Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
If you’re a museum leader, you may have heard you’re supposed to build a team on trust. Perhaps you read that here last week. You may also hear that leaders need vision. If asked, you may respond, you’ve got vision. Every day. And yet, things keep going awry. So here’s a question: Have you thought about the fact that you’re part of the team? That’s not as flip an ask as it sounds. After all, whether you step in and work side-by-side with your staff, chat with them daily or fill in when someone’s sick isn’t really the point. The point is you. Are you the change you want to see or are you just mouthing the words?
Sometimes when we’re the leader, we think we don’t have to change. After all, we’re the visionary. We’re the idea-maker. We can already envision the team, department or museum in its new guise. And yet, when we don’t see the change we expected from our team, who gets blamed? The team. If you were a psychologist, you’d attribute that behavior to self-serving bias, “the tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.” Museum leadership is more than just will and skill; it’s also about personal change that mirrors and reflects the organization and the behavior you expect and want from staff.
Say you’re meeting with your front of the house staff about behavior at the reception desk. There have been complaints, one from a board member, that staff isn’t focused enough on visitors. There’s too much chatting, which has a tendency to veer toward whining. All that might be true, but before you sit down with staff, do a self-check. What is your behavior like around the reception desk? Is it the place you catch up on the group to-do list? Do you meet people there and then head to your office? In short, are you modeling the change you want? If not, don’t meet with staff right away. Work on your own behavior first. If you stop by the reception desk, do it intentionally. Introduce yourself to visitors. Welcome them to your museum or heritage site. Engage them for a moment. Stop buzzing by with little logistical details that take staff’s mind off their principal role: to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. In other words, show don’t tell.
Once you’ve put your personal change in motion, you may want to start your next team meeting by explaining what you’ve done and why. Describe the problem as you saw it–a noisy, sometimes off-putting reception desk where it was hard for visitors to get the information they needed to navigate the site. Explain how you started with yourself first, and a personal check-in. Talk about the results. Without your disruptions, the front of the house staff is more focused. Then be really brave and ask what else you can do differently. Listen. Say thank you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your organization, and more particularly the visitor’s introduction to your site.
At the next meeting, ask staff whether they continue to see change. If not, why not? What’s holding them back? Use this pattern of self-reflection, discovery, re-evaluation, and recalibration for change museum-wide. And always encourage staff to begin with self-reflection.
Given Leadership Matters’ ongoing posts about the need for equitable treatment of museum workers, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tenement Museum, the most recent of New York City’s museums to have its education, retail, and visitor services staff unionize. This is the third time the Tenement Museum’s staff has tried to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), the union that is also home to workers at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society. Since collective bargaining just began, it will be awhile before staff knows whether their issues with overtime compensation, low wages, and no health insurance will bear fruit. Whether pay equity and closing the gender pay gap is also on the table isn’t known.
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,
What do Helen Mirren, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Maddow, Michelle Obama, parents, partners, and a former boss or two have in common? Oh, and we can’t forget some of the museum field’s leading lights like Kathy McLean, Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Arnold Lehman.
What, or more precisely, who, is their common thread?
They are just some of the people our Leadership Matters interviewees spoke about when Joan and I asked them to talk about their positive role models. The role model question is a key one, we think, because the answer often provides surprising insight into a person’s values and aspirations.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in her 2013 article, “We All Need Role Models to Motivate and Inspire Us,”
As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a “role model,” as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who most influences you now, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now are giving you your most important life lessons.
Role models can be positive or negative. They all teach us, good or bad, and the positive ones inspire us. They’re mirrors by which we can examine our own strengths and weaknesses, measure our abilities and desires, and clarify our choices. Role models can change our outlook and encourage us to reach our own potential.
Why did some of our interviewees choose the role models they did?
For Ilene Frank, Chief Curator and COO at the Connecticut Historical Society, Joan of Arc lived a life by values and a belief system, “plus she’s a woman in armor and a sword.” Helen Mirren’s work ethic, authenticity, and flexible talent are key elements for Janet Carding, Director at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Michigan Science Center CEO and President Tonya M. Matthews cites Martin Luther King’s ability to deliver a message in context and Michelle Obama as a role model for African American female leadership. Parents, siblings, and partners provided life lessons, stability, encouragement, and a work ethic for many of our interviewees, including Jennifer Kilmer, Director of the Washington State Historical Society and Bob Burns, Director of the Mattatuck Museum. For Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Abraham Lincoln’s ability to diffuse tense situations with stories and humor are leadership competencies worth emulating.
Who are your role models and what do they say about you?
Anne W. Ackerson