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The Silent Treatment (and what to do about it)

Silent Treatment

****** Apart from deaccessioning, we wanted to talk about executive directors who don't use their words. We've written here about directors who can't stop talking, but this is the opposite. To be clear, this isn't a judgement on personality. Some directors are not Chatty Cathys. This is about leaders using silence with negative effects. Think that doesn't happen? Were you never in middle school or worse in a relationship where someone stopped speaking to you? This is the workplace equivalent of that. Sometimes this happens when new leaders worry about separating emotions from words. They don't want to yell. Women, in particular, don't want to yell because studies show us that an angry woman at work is judged much more harshly than an angry man. As a result, they don't say anything. Or worse, a leader approaches staff weeks after something went badly, and by then it's too late. So silence is used to guard against anger and emotion, but there are also leaders who use silence to ostracize staff. They forget to tell them things; they don't read weekly reports or share important news. As a result, staff find it increasingly hard to complete tasks because museum workplaces run on information. If a major benefactor is waffling, but no one tells you; if there are four candidates for the curator's position not three, and so on. Incomplete tasks mean poor progress for individuals, departments and museums as a whole. But for a staff member who tries to explain what's going on, silence is a deviously tricky weapon. It is after all a sin of omission. No one yelled at you, no one's overtly hurt you, so what's the big deal? In fact, silence, coupled with ostracism is the polite form of workplace bullying, and far more common than bullying itself. A 2014 survey by the University of British Columbia of American workers, found that ostracism is far more common (71%) than harassment which was experienced by only 29%. So what should you do?

  1. Marshal your facts. Are you the only one who's being left out and not spoken to? Admittedly, it's cold comfort, but at least it's not you.

  2. Is there a work colleague you can speak with who might shed some light on your departmental or museum work culture? Are you not being spoken to because you're not being noticed or is it more deliberate than that?

  3. Is this something only you notice or has your work colleague observed it too? If not, don't think you're being gaslighted. Your work experience may not be theirs.

  4. Channel your inner Michelle Obama and "When they go low, you go high." Put your game face on. Stay positive in public. Be prepared. Speak up when you know something. Don't let ostracism and silence lead you to doubt yourself. That said, keep a log describing when and how the silent treatment occurred.

  5. The last, and the hardest step is to confront the person. If it's your ED, you may want to go to HR first, but don't be surprised if you don't get much of a reaction. HR sometimes doesn't realize how hard the silent treatment can be. If it's a co-worker who's shut you out, be prepared for the fact that she may not admit what's happened. Plan, but don't script your conversation, and make sure your goal is to come away with a resolution. It's February. If there ever was a month where we need our words, it's this one. Use them. Communication builds trust, trust builds loyalty. Together they create a hothouse of creativity and a happy staff. Joan Baldwin

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