Managing Museum Workplace Conflict

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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

 

 

 

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Working and Leading Through Tears

Theresa May

Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.

Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.

As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.

If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and  basket weaving classes.

There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.

This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.

So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work: 

  • Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
  • Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
  • If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.

If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:

  • Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
  • Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
  • If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you  help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.

How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.

Yours for a tear-free August.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


Trusteeship, Values, and Courage

Shaw Quote

Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.

As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage  students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.

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Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident,  spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?

If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?

In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization. 

We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading  artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.

If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.

Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:

  1. Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
  2. Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
  3. Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
  4. Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
  5. Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.

We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.

Joan Baldwin

 


Museum Leaders Who Serve Their Teams Build Their Teams

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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.

Joan Baldwin

 


A Lack of Vision is a Failure to Communicate

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Everybody knows leaders need vision. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of working for someone with vision. If you have, treasure it because to understand what vision means, you have to experience not having it. You might not even realize its absence at first. After all, you’re caught up in your job–you’re designing, you’re putting clever images on Instagram, you’re unearthing things in the collection that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and getting them to talk to one another. And then suddenly you run into a wall. It could be your board, who gives you the old we-really-don’t-do-things-that-way run around. Or it could be your executive director, who looks at you like she has no earthly idea what you’re talking about, when she asks how science, work by an artist of color and rare books will mesh in the gallery.  To paraphrase a line from Cool Hand Luke, a lack of vision is a failure to communicate.

Last fall while teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program, Anne Ackerson and I received comments from some of our students who felt we were too picky when it comes to the written word. Our response? You’re going into the museum field! So much will depend on how you communicate. If your institutional vision exists only in your head and only when you’re alone, that bodes trouble. Vision can’t be like singing in the shower. It’s got to be shared.

 As a leader, you are the listener, the synthesizer. You’re the one who’s out in the community, taking a current need and linking it to your organizational narrative, to artistic process, to your mission. You’re the one making connections. But once you’ve done that, it’s your job to make folks understand where your brain went, why it matters, and how following that path might engage your community. Clearly. And concisely. Persuading people–whether trustees, staff, or volunteers–to understand the Venn diagram that’s in your head and why it matters is a key ingredient of leadership. 

This week I was reminded how important vision is when I was asked for funding priorities for a potential donor. It’s always nice to think someone might give you money, but making sure your thoughts don’t sound like a scrambled word cloud is important. Here’s where the Venn diagram has to translate to someone outside your bubble. Does your shopping list of wants link to the larger organizational mission? If not, why not? Is that mission clear, concise and beautifully expressed? Would it make you intrigued even if you weren’t the executive director or a member of the leadership team? Or does saying it out loud make you weary because you know it’s going to involve explanations, counter explanations and side bars?

Vision doesn’t need a lot of flowery language. It needs clarity. Your listeners need to see what you’re saying. Then they’ll want to follow, participate, and give. And that’s the point isn’t it?

Joan Baldwin

P.S. We rant on and on about how important it is for museum folk to read often and widely. Here are some things that floated across our screens this week:


Leaders, Know Your Words Matter

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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.

Still learning,

Joan Baldwin

 

 


Finding Ways to Respect the Past (But not the way you think)

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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.

Joan Baldwin