Museum Leaders and We’ve Always Done It That Way

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Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.

We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.

Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is.  In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.

But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?

So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.

  1. Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
  2. If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
  3. Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
  4. Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
  5. Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
  6. Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.

Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.

Joan Baldwin

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Counterintuitive or Ways Museum Workers Can Resist Bias at Work

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We haven’t written an equity piece in a while, and given that in a few weeks when the administration changes in Washington, D.C., gender equity may move from the back seat to the way, way back, we thought we’d take a final opportunity to remind readers that we all bring biases to the office. Even in museums where we are uber careful to engage and embrace our community at the front of the house, bias may be alive and well in the staff room. And if your hair is starting to smolder, bias isn’t a gender thing, meaning it’s not something men do to women. It’s something we all do, whether we mean to or not.

Think of bias as a lot of small suitcases that we carry around with us. As babies and toddlers, those bags are empty. Over time, experience, our parents, our extended family, our peer group fill those bags. Some are packed with deep-seated angry thoughts with no basis in fact, some with yearning for particular individuals who symbolize larger issues, some with our ability to deflect and hide from situations that upset us. Don’t believe me? Try serving on a jury. It’s an excellent place to see bias at work. Why do you think there are jury consultants? Because whether we admit it or not, we judge people and situations all the time.

But isn’t just going to work difficult enough some days? You betcha. We all wish we had privately endowed funds that would permit us to work or volunteer on our own schedule. And don’t museum workers have enough on their plates? There’s raising money, raising more money, strategic planning, board building, being there for community in contemporary and meaningful ways, connecting to community, being catalysts for imagination and inspiration. And behind the scenes, away from the public, there is strategic planning (again), working in teams, reaching across disciplines and departments, saying thank you, and being respectful of colleagues. And yet through it all those little bags of bias accompany us.

Are you aware that taller people make between 9-15 percent more than their shorter colleagues? That blond women make 7-percent more than their brunette or black-haired peers? That overweight employees make less than their slimmer co-workers? This is especially true for women where extra weight costs women workers between $9,000 and $19,000 annually. It’s doubtful anyone hiring for museum positions would admit to preferring tall blonds who could be extras in Viking movies, but that’s the thing about bias, it’s not necessarily something we control. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias.

As museum leaders, acknowledging workplace bias is the first step in making it less of a problem. So here’s a Leadership Matters to-do list to send bias packing in 2017:

  1. Know yourself. Do you prefer one employee over another? Instead, spend time with the person you prefer less. Make an effort to understand them and their point of view. Identify your own bias so you can keep things equitable.
  2. Remember that as a leader you model behavior for your staff, team, department. Bias toward an employee may lead to the entire group isolating that person.
  3. Research shows that white Americans associate positivity with white folks and negativity with black folks. That may not be what people say they believe, but it is the result when psychologists test for implicit bias. If you’re a white American, unpack those bags before you interview, hire, or do an annual performance review.
  4. A lot of people are biased against women in leadership positions. That is not code for men don’t like women leaders, that’s a sentence that means a lot of men and women are unconsciously more comfortable with a male leader. You may want to take AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to help you sort out your own feelings.
  5. Know that having a diverse team or staff doesn’t eliminate bias. That’s how your staff looks. How they behave is something else. Self-awareness, empathy and understanding are all necessary weapons against bias. Work at developing them.
  6. You may think you’re a great communicator, but find out if that’s true. Provide feedback so you know whether your staff, team, department has the safety and sense of belonging it needs.

Leadership Matters will be back next week with a Holiday Reading List to tide you over until 2017. In the meantime, be well, and tell us how you eliminate bias in your museum workplace.

Joan Baldwin


MuseumLand Baby Boomers: The Need to Adapt

multi-generational-fig-2This is a check-in for all the Baby Boomers out there in MuseumLand. Because I am a Boomer, as is Anne Ackerson, we’re well positioned to comment on our demographic. Since we began this blog three years ago, we’ve encountered frustration, anger, and snarkiness about Boomers. Principle among characteristics attributed to Boomers is their overwhelming failure to retire. They are also characterized as the folks fond of commenting about why change can’t happen because they’ve already lived through or tried every variation of a project their younger colleagues might propose. And, sadly, they are sometimes regrettably ignorant about the world of the “Interweb.” All of this might be and probably is true. At least in certain instances at certain museums.

But here’s a thought. If you’re a Millennial, Gen-Xer, or post-Millennial, remember age comes to all of us. You may think at 25 or 37, you’ll never be the story-telling, dithering, social media ignoramus, who drives you insane in staff meetings. And we hope you won’t. But begin by practicing some forbearance. To put it bluntly: cut everyone some slack and presume they are trying their best. And listen. Really listen. You may learn something. Of course you may be bored to tears, but we’re being optimistic. And in the meantime, listening and mild forgiveness are good workplace skills to cultivate.

And if you’re a Boomer who plans on a late retirement, for goodness sakes, get up every morning and look forward to learning something new. Challenge yourself. Reinvent yourself. You will be a better more interesting person. And show some humility. Age doesn’t always confer wisdom about everything. Get yourself a mentor who is not in your age demographic. Partner with your younger colleagues. Be respectful. Just because a colleague looks like one of your college-age nephews does not mean he doesn’t bring a bucketful of experience and knowledge to the table. Be ready to experiment. And bite your tongue when you want to say that something won’t work. Look at what’s being proposed and ask questions. Let yourself be persuaded. Save what you know for the project evaluation.

It’s easy to reduce a whole demographic to negative stereotypes, and that’s not the point of this post. But Boomers are us. And there are many of us who are (still) smart, imaginative, contributing members of the museum world. Yes, there are a lot of us planning to work beyond traditional retirement age. In some cases that may be because too many MuseumLand salaries are dismal. And a dismal wage even after a lengthy career doesn’t add up to comfort in the golden years.

In some cases people want to work. And honestly, why shouldn’t they? Diversity in the 21st-century is code for race, but it’s actually so much more than that. In a perfect world, it’s all of us at the table. That may sound a bit too Kumbaya for some, and we are the first to admit that getting to the table means negotiating numerous museum land mines from access to graduate school to breaking through glass ceilings and floors, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all belong. Here are five suggestions for a better Boomer/Millennial workplace.

  1. If you’re a Boomer, and you’re asked, however impolitely, about why you’re still working, be transparent: You love what you do and you’re not ready to imagine life without it; you still have a contribution to make; you have children to launch and college educations to pay for.
  2. Encourage succession planning. Succession at every leadership level opens doors to Millennials and Post-Millennials.
  3. Whatever demographic you’re in, be open to working, mentoring, and partnering across generations.
  4. Seek ways to reinvent yourself at home and at work. Do something new.
  5. Burnout can happen to anyone. Know when you’re burnt out. If your A-game is mediocrity, move on.

Joan Baldwin

Image: “The Garbageman’s Guide”