It’s been a tough month since I last wrote, to put it mildly. I’m conscious that there are many ways in which I’m lucky and can work at home through this period of social distancing and quarantine, and especially grateful at the moment for the NHS which (despite everything) was recently there when I needed it for urgent dental treatment.
You don’t need this blog post to tell you that universities and museums, like so many sectors, have been hit hard by economic and other shocks. That makes it a particularly tough time to lead a university museum, not least because the one thing I can’t give my team is what they and I most want – certainty about what is going to happen next. I’ve been looking around with interest at what other museums are doing, but this has had to be a time for sticking to our vision and mission, and drawing strength from our sense of purpose, even though it at times seems like our plan has been thrown out and rethought weekly. When it comes to reprioritisation, I’ve been using the MoSCoW approach to try and see more clearly which of the many things we want to do are the most important, and which the most time-critical. There’s also been much discussion about priorities in the museum sector on Twitter and elsewhere in the last few weeks. Is now the right time to rush out more digital content? Should we take the time to slow down and listen and think? In response to a financial crisis, should the director have taken the tough decision to cut that programme or project? Comments on the decisions taken by individuals or organisations have not always been constructive or kind, although there have also been extraordinary moments of support and community.
Standing back a little, what strikes me is that everything people are doing or not doing, from a glitchy virtual tour of a closed museum, to donating PPE from museums’ stores to health and care workers, to articles about productivity tips (or exhortations to ignore the articles about productivity tips), is people trying to do their best to help somehow, in whatever way they can. Faced with uncertainty, stress, and fear about what’s happening and might happen next, our sector has shown an extraordinary willingness to try to make things better for our comminities, our colleagues, and our organisations. Stress and uncertainty can bring out both the best and the worst in people, but starting from the assumption that people are trying – in difficult circumstances – to do their best, can be powerful, and positive. In the last few weeks, there have definitely been moments when it has helped me to pause, and try to see what someone’s positive intention was, even if they expressed or approached it in a way that might not have come across positively.
Leading a team through a period of crisis needs clarity and emotional balance, or as close to either of those as I can get at the moment, because the wellbeing and resilience of the people in the team is so important. Micromanagement and too-tight control of a team at a time of stress has been shown to have negative effects that linger when the crisis is over. At the same time, if people don’t feel supported and feel like they don’t have the information or guidance they need, even the best plan won’t stand up. Prioritisation can’t be at the expense of empathy. So, I’ve been reading and thinking about compassion and compassionate leadership, in the fragments of time in between planning and replanning, and talking to my team and to staff across the university. Understanding people’s individual responses to a crisis and thinking about how best to help them takes effort but it’s important. Even better, there’s good evidence that compassion not only helps leaders support their teams and colleagues through crisis, but also helps them maintain resilience and emotional balance themselves. So, what better investment of time could I possibly make at the moment than this?