Uncertainty is a leadership hallmark. Museum leaders need to expect it, confront it, and cope with it. Control is almost impossible, especially when it comes to people, who are unpredictable at best. And who does a leader interact with most? That would be your staff.
Sometimes a leader tries to limit unpredictability with command and control. The result is a staff who rarely talks about anything, and if they do, they report and confirm, as opposed to think, wonder, or discuss. By endorsing what the leader says, they agree in public while dissenting in private, a dangerous combination. Thankfully, autocrats like that are increasingly rare. What’s more common is a leader who flees from dissension of any kind. But in today’s fractured world, conflict avoidance can leave a leader in a swamp of unresolved feelings, making change difficult if not impossible.
Conflict is uncomfortable. How many of you have experienced two staff members arguing? It feels both unpredictable and intimate, as if someone were under attack. And if you’re the leader, it may feel as though everyone else in the room wants you to step in and steer the team back to calmer waters. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they may never have participated in appropriate work conflict and they’re fearful that in the end it won’t be about the work, it’ll be about the individuals involved. And it might.
Learning to argue constructively takes time, so if you’re hopeful that a box of expensive Belgian chocolates will turn a disparate group, ages 24 to 75, into a cohesive team, think again. Healthy conflict begins with trust. Trust grows over time. As a leader you need to:
- Be open, honest, and transparent.
- Apologize when things go wrong and show some humility.
- When things go well, show some gratitude.
- Be consistent and equitable; don’t treat some staff as confidants while leaving others in the cold.
- Share information.
- Listen, don’t judge.
Allow your team to get to know one another. Again, trust in a group builds over time. It’s rarely accomplished by an afternoon hike or a potluck supper. There is a reason outdoor leadership programs frequently incorporate “highs and lows” into team building. By sharing a weekly low and a high, team members get to know one another and quietly build empathy and trust.
And just a reminder here, the bottom line is a better product. When team members are silenced, ideas are sidelined, and what comes to the table is underdeveloped, poorly thought out, and doesn’t include everyone’s thoughts. A team that can really talk about what matters at your museum builds a better museum. So begin by agreeing on communication rules:
- to speak respectfully to one another.
- to attend meetings, be on time, listen fully, and not interrupt.
- to agree on a method for conflict complaints and how they should be handled.
- to agree how decisions will be reached.
Then, grapple with the twin ideas that conflict is healthy, and that you don’t always need agreement. You need compromise, but believing and implicitly asking everyone to agree is a different scenario. Make sure your museum or heritage organization creates a culture of discussions. Ask (you can model this too) staff to back up statements with data and facts so change happens through what you know, not random anecdote or wishful thinking. And last, discussion is iterative. If you reach compromise on a program, exhibit or fund raiser, return to the compromise afterwards. Talk. Decide with hindsight what worked and what didn’t. Move forward.
Bottom line? Assume you hired the good guys. Assume they all want the best for your team, department or museum. Treat them and their ideas as if they matter. They do. Your reward will be a flowering of imagination and creativity. Run with that.
Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
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