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?
- 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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
- 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?
- Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.