Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
This post is a two-parter. First, it’s about saying what you mean. This is a big deal for museum leaders who often think they communicate clearly, only to find, when things go wrong, how lame their skills are. But whether you occupy the fancy office and go to lunch with trustees or not, you still need good communication skills. Here are five things you need:
- Be a good listener: Say you’re a curator. A colleague asks why boxes in your storage area are stacked close to the heating pipes. There are 1,000 ways to answer the question from “All our storage is inadequate and this is the best of many bad choices,” to “This is temporary while we empty another area,” to “Gosh, I was so anxious about the mold I found last week, closer to the ceiling seemed like a good thing.” But what if you don’t hear the question? What if what you hear is an attack on your skills as curator and your personal worth? The answer you give in that situation is likely to be different, less helpful, and since you feel personally attacked, may escalate a fairly innocuous situation.
- Don’t withhold information: Sometimes we don’t say what we mean because we’re locked in a silent power struggle with a colleague. That person may be struggling too in which case only a minimum of information gets through. Remember, work is work. You all serve the museum, heritage or arts organization. Focus on what the other person needs, provide the best answer you can, and surprise, surprise, your next interaction may be different, but in a good way.
- Do not babble: Do not go down conversational rat holes. Channel your inner Hemingway. Be simple, concise, and specific.
- Try to check your ego at the door: Great communicators make everyone else feel like they’re the only people in the room. Why? Because they communicate with authenticity and care. Try pausing for a moment or two before answering a question. Reflect on whether the question is about you and your skill level or whether it’s about the collection items next to the ceiling.
- When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong: If you snapped at the curator about the boxes, we hope you’re self aware enough to figure out what happened and apologize. Conversely, if you’re the curator, who responded as if you’d been slapped rather than as if a concerned colleague also cared about the collection, apologize. Don’t wait. Don’t write absurd narratives in your head about why this isn’t the right time to talk. Just do it. A real apology offered human-to-human builds trust. There’s no better ingredient for workplace communication.
And now to getting better at what you do: There’s likely a book waiting to be written on the perfectionism found in museums. It casts a pall over everything, putting dampers on experimentation and innovation because staff feels there is no room for risk. The results of too much perfectionism are often spectacularly mediocre.
We here at Leadership Matters constantly harp on reading widely so here are two very different articles. The first is from Outside Magazine on Getting Better. Yes, it’s about exercise, but it’s also full of stuff that applies to life without spandex and a water bottle. Learning to manage challenges, to break work into manageable chunks, to put the cell phone aside–those are skills that apply in the museum workplace just as much as the gym. And for a completely different voice, here is writer Jamaica Kincaid with advice on how to live and how to write. She too advocates less cell phone time and more focus. She’s also about learning how not to write crap, and she advocates not taking yourself too seriously. She is a writer after all. She lives on her imagination.
You are museum, humanities, and culture folk. You spend time trying to make art, living things, and objects speak. You need your imagination too.
Here in America’s Northeast we’re at the peak of the long days. That’s more time to pause, think about more skillful communication, and get better at what you do. Use it. Get better.
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
The other day a colleague sent me an email. It contained a photograph of a group of blue ribbons on a table. Each ribbon said, “I Survived Another Meeting that Should Have Been an Email.” I suspect my colleague and I are not the only people who see meeting announcements on Google calendar and are gripped with dread. Why? Because too often they’re not actual meetings but opportunities to pontificate. People prattle on, they dominate, they wander down intellectual rat holes dazzled at their own verbal skills while the rest of the group languishes, twitches, or gazes out the window. Why? Because no one is listening, they’re waiting to speak and there is a difference.
One of the leaders we interviewed for Leadership Matters told us a story. She was new to the field and new to her job as the director of an active historical organization. After a board meeting, a trustee pulled her aside. His advice? Shut up. Just listen. Really listen. Too many leaders, directors and department heads think the appearance of listening passes for the act itself. But it doesn’t and even someone with lame facial recognition skills can recognize attention versus inattention. Being on the receiving end of an inattentive colleague makes some people angry. They would rather skip the interaction and send an email. At least then there is a record of what they said. Inattention leaves others feeling erased as if what they have to offer doesn’t really matter. Real listening means your thoughts actually respond to mine. You say things like picking up on what Joan just said, I believe……We build something as we toss ideas back and forth. We engage. We acknowledge each other’s skills.
Why does all this matter if you’re a leader as opposed to being a member of a department or staff? Well, skilled leadership inspires trust. Trust is earned any number of ways, but one way is by making an employee, a team member or a direct report feel valued. People who are never heard don’t feel valued. They feel dissed. They feel their time is wasted.
Today, in the age of distraction, there are very few of us who aren’t guilty of poor listening. Bad enough that our egos and our thoughts can distract us so magnificently. Now we have email, Snapchat, Googlechat, Twitter and so much more. So the next time you enter a room ready to lead a meeting for a group of overworked, overtired employees, try this: Ask everyone to turn off all their phones and close their laptops. Have them put both feet on the floor, hands on the table, and close their eyes. Wait 30 seconds. Then ask them to open their eyes. Start by asking the person on your left to “check-in,” meaning one or two sentences about how they are. (Another variation of this is Outward Bound’s check-in which involves telling the group one good thing or one bad thing about the day.) Both these activities require a slowing down, a focus on colleagues, and on who they are as people, not just their to-do lists. If your staff is given to too much information in check-ins, try asking everyone to close their eyes again. Ask them to start to repeat the alphabet, one person to each letter. If two people speak at the same time, the group needs to begin again. If the group really listens, they ought to be able to reach M or N.
Have fun. Let’s dedicate the next week to listening attentively and see what happens.