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,
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.
A million years ago when I was a young, museum director, I worked a lot. It was hard not to. I lived on site, and work–to bastardize William Wordsworth–was with me late and soon. Even having friends over meant discussing work because conversations began with questions like what’s it like to live next door to the period rooms? What’s it like, besides mortifying, when the dog barks at the sound of 4th graders on the other side of the velvet ropes?
While I was grateful for housing as part of compensation, it definitely affected my ability to separate work from life. It was all too easy to settle down after dinner for a cosy hour writing a grant application as opposed to reading or a walk. My circadian rhythms for what is known in HR as work/life balance were messed up. But that was then. Now you can work 8 hours a day, add on a two hour-plus commute, during which you scan and return emails or phone calls, and you never leave work. It’s there on the device of your choosing, and depending on the culture of your organization, you may be criticized or applauded for checking email, texts, and voicemail when you’re not officially on the clock.
Americans as a group work hard. According to a Gallup 2014 poll, Americans work 47 hours a week, one of the highest numbers in the world, and significantly higher than folks in, say, the EU countries. Most Americans get at least two weeks off each year, in addition to federally mandated holidays, but for financial reasons many end up not taking the full two weeks. The museum workforce is no exception to the hard work/too much work conundrum. Elizabeth Merritt, director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, wrote about a facet of this in 2016, terming it “the sacrifice measure.” In Merritt’s scenario, the young and presumably privileged, are willing to accept ridiculously low salaries simply to gain a toehold in the museum community. Although it’s unspoken in Merritt’s piece, we have to assume that along with the tiny salary comes a huge expectation in terms of workload. The combination of low wages and a ridiculous amount of work is not dissimilar to the Grimm’s fairy story where the aspiring princess is told to empty a pond with a spoon full of holes. And as soon as a few agree to that scenario, it becomes increasingly difficult for others to say whoa, no way, I’d have more time off waiting tables and presumably no one would text me that the salt and pepper shakers needed refilling.
What kind of culture does your museum or heritage organization have around work? Is there a sense that you’re doing something noble? Is there life and death drama to every project? Is time managed sensibly? Or conversely, do you work in a place where deadlines are mutable, where few are held to account? Are you compensated adequately? Do you and your colleagues complain, but still work an extra day’s worth each week?
Social media sites are used by one third of the world’s population. It’s likely since you’re reading this blog, that you scamper around the Internet with the best of them. If that’s true and you aren’t thinking about how Silicon Valley and social media changes your brain — not to mention your workday — then you have some more reading to do. You might want to start by listening to this.
In the meantime, if you are a museum leader do you model good work practice? Apart from dire events, do you unplug at home and on vacation? Do you talk about your workplace culture with your staff? Do you counsel staff who seem to spend countless hours working and question those who seem to need to work all the time?
As museum leaders you don’t need one more thing on your to-do lists, but workplace culture matters. If the work week extends from 40 hours to 60 because you can always get something done at midnight or 5:30 am are you really managing time well? Some advice:
- Tackle your own addictions first. Barring fire or flood, unplug at home and on the weekends.
- Try not being a museum leader part of every weekend. Be a partner, a parent, an athlete, a friend instead.
- Talk about your work culture in a generative way at work. Acknowledge the weak spots. Encourage behavioral change.
- Discuss how texts from home, Facebook and Twitter intrude on work as well.
- Talk about not taking work home. And if there’s a reason for that—like too many interruptions at work–how can that be fixed?
- Support breaks, walks, the occasional yoga class.
We all want happier, more productive workplaces. And working more isn’t always the answer.
Thinking about leadership is something even adept leaders don’t do often enough. As we work on the revision of Leadership Matters (2019), Anne and I are pondering how museum leadership has changed in five years. Just for fun I scrolled back to the beginning of this blog (2013). There we talk a lot about the need for the museum world, particularly the history museum world, to make leadership a priority.
Leadership Matters opens with “10 Simple Myths,” where we outline the myths that frame the museum world’s professional narrative. Sadly, many still ring true, like “We don’t have to make money, we’re a nonprofit,” or “Building collections takes precedence over building talent,” or a favorite on these pages, “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.”
There is one myth, however, that suddenly feels like it might be at the end of its shelf life: “We are the source of our own best ideas.” In describing why this sage-on-the-stage mentality isn’t such a great idea Anne wrote, “Their [museums] implacable deference to hierarchical decision making insulates them from ideas and solutions flowing between and among sectors.”
We could be wrong, but it feels as though in the last five years engagement, both intellectual and actual has mutated from something only the education department thought about to something more all-encompassing. Organizations are actually reaching out, and not in the give-me-your-stuff way, more like in the work-with-us-to-tell-your-story way. Not everyone and not all the time, but it feels like a sea change. Finally, history museums and heritage organizations realize that trying to force feed communities the life stories of American furniture and tools isn’t compelling. In fact, a quick scan of leadership positions on AASLH’s and AAM’s job boards yields the following phrases:
- .….Fosters connections with local community and history in relevant and sustained ways by building beneficial partnerships, raising the level of civic dialogues …..
- The director is responsible for developing positive community relations and partnerships with national, state, local organizations and for developing strategic initiatives in areas of community outreach, educational programming, exhibits, public history and tourism.
- The Museum’s new leader should embrace its deeply held values, especially the active practice of diversity, inclusion, engagement and the critical representation of our multiple communities, their histories and current issues.
But….apart from engagement, many of our 10 myths are still alive, healthy, and posing as the truth. And, it’s 2018 not 2013, and there are new conundrums and problems for museum leaders. Here are five that we think need some work:
- That understanding community is more than an anecdotal exercise. It is data-driven. Read Susie Wilkening and Colleen Dilenschneider to see what we mean.
- The digital world is here to stay. Museums–even tiny ones–need to get a grip.
- Museums are community partners. They build, they renovate, they employ, they use utilities, they sell things. Non-profit doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. Just because you’re not paying shareholders, doesn’t mean you can’t be a downtown anchor.
- Maybe, just maybe, there’s a recognition that an all-white, all-privileged field is not such a great thing and creating a more diverse field means making it a better paid field.
- That leadership can be learned, and organizations can invest in it just like they invest in anything else; building talent is as important as constructing a new wing.
So what do you think? What leadership sectors do you think the museum world needs to work on?
Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA
While Leadership Matters is thankful for its loyal readership, our readers rarely — unless we’re writing about poor pay — comment much. Surprisingly, last week’s post on board culture generated some meaty discussion both here and on AAM’s Open Forum. Comments ranged from T.H. Gray’s definition of a Board of Trustees: “Museum amateurs charged with leading museum professionals,” to Steven Miller’s response on the Open Forum. The crux of much of the discussion was whether and how museum boards influence workplace culture.
Several of you, including Conor Hepp and Steven Miller, suggested that it is staff leadership who create organizational culture which the board monitors. Miller too pointed out that museum boards are distanced from organizational daily life, and their lack of training causes problems. He wrote: “I agree with Conor’s points that trustees are usually removed from a museum’s daily internal life. There are exceptions, of course, and they usually play out in small museums or with trustee committees that are close to certain museum offices, departments or operations. There can be many cultures within a museum, some known to trustees some not known.” Leadership Matters‘ Anne Ackerson also responded to Hepp, pointing out that “the leadership team is responsible for nurturing (or stunting) the day-to-day institutional culture. Don’t forget, though, that the board also has a culture that permeates staff leadership ranks.”
So which is it, chicken or egg? Do boards create and influence workplace culture or is that the responsibility of the leadership team? We agree there are likely many cultures at work in any organization, and the bigger the museum, the more likely that multiple cultures will flourish. That said, what’s the board’s role? And what about Anne’s idea that board behavior sets an example (and a culture) for the entire organization? If a board relegates women to event planning or overseeing the volunteer program, doesn’t that set an example for the organization’s attitude toward women? If the ED came to a board like that with questions about salary equity or the gender pay gap would the board step out of character and work for change?
Except in the tiniest organizations, boards cannot and should not be involved in micromanaging the workplace. But in the case of these big-ticket issues involving institutional values, we agree with Anne: The board sets a tone. In a perfect world, the board is both a microcosm and a mirror. It reflects the community it serves by making sure everyone is at the table, and, once seated, that everyone has a voice. In addition, it understands that its behavior — inclusive, empathetic, and creative — is a model for the museum itself. Last, it knows that a value-driven board attracts and retains museum leadership with similar qualities.
To circle back to last week’s post, if Wall Street is a bellwether for anything, executive behavior — both on and off the board — is important. For Wall Street good behavior, setting values and acting on them suddenly seems to have monetary value, which is not nothing when mergers and acquisitions count in millions of dollars. How long will it be before a nonprofit board is taken to task or taken to court for its knowledge and complicity in sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic behavior? In the Lake Wobegon of nonprofits, where all museums are above average, we’d like to think boards behave well just because it matters and that’s their job. But in a world where victims can share their stories in a heartbeat, everyone needs to check their biases and, most importantly, be empathetic. Here at Leadership Matters, we believe that begins with the board.
We’d like to end this week’s post with a hearty congratulations to Local 2110 UAW, a chapter of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), organizing for union rights across New York City. After 122 days it reached an agreement on behalf of union members at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As reported by Hyperallergic, the agreement means all employees will receive raises of 3% or $1,600, depending on which amount is greater, with the lowest-paid 25% of workers receiving 4% greater additional income or higher. MoMA staff will retain their single coverage health benefits without employee contributions, and employees utilizing family coverage will not see an increase in their contributions as a result of their new raises. To learn more about Local 2110, click here.
We began writing this blog in 2013. We’d just sent Leadership Matters off to the publisher and wanted a way to keep the discussion going. The book is a collection of 36 interviews with museum and heritage organization leaders, speaking frankly about the thrills and challenges of doing their jobs. Not all were directors since we believe leadership happens throughout an organization.
Now, five years later, we’re revising the original. Five years doesn’t seem that long, but the first interviews took place early in 2012, and a number of our interviewees have retired, changed jobs or left the field. So, we’ve begun to write and interview again, and, if all goes well, the revision will be available in fall 2019. But most importantly we are thinking deeply about how (and why) museum leadership today is different.
In some ways the museum world is the trailing indicator, slow to change and late to the party, perhaps not so much at the front of the house, but in staff rooms, offices and around the coffee machine. Six years ago we approached this project with real concern about the field’s understanding of leadership, and the need for boards to grapple with it. Today, leadership as a concept, seems more universally accepted for individuals and organizations who want to move the needle from mediocre to extraordinary. However, toward the book’s end, there’s a chapter called “There Be Dragons Here.” There we ask how 21st-century museums and heritage organizations navigate their communities while remaining truly and authentically themselves. To be honest, this is a place where there are still dragons. Too many organizations find themselves landlocked, unable to intersect with the communities they serve because of lackluster leadership.
Over the next six months we will try to pinpoint change. So, in the tradition of our book and our blog, here’s a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards.
- The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
- This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
- This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
- This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.
- The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
- Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
- Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
- Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
- 21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.
- Organizations need an HR department or its equivalent and an understanding of employment law.
- Organizations need an active, current personnel policy that addresses all human and family needs.
- Organizations need to engage not just present; they need to be real community partners.
- They need courage to tackle the hard stuff.
For Boards of Trustees:
- They need to understand the meaning of service.
- They need to understand the museum world, its ethics and values, its standards and expectations.
- They should want a values-driven organization keenly, if not more so, than their staff leaders.
- They should know the value of human capital and what it takes to advocate for, support, and celebrate a creative, engaged staff.
- They should understand their communities, whether local, regional, national or international.
Tell us how you think leadership has changed or is changing.
Image: Museum Insider