Museums share collections and research for visitors. But, of course, they are also workplaces. People, who work at museums, create research and installations for visitors. This simple equation highlights an essential challenge for museums.

Unhappy People equals Unhappy Product

Unhappy people are some of the most generous folks around. They share their negativity with awful abandon. Their noxious fugue of disenchantment follows them, infecting those they contact. This attitude spills into all their actions and communications. In service organizations, these unhappy people suffuse every action with a patron. The sticky residue that disgruntled employees exude is hard to expunge from the workplace culture. Unhappy people, therefore, taint the product of the organization. But, this terrible plague of negativity is not the fault of the employees. Employee dissatisfaction and negativity is often a symptom of a challenged workplace culture.

A strong, positive workplace culture is like an inoculation against negativity. Good cultures put employees at the center. Starbucks recently invested profits back into their employees, in line with their belief that staff is the best brand ambassador. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, goes farther in describing the relationship between happy employees and happy customers:  “At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally on its own. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”

Museums might bristle at comparing themselves to a shoe company or a coffee shop. But, most visitors who walk through their doors have done business with Zappos or Starbucks. Visitors are used to experiences that “feel” a certain way. Therefore, museums with strong customer experience (born of equally strong staff experience) feel comfortable and resonate with visitors.

How do you make a positive work environment?

I have always been reticent to participate in anything billed as fun in print. If you need to say its fun, the likelihood is that others might not. Authentically enjoyable experiences are more expansive and cannot be encapsulated in that three-letter word.

Often workplace thinks of employee engagement as additive. In other words, they add a few workshops to improve an employee’s day, like a yoga experience or a trick-or-treat party. Experiences like this are not bad on their face. But, if the core culture is not solid, these are basically like adding frosting to a maggoty cake. Frosting will not make you want to consume even one rotten slice.

Developing a solid employee experience is not easy. As Casper mattress brand CEO Philip Krim says, “just because you say you’re fun, doesn’t actually mean you’re having fun. Paradoxically, being fun takes work.” While negative employee culture can easily spread like a virus on its own, positive employee culture needs a thoughtful, purposeful effort.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

First and foremost, the museum needs to make a commitment to place their staff first. This commitment can be lip-service. It needs to be shown in actions. A colleague once said, “organizations express the value they have for your work in cash-money.” Pay disparity in departments often results in real cultural problems. When an assistant in one department, say curatorial, is paid drastically more than another, say, registrars, the museum is highlighting that is not work but affiliation that matters.

The biggest challenge in terms of pay equity is between executive staff and junior staff. The museum is implying that executive staff is worth 50 times more than the junior staff by paying them 50 times more. This might be true, but if so, then junior staff should not be asked to check email at home, make on-the-spot customer decisions, and take work home. More likely, however, is that this pay disparity between executives and junior staff is disproportionate to the relative importance these roles have to the visitor experience. In other words, junior staff make or break visitor experience, and yet, do not receive commensurate pay for their value.

Show People & Tell People

Museums are tiered corporations, certainly. And, some decisions are easier made by a few people. But, most decisions are best made by those who know what they are talking about. The challenge with hierarchical (oligarchical) organizations is that decision-making power is reserved for the highest tier. As such, the deciders are often fairly far away from the results of the decision (and the need for the decision). Think of the decision on the size of the font. If the head designer is not in the galleries with the recently visually-impaired elderly patrons, she doesn’t have the pleasure of hearing the complaints about her tiny, tiny type. Ideally, delegate decision-making. Find ways that people can make decisions from their role that help their work. AND DON’T MICROMANAGE.

Some decisions, say financial ones, will need to be sent up that corporate ladder. The challenge for staff is not always that they have no say in the decision, but instead that they are ignorant of the reasons. When rolling out decisions, be truthful and transparent about the motivations.

Don’t Pull a Bait and Switch

There is nothing worse to me than the sickly sweet “friends.” I, personally, don’t care if you don’t like me. But, don’t be nice to get something from me, and then return to your usually nastiness. This is a habit many museum managers take with their junior staff. They roll out the pleasantries, commending the importance of a certain field. Then, internally, in upper-level meetings, say, they mention all their complaints about said department, staff-member, program. Firstly, museums are magnificent for their grapevines, keeping true, perhaps, to their academic roots. If you really want to spread a rumor, start it in a meeting considered confidential. Secondly, this type of behavior will erode staff culture faster than any other behavior.

Don’t be underhanded. If you don’t know what underhanded is, then you likely are. Don’t lie to your staff, either through omission or true falsehood. Don’t say one thing and do another. Don’t make rules and then exempt a certain sector of people (say curators). Don’t treat a set of your employees with kindness (the rest will assume contempt).

Conclusion

Back to our cake, rotten ingredients make a rotten cake, but the eater not the baker will be the one to truly suffer. Museum visitors suffer most from negative employee culture, which results in decreased or stagnant revenue, which will mean less money to operate the museum, which eventually is bad for the collection and the institution. In other words, centering your employees and ensuring their satisfaction is good for collections. Your investment in your employees will be returned one-million-fold in superior visitor experience, which is the sweetest reward.

This post was inspired by Mike Murawski’s TOWARDS A MORE HUMAN-CENTERED MUSEUM: PART 1, RETHINKING HIERARCHIES.

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3 thoughts on “How to make museums more engaging? Develop Employee-Centered Museums First

  • February 3, 2018 at 11:39 am
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    Love your perspective. We had a Strategic Plan Meeting recently and I compared the museum experience to being like an IKEA. Comfortable, welcoming, something for everyone, and a place you can spend hours. I think it would suit some museums well to take a leaf from the business playbook sometimes.

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    • February 6, 2018 at 9:31 am
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      Yes! Recently, at Ikea, I noticed that people’s engagement with objects was definitely high. And, so many of the spaces are like museums that have period rooms, ex. of your the touching. but, I don’t think touching is the only thing. Part of it is relevance, lighting, signage, accessible staff…Great point.

      Reply
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