We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog describing the effect of Devil Wears Prada leaders on their staffs. Today though we’re offering a little air time, not to toxic bosses, but toxic staff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends 44.4 hours a week at work. That’s 44.4 hours of disruption if you’re dealing with toxic employees. In addition, the Harvard Business Review, which defines toxic employees as folks who engage in behavior that is harmful to the organization or its people, helpfully points out these employees are also expensive. In fact, HBR says their behavior costs the average for-profit business $12, 489, while a superstar worker costs the business $5,303. In museum land where there is rarely money to burn, clearly it’s better to employ superstars.
There are as many types of toxic workers as there are humans. Their behaviors run the gamut from sociopathic harassers to individuals with poor or no time management, to the perennially disorganized, the angry, the victim–don’t worry about me, I’ll just work an extra 20 hours this week– to the party person, and everyone in between.
Unless you started your museum career a week ago, you’ve likely run across your fair share of toxic co-workers. If they’re your colleagues, perhaps you’ve learned to keep your distance or developed work-arounds to circumvent their ongoing behavior issues. But what if you’re the boss, the executive director, the team leader? Then solving these issues is your responsibility. Why? Because ultimately if you have two members of the Education and Engagement team who can barely sit at a table together or one exhibition designer whose time management skills are so poor that it puts everyone else on edge, it’s disruptive. Hugely disruptive. And costly. And no one else wants to be at the table with them either.
So what do you do?
- First, know what you don’t know: Who is the problem and how? How is your team, staff or program suffering? And most importantly, how and when has it impacted work? Has the individual in question suffered a life event that may be causing problem behavior? Can you offer time off or find them counseling? Will that help? And understand, in some cases, it won’t.
- Have any legal lines been crossed? In other words, is the uncomfortable, disruptive behavior the result of harassment, workplace bullying or racist or gender-based stereotyping? If your museum has an HR department you may want to have a conversation about how to protect your employees, but also to make sure your actions don’t make a bad situation worse. Know your state and federal law regarding workplace harassment. You can’t force an employee to report harassment or bullying, but you can suggest it, and you and the victim should document what you’ve seen and/or experienced.
- Assuming no laws were broken, talk to the staff member(s) in question. And for the love of God, do not suggest they need to fix it themselves. Too often people are unaware how they present to others, and they may be genuinely surprised. So provide concrete workplace examples demonstrating where things went off track.
- Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
- Be clear in your expectations. If you have an HR department, work with them to determine how to tie your expectations and needs to consequences. If you’re dealing with someone with terrible time management issues, and they’ve asked to work from home a day a week, weigh that ask against their work load. Can they meet deadlines? What will happen if they don’t? Do you have time to monitor them to make sure deadlines and check points are met?
- Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in.
- Document everything you do. Should you have to fire someone, your life will be its own special hell if you can’t document what you say has happened.
- Remember you are not a counselor, psychologist or mediator, and most people don’t change. That said, most of us would rather be happy than sad, and most enjoy feeling valued. A job well done, whether a short term project, or a years-long exhibit planning effort deserves the best team you can muster.
- Understand, the reason you’re involved is because this person’s behavior affects the whole workplace. Support other team members. Let them know they’re valued. Try to help them collaborate without being caught up in whatever baddy-baddness is going on. Be the person who doesn’t indulge in gossip.
- Don’t forget about your own work. You’re still a leader with a million things requiring your attention. Don’t get so deep in the HR weeds you forget about leading.
To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.
This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.
As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.
Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.
The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.
While we’re waiting for perfection:
- Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
- If you have power, acknowledge it.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
- Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
- If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
- Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
- Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.
Yours for an equitable workplace,
Image: Portland Art Museum
Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.
Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.
In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.
A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:
- Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
- When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
- Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
- Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
- Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
- Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.
*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.
I don’t know about you, but when I am besieged with obligations, meetings, and deadlines, I make lists. Over time the lists become a bit of a joke because things that weren’t accomplished one week don’t always move forward to the next. Instead they occupy a sort of list purgatory, haunting me as I go about my days. You may have a better way of organizing things. Your lists may be digital. Perhaps you’re more efficient, but however you make your way through your tasks, there is always a certain satisfaction in the strike-through, marking something as done, finished, complete, and off your plate for a while.
But then, and maybe this doesn’t happen to you, there is another sort of list. It’s the list from 30,000 feet. It’s always with me, a reminder of ways of being, things I need to focus on, ways I need to be more intentional. This week Anne Ackerson and I read papers from our Johns Hopkins University students regarding leadership at museums, zoos, and heritage organizations undergoing challenge and change. As I read them–many discuss museums that have been in the news for one thing or another–I am struck again, by how complex leadership is, how many moving parts there are, and how important it is that the personal integrate with the organizational.
As I’ve said here about a million times, reflection in leadership is key. So in that spirt, here are 10 things on my 30,000-foot leadership list for this fall.
- Remembering to pause: whether it’s going outside for 15 minutes for a walk; sitting with a non-work friend over coffee; laughing. Life isn’t all work.
- Understanding my organization’s origin story: Acknowledging the work, gifts, and goals of those who came before me, while moving forward in a world that’s changed and changing, and creating a way to make the two work together.
- Listening: Spending part of every day, not waiting to speak, but actually listening.
- Remembering not to judge: Trying to make my go-to be to understand, to empathize, and to be present rather than to judge.
- Acknowledging accomplishments: You’ve all probably read about Anne’s accomplishment jar. I am thinking about creating a team accomplishment jar where our program can acknowledge its best moments over the course of the year. Some times it does take a village.
- Making my observations my obligation: Standing up for injustice, for inequity, for the minor–the constant interrupter in staff meetings who rides herd over more reserved colleagues–to the major–the colleague who’s bullied or harassed.
- Looking for the through-lines, whether in history, race, gender, environment and class: I work with a collection created by white men in a different age, for a different age. I need to re-center, educate, and through acquisition bring community and collection into alignment.
- Give back to the field: In many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve managed to make a living, to use my imagination, to work in beautiful places, surrounded by interesting collections. I must always give back, pay it forward, and help those following behind.
- Make sure everyone’s at the table: From the board to the front-line staff, make sure we represent our communities. And then do my best to make sure all voices are heard equitably, whether in an exhibition or a staff meeting.
- Values permeate the workplace too: While values are important in the front of the house–see #7–they are also important in our workspaces. Leaders content to ignore inequitable pay and benefits are leaders perpetuating the worst kind of patriarchal system. See #6.
Your list may be different, but I hope you have one. Having one fuels forward movement and change.
Yours from 30,000 feet.
How much time do you want for your progress? James Baldwin
One of the panels I participated in at AASLH’s 2019 Annual Conference was on pay. Titled “Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum,” it offered participants small group discussions through the lens of race, gender, salary negotiation, and emerging careers. In the end, however, many of the discussions came back to questions of inadequate pay, and what to do about it individually and organizationally.
Museums and heritage organizations aren’t known for their excellent salaries. In fact, given that a master’s degree is the de rigueur entrance ticket for most positions, compared to other fields also requiring graduate degrees, the museum world lags behind. And as we’ve said many times here, poor pay and lousy benefits create a workforce that is stressed rather than focused, competitive rather than collegial, not particularly diverse, and constantly looking for better opportunities rather than devoted to their current organization. All those things–stress, inter-personal competition, lack of diversity, and job seeking are money losers for employers, and yet when asked about regrettable salaries, boards and museum leadership often respond that they can’t. They just can’t. They’re doing the best they can, and frankly, if you don’t like your salary, there’s the door.
When we presented the “Advocating for Equity” panel we were lucky to have two museum directors in the room. There may have been more, but those two self-identified. One worked with his board to create an endowment for salaries which will come into its own in 2020. The other is just beginning the process. Listening to both of them, one thing was clear: adjusting salaries on a grand scale isn’t something you’re going to solve in a couple of meetings. The director who has already raised the endowment underscored the patience and restraint the project took. His board is large, and not all agreed salaries were a problem, but for this director and his board leadership, the salary question had become a moral question. He didn’t like the idea that smart, creative, double-degreed, 30-year old members of his front-line staff were forced to live with their parents because their salaries wouldn’t stretch to an apartment in his city. For the other director, who works at a very wealthy institution with an enviable endowment, his concerns were as much about equity as simple raises, but here too, morals and values play a part. Although his institution is still in the planning stages, he indicated that in all likelihood raises would be phased in, with the first ones going to those who make the least. Again, a judgement call.
Are you mentally eye rolling? Is there a little voice in your head saying, “They’ll never, ever go for it. And is this what I want to build my leadership on? What about the new wing? What about Mrs. Buckets of Money? She likes building. She even has an architect.” All that’s probably true. There are plenty of one-percenters who’d rather give to build than endow people. And yet it’s people who will animate, care for, and program Mrs. Buckets of Money’s yet-to-be-built building. Here are some things to ponder when thinking about moving the needle on pay:
- Increasing pay takes planning. Know what you don’t know. Who sets pay? How often are salaries adjusted? Have your organization’s salaries kept pace with inflation, the field, other similar fields? When did they start to lag? Why?
- Unless you’re a founding director, you inherited a pay scale. When was the last time you looked at your entire pay scale from grounds, cleaners, and security to the top? Assuming you have an HR department and/or a CFO, work together to create a spreadsheet of all job titles (no names), education, race, gender, length of service, and hourly rate. What does it tell you?
- Using your newly-created spread sheet, you’ll know whether you have a gender or race pay gap. Is that a moral issue for you or your board? Remember, raising inequitable salaries perpetuates bias we need to leave behind.
- Know what it costs to live in your area. Know the median rent. Know the living wage.
- If you lead a large and/or urban institution, has your board discussed its concerns regarding unionization? Again, have you done your homework? What will the union offer that you’re not providing? Could you provide it? Does staff asking for a union trust your museum’s leadership? If not, why not?
- If you’re a leader, sound out your board. Are there some members who agree your organization’s pay is abysmal and it should do something? Are they willing to make change?
- Last, is your board comfortable with moral questions? Pay isn’t just about money. Pay represents so many other things: It represents where you are in the institutional decision-making process; It represents who you rub shoulders with; It determines where you can live, the car you drive, and how fast you pay off student debt; It provides a sense of self-worth. Boards are traditionally made up of wealthy people who support an institution by donating money, knowledge about money, connections, intelligence and decision-making experience. When it comes to salaries, your job may be to remind your board what they don’t know–about student debt, about the cost of living in your locale, about how your museum or heritage organization fits into your community’s job picture, and most importantly, about the gender/race pay gap.
These discussions aren’t easy. Change is always hard. But this is about museums wanting to create equitable workplaces where women of color — from Latinx who make 53 cents for every white man’s dollar to American Indians who make 58 cents, and Black women who make 61 cents* — make the same amount for the same job as a white man. Museums and heritage organizations may waffle about taking a stand on community issues, even on historical or cultural issues, but how about starting inside, with your own workforce? How about taking a stand for them? Invest in your staff. They pay you back every day.
*American Association of University Women, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.”
Image: From Marabou at the Museum, “Money Makes the Museum Doors Open: Museum Funding 101,” September 6, 2018.
It’s been six years since we published Leadership Matters. When we wrote the original version, Anne Ackerson and I were concerned about the lack of attention paid to leadership in the museum field, particularly in history and cultural heritage organizations. There was a notion that through some office magic or, simply, inertia, individuals became leaders, and if they didn’t, mediocrity was fine; in fact, mediocrity was better than change. Little, if any, investment was made in human capital. You became a director and the rest was up to you. The motto was sink or swim, and not everybody looked graceful in the pool. What we learned, however, was leadership wasn’t some in-born trait, miraculously recognized by search committees. Instead, it was a commitment to self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision, with an ongoing undercurrent of reflection and experimentation.
Now it’s 2019 and we’ve just published a new edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. It’s curious, exciting, and remarkable how much things have changed in such a short time. In 2013, our concerns were internal: a field that was at best negligent about training and developing its leaders, failing to acknowledge that a content-driven education did not necessarily prepare an individual for coping with the foibles of a board and a staff or the public. Today, those concerns remain, but there are huge external pressures as well: rapid-fire communication, communities — from staff to stakeholders — who require a voice, especially those traditionally underserved or ignored, and need to see themselves somewhere inside a museum. Otherwise the work doesn’t matter because without community connection museums are just warehouses of things.
Today’s leaders still possess the four characteristics we identified in 2013: self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision. That hasn’t changed, but the world has, and our nine new interviewees, LaTanya Autry, Cheryl Blackman, Karen Carter, Sean Kelly, Lisa Lee, Azuka MuMin, Franklin Vagnone, Hallie Winter, and Jorge Zamanillo, all approach their jobs from a different space. Gone are the days of sage-on-a-stage leadership. These leaders are collaborators, relationship builders, empathizers.
Both versions of Leadership Matters end with “10 Simple Truths,” common sense practices from all 36 interviewees about leadership:
- Get invested: As interviewee Christy Coleman wrote, “Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral. If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you’re not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
- Be a trust builder: Museums succeed on the relationships they build in their communities, on their staffs, on their boards. It’s that simple. Relationships matter. So do words. And deeds.
- Embrace the greater good: Leaders are the moral compass for their institutions. Don’t check your values at the door, bring them to work. Every day.
- Create a candid culture: Honesty underpins trust.
- Up your frequency: Listen, listen, listen, and remember to get out of your office and know who you serve. As interviewee Azuka MuMin puts it: “Leadership has taught me who I am as a person, vulnerable and exposed, and the better I know myself, the better I am able to lead.”
- Learn and grow together: Leadership is a process. It’s learning. Invest in your people whether they are board members, volunteers or staff, leaders or followers.
- Get integrated: Read widely, think across spectrums. Who or what adds to your institutional narrative?
- Tap your entire network: It’s not all about you. Growing a museum is about being open to possibility.
- Commit to leadership: Leadership matters. Invest in your staff, give them the tools to become leaders. Good leaders are problem solvers and collaborators. They’re also good followers.
- Be accountable: Take the heat. Move forward. Don’t play the blame game. You’re a leader for a reason.
For those of you who will be at the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, we will see you there. And if you’d like a copy of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, we’d be happy to sign it for you, Thursday, August 29, from 3:00-4:00 pm at the Rowman & Littlefield booth in the Exhibit Hall. In the meantime, lead well, with courage, empathy, and vision. And if you see any of our interviewees in Philadelphia this week, be sure to stop and thank them.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson