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Workplace Humility 101

butupa -

Have you ever been around someone who tells you they love you randomly and too often? I'm not talking about the love of your life because hopefully their words resonate differently, I'm talking about a friend or a colleague. And with every "I love you," the phrase loses meaning so after awhile it's like a verbal tic that you don't really hear? Well, apologies can metastasize in the same way, quickly becoming hollowed out versions of themselves. That said, "I'm sorry," is still an important, meaningful, and necessary phrase in the museum or any workplace.

So why is saying "I'm sorry" important? Well, it's a bellwether. The ability to apologize indicates so many things about human behavior: You're willing to make yourself vulnerable in front of others; you possess some humility; it also indicates a level of self-awareness that's trust building for colleagues, and indeed to the whole office food chain.

I was once worked for someone who had huge issues with humility. He was blithe about his own mistakes, never running up against one he couldn't overlook, explain away, or simply ignore, from small things like lateness, to the more obvious like Google chatting during meetings and then getting caught when his laptop was projected on the big screen, and ultimately escalating to more serious issues like missing deadlines, neglecting development or possessing a vision. As someone subject to his decision-making for almost a decade, I can assure you that when an individual is unable to apologize, the small, petty part of you rears its head and says "If he doesn't have to, I don't either" Why do I need to take personal responsibility if the guy making the big salary doesn't? (I told you this was petty.) That, of course, engenders a workplace culture rife with blame, but absent humility.

There's another thing about apologies: They indicate our acceptance and understanding of failure. A lot of leaders blather about creating a culture of experimentation and creativity, but unless it's really part and parcel of institutional DNA, it only lasts until there is a screw-up. Then suddenly, as staff meets to address the issue, concerns about creativity and experimentation evaporate. What follows is a WTF moment where everyone scrambles to assign blame, while putting things right again. Creativity or its absence isn't mentioned. Yet none of us is perfect. Far from it. We all love to work in an atmosphere where experimentation is encouraged and supported. And as any artist or scientist will tell you, many experiments result in failure or at least in more experiments.

So what's a museum leader's role? How do you protect your colleague's right to experiment, acknowledging they are human, and will mess-up in big and small ways, while also building a culture that expects staff to own their own behavior? It's a tall order. Begin with yourself. If you can't or won't do it, why should they?

  1. Give the apology you want to hear from a leader.

  2. Don't delay too long. Collect yourself, calm your emotions, but don't let so much time go by that no one can remember what you're apologizing for.

  3. Take responsibility for your actions. It's not your fault the benefit was spoiled by a fierce thunderstorm; it is your issue if the donor's name is misspelled.

  4. Don't over-explain. Saying I was rushed is preferable to a long and detailed explanation of your child chipping a tooth, leading to an emergency dental appointment, leading to car trouble, and on and on.

  5. Close with what you learned. Sometimes we learn we can't be the autonomous super human we think we are, and that we need help from our colleagues, whether it's editing, planning, or logistics.

  6. Look to how you might handle a similar situation going forward. If needed, ask for support in crafting a plan to keep whatever happened from happening again.

And if you are counseling a staff member or colleague who's messed up?

  1. Do not channel your inner Miss Trunchbull. You may be furious, but your role isn't to lock anyone in The Chokey. Listen to what happened. And listen for an apology.

  2. Ask what your colleague learned and how whatever happened can be avoided in future.

  3. As a leader, make sure you understand your own role and responsibility in whatever happened. Are there things you need to correct? Were staff given too much responsibility without the authority to resolve problems?

  4. Deal with the now. Help your staff move forward from where they are, not from where they wish they were.

  5. Moving forward, watch to see how staff members apply what they learned. Self-aware staff, even those who didn't mess up and subsequently need to apologize, will internalize what happened and avoid doing it in future.

In my experience, which admittedly is not vast, museums, archives and libraries tend to attract individuals passionate about their work, often with huge internal motivation--all good traits--but traits frequently predicated on perfection. A staff who doesn't make mistakes isn't experimenting. A staff who doesn't apologize can't show humility, and therefore isn't building trust. And who doesn't want to work someplace where creativity is the driver, and staff, no matter where they are on the food chain, is trusted?

Be well. If you're on the east coast, stay out of Henri's way, and be safe.

Joan Baldwin


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