When Stephanie asked me to write a post about what I have learned over the many years I have been working with museums, my brain froze. I found this a tough assignment to tackle, mostly because I have learned so much. After thinking about it for weeks, I felt compelled to list all the cool things I learned from museums as well as my clients. Then the list grew too long, but I sure had fun thinking about it. For example, corn is a fruit—not a vegetable—and so is squash, cucumber, avocados, okra, chili pepper, and eggplant, to name a few. What I had always thought were vegetables, were fruits, botanically speaking, because I didn’t know that “vegetables” with one or more seeds were fruits! How could I have been so misinformed for so much of my life? I was excited with this new-found knowledge and we discussed it that evening over dinner. My daughter took it in (she was in second grade at the time). I could now say at the dinner table “please eat your fruit,” which always got a chuckle because it sounded a whole lot better than the alternative.
Somewhere along the way, when I was a child, I was told corn is a vegetable and like many children, I trusted the adult who told me, and I went through life thinking it was true until many years later, a botanist in a botanic garden told me otherwise. My complete trust in him as a stellar botanist caused me not to question, but to believe, and then want to know more. My trust led to questions that poured out of me. Trust is a deep interpersonal element that can open doors to ideas, knowledge, and new ways of knowing and understanding; without it, there aren’t any doors at all. In organizations, trust among staff is necessary—if individuals are to thrive personally and professionally and if organizations are to continuously learn and improve. Without trust, honesty doesn’t have a place to live, safe spaces cease to exist, and people do not listen to understand; alternative perspectives don’t have a chance and preconceptions continue to persist. Without trust, people are shut out; they are silenced. Over the years I have observed that trust among staff provides the organizational strength to pursue innovative ideas, and trust is the glue that holds organizations together and brings them to new places where they thrive.
Trust, I realized, is an organizational resource and asset that not all organizations possess. I usually know when an organization exudes internal trust but I don’t really know how to describe what I sense and see. I wish I could. But I can say this: when staff inside the museum radiate mutual trust, it likely extends beyond the walls into the museum’s surrounding community, affecting its relationships with community partners, donors, and new and traditional audiences. Approaching others with an open-minded, inquisitive trust can initiate principled, thriving relationships. Trust democratizes interactions and invites civil dialogue for the sheer joy of learning and pursuing original and thoughtful ideas.
When my botanist friend corrected my misunderstanding of corn’s classification, I could have disagreed and fought vigorously for my position. But my trust in him didn’t allow me to do that. My trust in him overpowered any opinion that I might have had about the subject. Somehow, I knew my trust wasn’t naïve, and my ego stepped aside and my trust in him became a powerful phenomenon and motivator.
Imagine a museum staff that absolutely trusts each other to share their thoughts—no matter how risky it is to do so, and to have conversations about what is important to them and their museum. So, while I learned many things during my 30 years at RK&A, topping the list is that trust among staff is a necessity.