Managing Museum Workplace Conflict

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Recently I heard a story about a colleague’s child who was bullied at school. As heartbreaking as the actual bullying was, the more alarming part of the narrative was the school administrators’ reaction. They took the position that unless an adult witnessed the bullying, it didn’t happen. Sadly, this behavior affects not just middle school students, but working adults as well. It’s a neat trick, saying that something didn’t happen unless you’re there. It diminishes the victim, making her feelings and experience invisible. Imagine how much of life you could relegate to the “not my problem” column if you said, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, so it didn’t happen.’

How many of you have finally summoned the courage to see your executive director about a workplace conflict only to be asked “Well, have you tried talking to Jane?” as if talking wasn’t the thing that brought you to the Director’s office in the beginning? And how many of you who are leaders have responded with some version of “Well, I’m sure John didn’t mean it that way.” Really? If you need an explanation of why that’s a completely useless sentence, read on.

In the for-profit world, experts tell us as much as 42-percent of workplace time is spent trying to resolve conflicts, and their resolution can involve 20-percent of a leader’s work week. To my knowledge, no one has studied whether the museum world’s statistics are similar, but even if museums are half as conflict ridden, that’s still eight hours a week of open disagreement, passive aggression or conflict avoidance.

And to all the museum women out there, know that workplace disputes, especially those pitting one woman against another, hurt you more than disagreements involving your male colleagues. Why? The short answer is there is a lot bias about women in the workplace, but to begin, men and women judge conflict between two women more harshly than between a man and a woman or between two men. Men’s arguments are not termed ‘cat fights,’ for example. Men are expected to be aggressive, and forgiven for being rude, while women are expected to play nice, be nice and smile, and a woman’s “nice” facade may mask anger and back biting. Further, women perceive other women as more judgmental than men. As a result, they avoid female colleagues in an effort to sidestep perceived judgment.

So what’s a leader to do in the face of workplace conflict?

  • Model the behavior you want: If you get angry, direct your anger toward situations and things rather than people and their personalities.
  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect. When you meet with disgruntled co-workers, be impartial. If it appears you’ve already sided with one of them, your attempt at mediation will die on the vine.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you get wind of a problem, sit down with your team members sooner rather than later.
  • Talk to your staff not just about what they’re doing, but how they feel about what they’re doing. Perceived and real inequities create stress, which prompts conflict.
  • Remember to listen, and when beginning conflict resolution, remember to promise confidentiality.

And if you’re a staff member?

  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect.
  • Try not to take sides. This isn’t 8th grade. Strong bonds between co-workers may force colleagues to take sides, choosing one faction over another.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you’re having issues with a co-worker that don’t go away in a day or two, talk it out with your department leader or ED.
  • Try not to personalize conflict. This isn’t about you as much as it’s about work. Keep your focus on what you’re asked to do.

If you’re a museum leader, can you ignore conflict, believing that unless you see people yelling at one another, your workplace is a little Nirvana? Of course. You can follow the path of the middle school teachers in the opening story, but unlike middle school students, your staff chooses to work for your organization. If coming to work leaves them psychological wrecks, they may quit. And conflict is costly: It jeopardizes projects; stressed employees may take sick days; and conflict leads to costly resignations. And, while engaged workers make everything easier, toxic ones cost your museum money. In one for-profit study from Harvard, a toxic worker cost her organization $12,000 annually, while an engaged worker added $5,000 in terms of productivity.

Museums aren’t the high-paying stars of the non-profit world. They get by, in part, because staff has a deep love for art, science, and human experience, translating them into something experiential and understandable, and, more recently, engaging communities they serve in dialog, story telling and knowledge sharing. But organizations who don’t pay well must compensate in other ways. Creating work places where it’s fine to disagree, but where bullying and toxic behavior aren’t tolerated is a small step toward building healthy museum work environments. #bekind.

Yours for a conflict-free workplace,

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Working and Leading Through Tears

Theresa May

Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.

Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.

As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.

If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and  basket weaving classes.

There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.

This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.

So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work: 

  • Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
  • Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
  • If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.

If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:

  • Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
  • Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
  • If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you  help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.

How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.

Yours for a tear-free August.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


Managing (and Succeeding at) Leadership Change

3d-glassesTo start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with  discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.

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My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.

Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.

On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.

So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?

  • Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
  • If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
  • Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
  • Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
  • Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
  • When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.

Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective

 


Museum Leaders: Your Behavior Really Matters

 

downloadIn 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,

Joan Baldwin