A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
This week I was lucky enough to have a long phone conversation with Elaine Heumann Gurian. She describes herself as the Bernie Sanders of the museum world, meaning she’s been on the left of things for 45 years and never altered her course. If you’re not familiar with her work, you may want to visit her website.
Heumann Gurian is an advocate of the museum as the family dinner table–a place where we all have a seat, where all our voices are heard whether we’re sitting in the high chair, just home from college or the family’s eldest member. She doesn’t have much time for sites that speak as if they’re the oracle of all knowledge and then wonder why no one listens. Actually, that’s not true. She has a lot of time for them if they’re interested in experimenting and changing the way they do things.
Heumann Gurian’s contention that museums need to respect their audiences extends “backstage” to the world of museum personnel as well. She believes that if your staff is happy your audience will forgive you almost anything. Think about that. Think about the damage disgruntled, cranky staff can do. Ponder a leader’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of happiness. What goes into that equation? You’re not their shrink and you are not responsible for the fact that they had a bad break-up, their cat died or insurance failed to pay for their expensive periodontal work. You are responsible for creating an atmosphere of authenticity, transparency and creativity where staff can do the best work possible. And part of being transparent is acknowledging that family–in the largest sense–whether it’s a sick toddler, a partner who had out-patient surgery or an aging parent affects staff engagement. Creating an atmosphere where staff don’t feel judged about taking care and taking time reaps its own rewards.
Here at Leadership Matters we struggle–especially in the wake of our work on gender–with museums who are outwardly all about equity. Their press offices never issue pictures without the appropriate racial, ethnic and gender balance; their exhibits are carefully calibrated to reflect community. Yet backstage, life is often different. I’ll leave you with a quote from Heumann Gurian:
The reality is that most museum staffs don’t really believe in egalitarianism either. One finds, in the endless meeting culture, that once a decision seems to be made in the meeting, staff corner each other in hallways (often directly after the meeting is adjourned) to relitigate the issue based on the power and persistence of the individuals involved in order to reach decisions, or overturn previously made ones.
Think about it, and work to make change happen.
Image above: Staff of the Eric Carle Museum gather in front of Carle’s murals in celebration of the artist’s birthday.
Today we’d like to talk about how leadership is personal. How it’s not something you wait for as in “When will this board, organization, department, [pick a noun], get a real leader?” As if good leadership is akin to fluctuating mortgage rates, something we have no control over. As if it is something to be desired, but only in a passive way, the way we’d prefer the weather to be a sunny, perfect 68 degrees. We disagree. We believe leadership is personal first then collective. And it is a choice: first yours, then the board, organization or department you wish would shed mediocrity and become the courageous thing you know it’s capable of.
More than a few times in the last year we’ve used the phrase “Leadership can happen anywhere in the room.” Clearly we believe it, but this might be the moment to parse its meaning. In a nutshell, we think leadership is a choice you make, and in making it your behavior changes. When you approach your work as if you adore it–we hope most days you do–and you accept responsibility to the maximum, hopefully it will challenge and inspire those around you. Remember, most days influence matters more than control.
Please know we’re not completely delusional. We understand that there are some organizations where no amount of personal choice, no courageous, visionary, self-aware work will change anything. Those organizations want what they want, and it’s not change, and it’s not you. They are happy mired in stasis being as mediocre or bad as they can be. But again, even in this very dark scenario, the choice is yours. Tying yourself to an organization not likely to change in your lifetime won’t make for a happier you. Loyalty is a good thing, but not if it makes you suffer. On the other hand, the bigger your organization and the further you are down the food chain, the more your personal choices matter. Your sphere of influence may be small, but if you end up with the most creative, happy team in an organization, believe us when we say you’ll be noticed. And if you’re the lone ranger with a board that wants to micro-manage while shirking its fiduciary responsibilities, then you model good leadership as best you can.
To reiterate, in our experience, based on the folks we interviewed for Leadership Matters, good leadership is personal first. Those leaders are self-aware. They are open to change and challenges because they genuinely want to grow, just as they want growth and change for their organizations. They are authentic, self-directed, and self-disciplined. If they need help their organization can’t give them, they seek it, through the Chamber of Commerce, graduate programs, mentoring, friends, counseling, worship. They are courageous. They believe in what they do, but are willing to confront long-held beliefs in order to bring about change. And last, they’re visionary. Not every day. That’s for the genius-award winners, but they’re willing to experiment, to be the change agent.
It’s still January. Still time for 2015 resolutions. How can you change your work behaviors to be more leadership focused?
Vacation and travel are over and the Leadership Matters folks are back in the saddle. We thought we’d start off with a reading list just so you know we haven’t been idle. Here are some things we’ve enjoyed.
In the book department….Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership by Janice Marturano. Yes, mindfulness is everywhere, and no it’s not all about breathing and meditation. Think purposefulness. And it’s less than 200 pages so it won’t take long to read.
And if you listen to Matt Killingsworth’s Ted Talk on happiness, you will realize how mindfulness, purpose and happiness are linked. If you are a leader, you will also discover that roughly 47 percent of our time is spent with our mind wandering and that when it wanders, we’re not happy. So a staff, a team, a department who can focus with purpose is likely to be a happier group of people. So listen. If you want to be part of Professor Killingsworth’s study, go to www.trackyourhappiness.org/
While we’re on the subject of mindfulness, you might also want to read Ozy.com’s article on Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman’s book Love Your Enemies. Again, we’re not advocating one religion over another, Thurman and Salzberg are Buddhist teachers, but if there’s anger–big or small–in your workplace, reading their book may help you. What leader doesn’t need to not be victim or slave to their emotions?
On the other hand, if you want to think about leadership not in the context of work and management, but rather as it exists at America’s elite colleges, we suggest you read Tara Burton’s Atlantic essay.
Because we’re always encouraging you to read everything you can about leadership, not just museum articles, not just business and leadership web sites, but as they say in education, “across the curriculum,” here’s a poem as well.
And one last thought, if you’re a member of the double X chromosome group, go get a copy of Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. We think there’s a lot of food for thought.