Keeping Ourselves Real in Our Museum Work

Keeping Ourselves Real in Our Museum Work

5 min read

The workplace psychology movement of the week is a call for authenticity. Do museums have a particular office honesty problem?

A new movement in organizational culture is focused around radical candor, the idea that you have to be super real, all the time, at the office or else … well, dogs and cats living together. Like a lot of movements, it makes sense in articles on Medium but is hard to implement in practice without a lot of rules and structures that make office relationships into a sort of couples' therapy. In any mission-driven workplace, like a museum, authenticity can be even more difficult: to paraphrase the differently-attributed adage, "people are so nasty because the stakes are so low."


But academia jokes aside, the "fierce conversations" meme is about cutting down bullshit and getting rid of passive aggressive workplace conversations, where no one wants to come out and say they're against some new policy but have no intention of going along with it. How many projects did you get approved, only to find out that no one really liked it after all? (Raise hands.)


It's fair to ask if this isn't simply a fear of confrontation, or an unwillingness to be the one to question institutional leaders in public. Perhaps a meeting-fatigued staff doesn't want to deal with discussion any more. (Or, more corrosively, there is a luck of trust within the institution.) Whichever case it is, leaders need to recognize a workplace that's honesty-adverse as a problem. Think about the election (to get into higher stakes): Trump supporters said the president-elect was being bullshit-free (a term on the flip side of "refreshingly honest"), others that he was pulling a 100%-BS con job playing off feelings of white supremacy. Others say, well, who isn't angry at how Wall Street came through the financial crisis on the backs of most of the rest of us? It's a mess, any way you slice it.

Which describes workplace psychology pretty well. Consultancies like The Nature of Work have been pushing the idea of bringing our full authentic selves to the office for a while (see my interview with Nature of Work's Dara Blumenthal from last April). The idea is that if we have to leave some of our real selves at home, then not only are we wasting time at work, our companies aren't getting what they're paying for.

I'll show you how to collaborate

In an interview by org design firm Container13, Bob Gower, a consultant with The Ready, proposes thinking of a company as a collection of smaller teams to give everyone more of a voice—provided these teams are functional and well-designed. And if that sounds like silos by another name (and no one's been more anti-silo than me), let's assume that silos aren't themselves the problem. (It's part of my new year's resolution to empathize with those who react viscerally at any buzzword like silo. Refreshing honesty, amirite?)

If employees can be more effective—or real, if you prefer—in groups of five than they can in departments of 30, maybe thinking of an organization as a team of teams is the way to go. Team of Teams, by the way, is the name of a book from the consulting firm headed by retired general Stanley McChrystal, former leader of special forces in Afghanistan; not exactly normal museum-world reading fare, I know, but I've heard good things about this book from organizational-psychology sources, so it's next up on my phone's New York Public Library reading app; see my [reading list](#reading list) below.

The Honest Museum

So what about museums? The blog Leadership Matters has detailed the problematic practices in how museums treat junior employees and interns and how non profits cry poverty as an excuse not to pay well or provide overtime (not that OT rules might be around much longer). "Well, we told you this wasn't a field that paid well" is something all of us in museum work have heard at one time or another. Having issues around the pay and workload structure of an entire field isn't a good starting point for honesty.

The Museum Computer Network's most recent annual conference, subtitled "The Human Centered Museum," featured a couple of pertinent panels to the question of authenticity—"The Power of Vulnerability in Museums," and "Sustaining Innovation: Tips & Techniques to Keep Momentum in your Organization"—which both examined internal (workplace) health and external communication. These are all the techniques we've heard from therapists and helpful mentors before, but in exploratory settings like MCN they were really useful. I wonder if they scale—downwards in this case, away from the safe Chatham-House-rules spaces of conferences to the furnace of museum offices. This is where those of us in the most siloed workplaces need bridges to other perspectives, whether in our museum or in the field at large. I often keep several Slack teams open on my computer as just this sort of wider-world security blanket of supportive voices.

In museums, the problems can be exacerbated when curatorial and other departments are not on the same page. Non-curatorial departments might feel that they have a lesser voice, that the institution is all about the curators—while curators may feel the institution has become increasingly about digital and playing down to the visitors. (Sounds like a family, doesn't it? And, gee, do any families have honesty issues?)

Like with any new workplace word, "authenticity" can easily be made into a case of "The Emperor Has No Clothes" (TEHNC, my new acronym) if it's not followed up by action, which means establishing standards of honesty and communication in the workplace, which leads to improved trust. Staff, especially junior staff, have to feel safe in being authentic. We can do worse than to treat more junior museum workers as the conscience of the institution.


If museums are claiming to be bastions of honesty in what seems a post-truth world, they need to practice internally what they preach in public. Otherwise, it's TEHNC all the way down, and it's an awfully cold time to not have any clothes.

####What I'm reading now … * I just finished [The Lean Startup]( Yes, the title relates to business, namely startups (which are not a paradise by any means, but have some patterns of innovating that museum workplaces can ate least examine), but you can apply the lessons of this book to SO MANY projects at your office that seemed to have promise but went nowhere because you weren't *learning*. * I'm just starting [Team of Teams](, referenced above. * Before *Lean Startup* I read [Switch](, by Chip and Dan Heath. It had some very interesting discussions of personal motivation, with insights into decision-making, improving the environment in which progress can be made, and dealing with many obstacles to change.

Please tweet me with your thoughts on authenticity in the museum workplace (and good reading suggestions). How authentic do you feel at your museum job, on a scale of 1 (living a lie) to 10 (why would I lie?).

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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.