How Museums Can Really Have Engaged Employees

How Museums Can Really Have Engaged Employees

6 min read

Surveys on museum employee engagement are now commonplace, but real engagement comes from accountability, and that starts with respect for all staff.

There's a Gallup survey which has made the rounds, forever, on the lack of employee engagement—around 70 percent of American workers are not engaged, or actively disengaged, from their workplaces.

I've heard this dataanecdata during in-house professional development classes, surveys such as the Gallup Q12, workshops, and at museum conferences, but I'll be damned if I can find the exact fact online. I'm sure it's out there in the penumbra of zillions of articles on employee engagement. (Many of these pieces are from companies like Gallup selling their services to organizations looking to improve employee engagement.) But the true statistics are more subtle—and more alarming.

One of the more casual ways to propose.
Maybe I was wrong to write a post about "engagement" near Valentine's Day? [Photo by Seth Reese / Unsplash]

What is Engagement, Anyway?

Just what do we mean by "engagement"? Measuring engagement can be a problem because companies already know what they're looking for—a variation of the smiling cohorts we see in slide decks about work. The word "happiness" comes up a lot, as described in this great article from 2016: when organizations talk about engagement they mean employees happily doing what they are told to do.

Happiness is no easier to define than engagement. Job satisfaction is individual while dissatisfaction results from organizational problems. I see this as an inverse of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina' principle: all happy employees are happy for their own intrinsic reasons, while unhappy employees are unhappy for the same institutional failings—bad managers, unclear organizational vision with no relationship to day-to-day work, no opportunities for professional growth, leadership who doesn't know what we do, and the one I'll get to later, lack of accountability for negative behavior.

It's not so clear we need to be happy at work all of the time. What if we're having a bad day, week, month in our personal life, or stressed about side endeavors outside the museum? What if we're introverts and find performative workplace cheer just cheesy? Some have posited that engagement might just be a factor of personality.

The Problems with Museums

I've described in the past many of the problems special to museums, starting with low pay and long hours in the field. Work based on mission and passion leads to exploitation and burnout. Capitalist societies often place low value on careers in the museums.

Museums also have many overlapping areas of expertise, so staff have a strong conviction that they are always right. And museum workers can have a certain sense of privilege that they are loath to give up (just like many white elites). Museums are special as workplaces, though maybe not unique.

In addition, museums have a scarcity problem, though the one thing they seem to have too many of are people who can veto or create work for others. Haters in museum workplaces have outsized power. None of this is news to museum staff.

A graph showing there are more people who hate new ideas than love them.
How do you like your haterade? (Graph made by the author)

The Engagement Paradox

The solution is not so simple. Leadership can grant workers agency and autonomy, but workers have to take it. I remember when I was told by a senior museum leader, after my fiftieth complaint about the lack of professional opportunities for staff below the top tier, it's up to you, too.

I don't remember my reaction, but it was a mild version of stamping my feet, well you have to make it available. Was I being told to leave the rabble behind? Is that what leaders do?  

Perhaps museum workers haven't taken advantage of opportunities because they lack a feeling of safety to do so. Taking chances requires a sense of support from managers and the organization as a whole. Leadership has to create this first.

So we have an engagement paradox. Leaders say, we've taken steps to increase engagement. Workers say, we don't trust these steps, or we don't think you're sincere, or we're busy with all the work you made for us. Perhaps it's even worse if staff don't say anything at all. The result is an organizational standoff.

A uni project I did, where I used self portrait to best look at a Societal issue and how we could look at it using photography.
Chaos in the workplace? [Photo by Callum Skelton / Unsplash]

How to Break Engagement Gridlock

Culture may also be harder to define than engagement. The best one I read is that culture is how bad actors are publicly rewarded or get away with their behavior. This is obvious in dealings with abusive managers and leaders. Maybe accountability across the institution is the gateway to building trust and then engagement?

This isn't just punishing staff who abuse other workers, or holding leaders accountable for the environments which allowed these to happen. (Though that's a damn good start.) Accountability means transparency and honesty, as people take responsibility for their roles in both failures and successes (without fear of scapegoating). It means that constant long hours and frenzied deadlines are acknowledged as problems and not a sign of how special the institution is. It means that boundaries are set. Without these, bad managers—and powerful, bad colleagues—become the embodiment of a bad culture, which breeds the cynicism that prevents buy-in for structural change in the organization.

Accountability is necessary because we are not rational actors. Our leaders aren't necessarily any smarter or better than other workers in the museum, and they don't listen enough to the staff who do the day-to-day work. A lot of autonomy (as much as possible)—and a little chaos—is a good thing. I know there are arguments against autonomy scaling across an organization, so I'll save that debate for another day, though I will say that we already have plenty of top-down-generated chaos from re-orgs and leadership changes.

Let's try true accountability, holding leaders and powerful staff responsible for the time and effort and suffering their behavior engenders. Until then, the jury on engagement will be out and a lot of time and money will be wasted.

Is accountability possible? We've been told no, that powerful staff have to act as they do because that's how society functions, that we work in museums in a capitalist world, and to say otherwise is naïve. Well, to quote Ursula K. Le Guin: "We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings."

So engagement comes from accountability, and that starts with respect for all staff.

Photo by Tiago Felipe Ferreira / Unsplash

Five relevant posts on employee engagement from this blog:

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How Museums Can Really Have Engaged Employees by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.