestep perceived judgment.

So what’s a leader to do in the face of workplace conflict?

  • Model the behavior you want: If you get angry, direct your anger toward situations and things rather than people and their personalities.
  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect. When you meet with disgruntled co-workers, be impartial. If it appears you’ve already sided with one of them, your attempt at mediation will die on the vine.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you get wind of a problem, sit down with your team members sooner rather than later.
  • Talk to your staff not just about what they’re doing, but how they feel about what they’re doing. Perceived and real inequities create stress, which prompts conflict.
  • Remember to listen, and when beginning conflict resolution, remember to promise confidentiality.

And if you’re a staff member?

  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect.
  • Try not to take sides. This isn’t 8th grade. Strong bonds between co-workers may force colleagues to take sides, choosing one faction over another.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you’re having issues with a co-worker that don’t go away in a day or two, talk it out with your department leader or ED.
  • Try not to personalize conflict. This isn’t about you as much as it’s about work. Keep your focus on what you’re asked to do.

If you’re a museum leader, can you ignore conflict, believing that unless you see people yelling at one another, your workplace is a little Nirvana? Of course. You can follow the path of the middle school teachers in the opening story, but unlike middle school students, your staff chooses to work for your organization. If coming to work leaves them psychological wrecks, they may quit. And conflict is costly: It jeopardizes projects; stressed employees may take sick days; and conflict leads to costly resignations. And, while engaged workers make everything easier, toxic ones cost your museum money. In one for-profit study from Harvard, a toxic worker cost her organization $12,000 annually, while an engaged worker added $5,000 in terms of productivity.

Museums aren’t the high-paying stars of the non-profit world. They get by, in part, because staff has a deep love for art, science, and human experience, translating them into something experiential and understandable, and, more recently, engaging communities they serve in dialog, story telling and knowledge sharing. But organizations who don’t pay well must compensate in other ways. Creating work places where it’s fine to disagree, but where bullying and toxic behavior aren’t tolerated is a small step toward building healthy museum work environments. #bekind.

Yours for a conflict-free workplace,

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Women and Anger, continued….

anger-at-work.png

As I’ve said before, we have a lot of loyal readers, but they only occasionally comment. So since several of you remarked on last week’s post, I thought I should respond. Here’s the line that caused a few of you to grit your teeth: “It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry.” You see that as problematic because I’m asking women or those identifying as women to change rather than demanding the system change for them.

First, let me be clear: I don’t think it is women’s obligation to bend to a system that, in the worst cases, stymies advancement through bullying and sexual harassment, and in the best cases advances women with the albatross of a pay gap. That said part of what’s wrong with the workplace isn’t just that angry women are treated differently than angry men. It’s that women’s emotions at the office are workplace nuclear waste. They never disappear. In my experience, months after being angry a woman staff member can be reminded of how emotional she is in an annual evaluation. For many women, this is akin to being slapped. As a result, they get angry and emotional which is exactly what the often male, sometimes bullying, boss expects.

So do I think women should walk on egg shells? No. But what are the consequences for a woman who stands up in a meeting and implodes? Not applause. Nope those go to her male colleague for “showing emotion.” Even if there’s grudging agreement that a woman did and said the right thing, I believe she may be haunted by her behavior. She’ll be tagged as the women who cries. Or shouts. Or looses her temper. All I’m saying is, if a woman is going to take that risk, she needs to have thought through the consequences. Because women being angry won’t change the system. Men and women need to see women’s anger differently and that will take time. My cautionary statements are there to protect women from pushback in the meantime.

One of the ways change may happen is when women leaders model (and talk about) behavior they want in their staff–both men and women–with the idea that cooling off first, and thinking about what you want to say versus what you need to say, are behaviors everyone could and should use.

*****

This week will find Leadership Matters (Anne Ackerson and me), along with our colleague Greg Stevens, Program Director for Seton Hall’s MA in Museum Professions, leading the Leadership Forum that precedes the AASLH Annual Conference in Kansas City. We’re focusing on three big challenges for 21st-century leaders: Empathy as an Essential Leadership Skill; Whether Museum Leaders Treat Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and How to Create Museum Careers that are Part of a Continuum of Practice. It’s a lot, but we know the folks who signed up are full of ideas, and we applaud them and their organizations for supporting them in taking the time to think about not just what they do, but why they do it. Stay tuned for our update from beautiful Kansas City.

Joan Baldwin


Workplace Culture Starts and Stops with the Board

board behavior

First, a big thank you to our guest blogger, “Kay Smith,” whose post elicited some pithy comments last week. If you have a museum workplace issue you’ve thought about, and you want to try your hand at a guest post, please email us at leadershipmatters1213@gmail.com.

*******

This week we read about Wall Street and the Weinstein clause. If you missed it, it’s the wordsmithing added to big-money merger agreements, guaranteeing that corporate leadership behaved themselves ahead of acquisition. In some cases potential purchasers can be compensated if subsequent executive sexual misconduct comes to light. Non-profits like museums rarely merge, but they do appoint new board members all the time, and while the change feels incremental, boards should take note. Even if you’re enough of a negative Nelly to think the #MeToo movement hasn’t moved the needle, it has. Maybe not enough, but social diligence and value-driven behavior isn’t nothing any more. The tide is turning and executive behavior is in the spotlight.

Most board members and museum leaders work hard to avoid choices that lead to negative press. Financial malfeasance, sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic comments or workplace affairs are not the stuff of blissful social media. Yet unethical behavior happens. In three comments and a blog post last week we heard about asking a staff member to behave a certain way with donors, comments about race and gender, unethical hiring and firing, sexual harassment, and workplace bullying. What would happen if we actually polled for this kind of information?

As last week’s comment writers told us, the buck stops with the board. And where the heck were they? In both Kay Smith’s post and in their subsequent comments, the board either failed to take action or were openly contemptuous of the employees in question. From failing to police their own members to failing to be ethical employers, they didn’t do their jobs.

We’ve written about board bad behavior in the past, but it seems the museum sector–particularly the small museum world– might need a wake-up call. Just because you’re a board member for a small non-profit does not mean you and your organization get to break the law. If the thought bubble over your head says, “But it’s not me,” that’s not enough. Remember what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of oppression, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” So if you knowingly countenance a board member pawing a young, female staff member and don’t speak up, you’re on the wrong side. If you permit sexist or racist comments around the board table, you might as well say them yourself because the person hearing them doesn’t know whether you believe them or not, only that you stood silent.

Museum and heritage organization directors and their staffs often do a lot with a little. Raising money in many communities is difficult. Why compound a challenging situation by failing to create an equitable, supportive environment for staff? So to board members out there, here’s our wish list: Know what your museum stands for, not just externally, but internally. It’s a lot easier to eliminate racist comments at work if the organization says it doesn’t tolerate hate speech; Make sure you have an HR policy; Comply with state and federal employment law (Hint: that means knowing the law first). Last, if you witness sexual harassment, racist comments or workplace bullying, imagine what you’d do if this were your child, your sibling, your best friend. Create ways to support and help your ED and her staff. In the end you’ll have a stronger museum.

Joan Baldwin