In the wake of Thanksgiving and the National Public Radio’s crowd-sourced poem I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness, and particularly kindness in the workplace. Much has been written about kindness, and not just by philosophers or poets, but scientists. Turns out that the same peer pressure that makes us flock to a particular Netflix show, buy the same cell phone or dine at the same eatery is what scientists call conformity. It has its bad side, like when you’re underage and everyone else is drinking ’til they puke so you do too. But conformity isn’t always associated with bad choices or our acquisitive natures.
Jamil Zaki is a professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, and he studies the way kindness and empathy spreads. He and his colleagues knew that people imitate others’ positive actions. They knew, for example, that if children or co-workers see someone turn out the lights to save energy or carefully recycle, they imitate that person’s actions. But Zaki wanted to know whether the spirit that powers turning out the lights could spread too, and if it did, what it would look like. To make a long story short, the answer is yes.
Why does this matter? And what does it have to do with museums? It matters because museums are workplaces and because they deal with the public every day. Museums are places to engage and learn, but they also make people happier, in part because experiencing something positive tends to stick with us longer than the momentary buzz from buying a new gadget. But imagine if, in addition to the happiness of learning and engagement, you also experienced a random act of kindness from a museum staff member. Say someone held the diaper bag while you opened your umbrella or offered your elderly aunt a chair and a glass of water. And what if your executive director not only picked up random bits of trash, but was known to work at the local food bank, donate time from her personal days off, take a staff member’s job when she’s ill? A saint you say? Maybe, but according to Dr. Zaki’s studies, your director’s positive behavior diffuses and spreads over time. In fact, it acts as a prompt for behavior throughout a given workplace which will trend toward the positive rather than the negative. Who wouldn’t want that?
That means there is actually evidence to back up the old saw about getting more flies with honey than with vinegar. It means as a leader your behavior really matters. Over time, you can, in fact, be a game changer. Not all staff can afford to work at the food bank or give their PTO to others, but Zaki’s studies show that positivity spreads in other ways. Yeah, right you say, people don’t change. But Zaki’s experiments show that in a group conformity is important. When we engage with the group in a positive way, our brains show the same patterns as if we had experienced a reward.
For those of us on the east coast, we’re a month from the shortest day of the year. Some of us leave for work in the dark and return in the dark. So isn’t this a good month to experiment with positive conformity at your museum or heritage site? Be an influencer because apparently it really works. And if you want to know more about Dr. Zaki, here he is on TedxTalks speaking about empathy, his new obsession.
Yours for a kinder workplace,
It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and for those of us who work in education, that means time away from work, time to think a bit. Because it’s Thanksgiving, and because we think it’s important, here are a few things we are thankful for:
- Our readers: So far, in 2018 there are 49, 019 of you from from 144 countries. Writing a weekly blog has its lonely moments so it’s inspiring to look at the WordPress map and think we speak to you half way around the world if only weekly, and only through the magic of the Internet. It’s equally gratifying to attend a conference and meet people who read Leadership Matters. So thank you all.
- Our students, mentees, and others: Working with you is always a pleasure. We always learn–if not something new–then we deepen our understanding through your questions, your research, and your enthusiasm.
- Our museum colleagues and friends: You know who you are. Anne Ackerson calls them her posse. Other people refer to them as their kitchen cabinet. Whatever you call them, they know where true north is. They offer advice without being patronizing. They ask the hard questions. They empathize. They always answer when you ask a hard question.
- Last, we’re thankful for guest writers. If you yearn to write for something with a loyal following of readers; if you are wrestling with a leadership issue or think you’ve found the perfect solution; if issues around pay, gender, intersectionality or people getting promoted beyond their capabilities set your hair on fire, let us know. Send us an idea, a pitch, and a writing sample, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
One quick thought that came up in this week’s Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Class: the idea of urgency and leadership. Students discussed the necessity for leaders to identify what on an organization’s plate is really urgent as opposed to daily life. Often leaders cluster at either end of the spectrum: Those for whom everything is drama–from the paper towel selection in the restrooms to the number of exhibitions annually–and those for whom there is never urgency, the ones for whom life just happens.
Perhaps you have worked for leaders in one of these camps. Both are wearying. The all-drama, all-the-time folks must wonder why their staff never seems energized, but it’s likely because they can’t tell the difference between real urgency and nitpicking. For those whose leaders never define urgency, there is a massive sense of disconnection. Deadlines don’t matter and nothing is connected to anything else.
In some sense all leaders must be visionaries. It’s their job to see into the future, to sort the excruciatingly important from the negligible, and communicate that information to staff. It’s also their job to check-in, to make sure what’s important gets done, and done in a way that everyone is proud of. Those of you who work for leaders or boards who can strategize the future, sort the important from the not-so-important, know there’s a grace about the way your work happens; energy isn’t expended where it’s not needed. And for that, there’s a lot to be thankful for.
To all of you in the United States, a Happy Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere, our best wishes. Be in touch especially if you’d like a guest writing spot.
This Wednesday I will attend the New England Museum Association’s 100th Annual Meeting in Stamford, CT. Along with panel moderator Scott Wands (CT Humanities) and co-presenters Grace Astrove (Jewish Museum), Kelsey Brow (King Manor Museum), Ilene Frank (Connecticut Historical Society), and Diane Jellerette (Norwalk Historical Society), I will help lead a session titled “Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way!”
Despite the alliterative and slightly confrontational title, our goal is to bring people together to talk honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of museum work: salary. We will lead table discussions on the following topics: emerging professionals and pay; unpaid internships; salary and benefits negotiation; race and pay; and gender and pay inequity.
Our goal is to give participants the opportunity to move from table to table potentially participating in multiple discussions before reporting out to the whole group. In part, that’s because there is no one size fits all compensation story. Pay is personal and pay is organizational. Pay relates to your personal narrative, your personality, and hugely to bias.
For many board members, staff represent a yawning cavern of expense and escalating benefits. And while boards may adjust an executive director’s salary and benefits package to attract and keep the multi-talented person they believe their museum deserves, beyond the aggregate numbers, they rarely dip into compensation for staff further down the food chain. Thus, for the most part, pay is an executive director versus current or potential staff question, meaning when an offer is made both individuals need to be at the top of their game. The executive director needs to fully understand her budget, know whether she can negotiate and how far she’s willing to go. The individual needs to have some sense of salary range–which is why posting salaries and ranges is so important–and how much it costs to live in the area in question and meet expenses. She also needs to know what she thinks she’s worth, and whether she’s willing to walk away if an offer is too low.
Negotiations like these are made more complicated by gender and race. Job applicants have to find ways to ask whether the museum has completed a pay equity survey and adjusted salaries accordingly. Presumably any organization that’s already had a Marc Benioff-like moment would be overjoyed to talk about it, but you can’t be sure. And in some organizations, too many questions — from women and particularly from women of color — translate into a stridency organizations want to steer clear of.
Then there is the whole issue of new professionals negotiating for the first time, or those still in graduate school who want or need internships. We would like to announce that unpaid internships were as antiquated as the rotary phone, but sadly they’re not. NEMA has been stalwart in its support for mutually beneficial internships, but the museum world is still riddled with epically bad The Devil Wears Prada experiences. And being treated like crap when you’re being paid is one thing, but being treated like crap for donating your time seems like the definition of insanity.
One of the blue-sky hopes for this session is to actually come up with a series of proposals that will help move the salary debate forward. Since not all of you will be in Stamford this week, if there are changes you’d like to see — organizationally, regionally, and nationally — let us know. Let’s make some noise and make some change.
Here are three vignettes I witnessed or heard about recently. See if you can figure out how they go together.
- At a quarterly board meeting, a member of the leadership team speaks to the board. His presentation follows the director’s. Asked how it went, he responds, “Great, they loved it, but you’ve got to give them hope.” Then he stops and says, “That guy (meaning the director) doesn’t know how to convey hope.”
- A team member completes a really big, really complex project. There is public acknowledgment from the director, the board, the press, colleagues. From her department leader? Radio silence.
- A staff member works for a difficult boss. She tries. It doesn’t get better. She tries some more. Going to work stinks. She’s diagnosed with cancer. She takes time off. She comes back. She sits down with the director and tells him she’s accepted another job. She says she has one perfect life and she’s not going to waste it with him.
Did you figure it out? To me these stories are all about leaders who put self before the institution, in other words the antithesis of servant leadership. What’s that? Well, there are books about it, but in a nutshell, servant leadership is a workplace philosophy that puts people first, where leaders serve others, and ultimately, everyone serves the institution. Servant leaders possess rare combinations of humility and courage. Innately, they know service results in success, just not the type of success often associated with go-getter, entrepreneurial, winner-take-all leaders.
What’s that got to do with the three mini-stories above? Everything. If you parse each case, you find a leader who put herself before the organization. Leaders who do that frequently aren’t hopeful. They can’t paint what authors Dan and Chip Heath call “destination postcards,” metaphors that make staff want to get in line and build a wing, finish a major exhibit, complete a fund drive. They can’t do that because in their minds, the future is theirs not the organization’s. It’s tied to “me” and my success as opposed to us and the museum’s success.
In the second story what kind of leader fails to acknowledge staff success except one who’s consummately self-involved? Ditto for the third narrative. Even though we’re missing the details we know in a field where jobs are hard to come by, leadership has to be truly awful before staff walk in and say they quit.
We can’t all be servant leaders. In fact, of the many leadership qualities, servant leadership is one of the hardest because it asks a leader not to be the center of attention. Instead, it puts staff and organization in the spotlight. It makes for a museum where director/staff relationships are strong, where staff know the director has their backs, and where there is always hope because collectively everyone serves the museum. Sounds like workplace heaven, right? Maybe. It’s not a panacea, but take a week and be intentional about the following:
- Standing behind your staff.
- Saying thank you.
- Listening. A lot.
- Acknowledge a diversity of opinions. And really listening to them.
- Modeling the behavior you want. If you wish staff would shut off lights in spaces not in use, do you do it yourself? Or do you just send emails asking others to do it?
- Mentoring, counseling, developing leadership in others.
Not your cup of tea? Tell us how you lead.
I am preparing for a panel discussion on salary titled Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way! at NEMA’s 100th annual meeting so I’ve thought a lot about issues surrounding what we’re paid and why. It’s a tricky subject, and like most things in life, where you stand is informed by where you sit. Board members and some directors tend to err on the side of lower is better. Staff, especially those plagued with graduate school loans, are often shocked by how low salaries are but don’t know what to do. And salaries, perhaps even more than #MeToo issues, are almost never talked about.
Last May I participated in DivCom’s Open Forum at AAM. Not surprisingly, my table talked about the gender gap. In the course of that discussion, one participant told us what she makes which led to everyone sharing salaries. It was easy to do because we didn’t know each other well, nor did we really know each other’s organizations. It’s different when you’re sharing salary information with colleagues from your own workplace. Recently a new hire at my workplace told a colleague what she makes. She wasn’t asked, she just offered. Like an image you can’t unsee, knowing something that many workplaces ask you to keep private is difficult to forget. Instead, like a splinter, it can be an irritant.
Secrecy surrounding salaries benefits organizations more than individuals. It allows organizations to bargain harder for someone they really want who demands more than what’s offered. It allows for negotiations and counter offers should a prize employee say she’s leaving. It also covers up all sorts of bias, unconscious and otherwise, making it impossible to know whether women of color are paid 40-percent less or more.
But what would happen if everyone knew everything? Discovering you’re underpaid is a sure way to make employees want to leave. It’s also a great way to reduce productivity. Why should I go the extra mile when you think I’m worth so little especially compared to employee X who makes more than I do and whose life is a permanent coffee break? It can also make employees rise up and lobby for change. It’s hard to forget MOMA’s workers descending the main staircase last summer protesting contract negotiations. Maybe a massive organization with a gazillion dollar endowment like MOMA can sustain that, but can yours?
For anyone who works for a state or federal organization salary transparency is old hat, but for the many who don’t it’s one of the last places where privacy abounds. You negotiate that salary (or don’t and regret it later), you work for it, and perhaps you negotiate your raises. Would you be happier if you knew what your colleagues make? And if you’re a leader is this a place you and your board want to go? If so, here are some things to consider:
- Know where you are in the regional or national museum job market. Does your organization lead, lag or match?
- Find the gaps. Look for the gaps created by age, race and gender. It’s likely you have them since they are there for the world to see on AAM’s salary survey. Make a plan and adjust.
- Most people think they are better at their job than they really are. Determine how your organization measures performance. Then determine how your organization rewards stellar performance, and what constitutes unacceptable performance. Hint: Measuring performance is not waiting until a lackluster employee decamps.
- Look at the total package. Who on your staff gets the opportunities? Who travels, who speaks, who gets sent for further training? How does the museum help with that? Are those opportunities open to all?
- You may want to begin by creating a salary banding program where jobs are grouped and ranked, and salaries within a specific group are listed as a range.
Is this a big step? You betcha. Is it done outside of public institutions in the museum world? Not that we know of. Will it help? We believe it will. Museums run on people. Good staff make great museums, and good staff deserve equitable salaries. Organizations who are open about the fact they are closing the gender gap, conscious of performance measures, and creating opportunities for personal growth, are the organizations that will attract the best and most diverse employees. They are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive.
Tell us what you think.
Image: PwC, “The Reward of Gender Pay Equity Through the Lens of Data and Analytics,” 2016. Accessed October 22, 2018.
As some of you know, Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in Johns Hopkins’ graduate program. Leadership of Museums, runs in the fall so, at the moment, we are deep into questions of why leaders do what they do. This week one of our students asked some pointed questions about the connection between courage and confidence. For me, her comments had particular resonance since I witnessed several leaders fail in the courage department during the work week.
When our student co-joined these two qualities, I believe she was thinking of the definition of confidence that goes, “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities,” as opposed to “the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” How that first definition relates to courage is interesting. The OED defines courage as “The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” Do museum leaders or wanna-be leaders need both confidence and courage or is one enough?
As leaders there’s no quality you need more than self-awareness, and self-awareness is fertile ground for confidence. Knowing yourself, understanding your faults, and being able to act on that knowledge makes for great, confident leadership because to quote the OED, you appreciate your own abilities.
But what about courage? Museum leadership 101 isn’t exactly an assault on Mount Everest. How often is courage necessary? My answer? More than you think especially when people–volunteers, board members, visitors and colleagues– speak from a worldview laden with bias. This week colleagues of mine were victims not only of unkindness, but racism and gender stereotyping. What’s a leader’s role when a team member demeans or castigates another in public? And what happens when those remarks are rooted in bias or stereotype? Should you say something? Maybe? But speaking up takes more than confidence. When emotions are high, when one colleague defines another using stereotypes, it can be a frightening situation. You’re the person staff looks toward, yet you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. What if you betray your own bias, and don’t appear equitable? What if you sound garbled and confused?
All possible, but think about the consequences of staying silent. At the very least you will experience a loss of trust. After all, the berated staff member, not to mention the ones listening, expect leadership to step in. When you don’t, they wonder if you really do have their back. Second, by not acting, you make it seem as if the organization itself is complicit in your silence. That permits either side–bully or victim– to use your inaction to bolster their arguments. Last, how does not saying anything hold up against your own values? How do you feel when you don’t live up to your own expectations?
In the workplace courage isn’t solely about riding in on your white horse to protect staff from bias-filled bullies. Courage is what allows us to admit a mistake in public, or say we’re sorry. It’s coming to the aid of a friend who’s being hit-on by someone they clearly want no part of. It’s standing up for the values and voices missing from the table.
We live in a world where everyone comments–on news stories, Twitter, Facebook, and in real life. Being willing and able to say stop, to say that’s unkind, or those are not the values this organization stands for, takes confidence and courage. What museum would be hurt–particularly back-stage in the workplace–by an extra dose of courage? Let’s find some.
This week, in the wake of Senator John McCain’s death, the news was filled with tributes and remembrances from his friends, colleagues and family. From the beginning it was clear those tributes weren’t partisan. They came from both sides of the aisle, perhaps none as succinct as Joe Biden’s, “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. I loved John McCain.” What do any of these remembrances surrounding McCain’s death have to do with leadership? A lot actually.
One of the great truths about leadership is good leaders are confident enough to embrace dissension with grace. If McCain’s life taught us anything it’s that we should be passionate, we should care, we should love a good argument. But that the argument is about work, it’s about the place we serve, the museum we care about, and when it’s over, we reach across the aisle or the table, shake hands, share a drink or a raucous joke.
Too often leaders, particularly leaders unprepared for their role, can’t abide dissension. It rocks the boat. They can’t separate themselves, even in their own heads, from the organizations they serve. And that is an important distinction. While some days–the Sunday you wore your oldest sweat pants to the grocery store and ran into an important, and impeccably dressed donor aside–it may feel like you are your organization, you are not. You serve the museum. You don’t embody it. And it’s that distance that permits you to welcome dissension at the staff table.
And dissension is necessary. In eulogizing McCain, President George Bush said, “Back in the day, he could frustrate me. And I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.” It’s not just you who needs to be better, it’s your organization. If secretly, you’ve made up your mind, know what you want, then have the guts to state it and stand behind it. Don’t waste your staff’s time by asking their opinion when what you really need is adulation. That might work once, but over time it wears thin. Staff stop offering ideas, and neither you nor your museum changes for the better.
Encouraging dissension and discussion is a great equalizer. It says to everyone in the room that all ideas have value, from the person hired last week, to the person who’s working on her BA, to the curator with the PhD. Encouraging staff to be direct and strong-willed means they won’t flinch if you are direct and strong-willed back. They understand it’s not personal, it’s about work. Allowing your staff to bat an idea back and forth, engenders trust. Why? Because it tells the participants you trust them. Discussion isn’t about who wins or gets her way. It is an act of creation with the museum’s best interests at heart. And that’s what we’re all after isn’t it? A better museum—right?