If You’re Happy And You Know It, Does Anyone Care?

I am currently involved in a project for a client where one component of my work necessitates measuring the current level of morale and overall job satisfaction among employees…

The process has been entirely positive but after talking to some of the longer-term employees, it appears that the organization has never initiated a regularly occurring formal survey to measure current levels of moral and job satisfaction. This made me wonder how many orchestral organizations conduct regular (or even infrequent) institution-wide morale and job satisfaction surveys.

Given the fact that most positions within an orchestral organization do not pay as much as their for-profit peers, morale and job satisfaction should play an important part in attracting and retaining capable personnel. Combine that with the mission oriented ideals associated to most nonprofit organizations and an employee’s satisfaction with accomplishing the institution’s goals while enjoying a healthy work environment morale should be critical internal benchmarks for any organization.

As such, I’m interested in hearing from readers who work inside an orchestra (managers, board members, volunteers, and musicians) about their experiences and observations related to morale and job satisfaction.

  • Has your organization ever conducted surveys to measure either morale or job satisfaction?
  • If so, are surveys conducted regularly and the results shared openly?
  • If so, do you think the process is implemented only as show or does it have a sincere impact on improving the work environment?
  • If not, do you think such a process could be useful in your organization?

Take a moment out of your day and send in a comment. Naturally, given a subject as potentially sensitive as this, you can feel free to remain anonymous and keep the identity of your organization anonymous as well. Nevertheless, I think it is an issue worthy of feedback and discussion.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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14 thoughts on “If You’re Happy And You Know It, Does Anyone Care?”

  1. I am a musician in an ICSOM orchestra. In my nearly 20 years here, I don’t recall ever being surveyed for job satisfaction. I’m not sure that such surveys would be useful, given that everyone is aware that over the years a great majority of institutional decisions have resulted in damaged or destroyed musician morale, and yet such decisions continue being made.

  2. Although this is specifically about orchestras, the same can be said for working in art non-profits where the same lack of employee satisfaction measures is endemic. In my ten years of working in various places, I was never surveyed/asked about workplace satisfaction. This is a problem – found at places large and small – that needs to be addressed, especially amid concerns about “growing” the next generation of arts leadership. How does the field expect to keep and grow good leaders if they are not happy with the work experience now?

  3. 2ndFdl: I agree that a survey in-and-of itself will likely have little impact and they can easily be used to justify just about anything the users wish. As such, it is a tool and like any tool, it will only be as effective as the individual(s) using it. Ideally, the intentions and follow-through will be such to use the tool to good effect.

    At the same time, I do encounter individuals in an organization who have gone through similar experiences only to be disappointed and they choose to decline in taking part. When that happens, I find it every bit as useful to interview the individual to learn more about their past experiences and why they don’t have any faith in current efforts.

    Too often, I find that current efforts don’t take into account past initiatives and as a result, the cycle of ineffectiveness only continues. If I find a great deal of resistance to such surveys then that is a strong indicator that the survey needs to be postponed and an extensive interview process would be implemented to find out more about why and how current levels of apathy have developed.

  4. I am the Executive Director of Welsh National Opera. We have recently carried out our third staff survey (previous ones undertaken in 2001 and 2003). The survey is an extensive self-completion questionnaire which goes to each of the circa 250 permanent employees. The first survey had a response rate of 59%, with 45% / 47% for the second and third. The survey asks a range of questions which give us an insight into people’s morale, team spirit, pride; their attitude to the way the company is organised; their view of the overall management and the way their own departments are organised etc. As in any organisation(for-profit or not-for-profit) communication is an issue so we used the first survey to identify weaknesses in existing internal communications methods and inform changes to the way in which we communicate with our staff. Subsequent surveys have tested the response to new methods.

    We publish the headline results, good and bad, each year and distribute these to every member of staff. We also give a commitment to make the full dataset available to anyone who requests it.

    We can report significant increases in the number of people who have confidence in the way in which the company is being organised and managed, a greater understanding of the objectives and direction of the company, increased job satisfaction and a dramatic fall in the number of staff who think internal communications are poor.

    I can understand that some people may be cynical about these things but at WNO we are committed to improving the efficiency of the organisation as well as the relationship between ‘the management’ and employees. Openness and trust go hand in hand with these aims and the survey is just one tool which can help us achieve a greater company.

  5. Here are some observations…no real conclusions or insight. I worked in development for a major symphony for over two years, and was dismayed at the lack of substantive efforts to boost morale. Stress was very high, and interdepartmental cooperation was terrible. This went along, of course, with understaffing, high turnover, and inconsistent but low pay. Leadership thought we “should play nice in the sandbox” not fully understanding that the issues were deeper. Efforts were made on occasion to boost morale and to explore the issues through the hiring of consultants and offsight meetings, but feelings were made worse, because no solution was arrived at. The primary source of satisfaction was access to and affiliation with “the end product.” The leader of the organization was/is a very high powered person who may not realize the commitment most people have to the organization…more and more demanded without effort to sincerely thank employees for their hard work. Negative reinforcement to drive more work is often used vs. positive reinforcement. The bottom line is that surveys and efforts to boost morale can worsen morale is there is no substantial follow through or sustained and sincere effort or understanding of the need to build morale.

  6. My experience was with an orchestra that has a $6 million plus operating budget. Like many orchestras it was and remains in crisis management mode. The trinity as I call it – board, administrative staff and musicians – were constantly at odds with each other. I was in the administrative staff category. Many of the musicians looked down on the administrative staff and it was communicated to us that because we did not choose the same artistic/professional career path as them we were not as “worthy” and shouldn’t be paid what we were (which is far lower than our for-profit counterparts). However, arts administration is a very professionalized and specialized career option. On the board side that fact was not appreciated as the board endeavoured to micro-manage the staff on a day-to-day basis. Administrative staff ended up frustrated because they felt they couldn’t do the jobs they knew needed to be done to make a difference. Therefore, it was an environment filled with animosity where no one trusted each other.

    ……………On the other side, I have worked for one of the best managed arts organizations in the country. The staff were happy and content (even when under paid) and the organization was successful for the most part because people trusted each other in their respective professional roles.

    ……………My experience in the orchestra world left me feeling somewhat bitter and I have no desire to ever work for an orchestra again. So, I look forward to hearing stories of different orchestra environments that will renew my faith in the future orchestras.

    ……………When I worked with the orchestra it never conducted a survey to measure morale or job satisfaction. I feel that the process of measuring moral or job satisfaction is founded in sincerity but most organizations lack the resources to adequately continue the morale monitoring process.

  7. Regarding A Little Bitter’s comments above, I don’t doubt that there are musicians who look down on administrative staff members because they didn’t pursue a performing career. Many other musicians, however, respect the hard work of those who keep us on stage. In my orchestra, we wouldn’t begrudge higher administrative salaries if they would only do their jobs competently. We do have some excellent staff members who are significantly underpaid, but when we see billboards and press releases with misspellings and incorrect dates–that is, when we see them at all; you would barely know about many of our concerts–it is very hard not to resent a senior staff member’s compensation.

  8. Surveys. Hate. Hate. Hate ’em. Especially the anonymous kind.

    For years, as an ED, I fought back the orchestra’s desire to fill out an anonymous survey of the Music Director, only to have one later used to help justify firing the guy. I believe I took the principled stand. If the players wanted to sign the surveys, I told them, let’s do it. Of course, they wouldn’t think of it. (My solution was to facilitate a meeting between orchestra representatives and the personnel committee when it was time to renew the Music Director’s contract.) Particularly in a labor/management situation, an anonymous survey is like a loaded pistol in the hands of the individual musician.

    But, you may say, a MD survey isn’t a morale survey. I maintain that if the MD has been there longer than 10 years, it’s tantmount to one.

    So, why should it be any different for the administrative staff? Well, it might be, but the conditions have to be appropriate, including:

    1. The staff will be receiving normal annual salary increases. Surveying a staff that hasn’t received a raise in two or three years is nonsensical.

    2. The board should not be involved, at any level. The survey should be a tool for the manager to assess the situation with his staff, not a weapon for disgruntled board members to use against the manager. (There are other appropriate ways for the board to find out if the staff is unhappy and the manager is at fault, including interviewing department heads, as long as the manager is fully apprised of the activity.)

    3. Personnel policies are in place requiring staff members, under penalty, to voice their concerns with the manager first and exclusively with the manager until which time there is an impasse, and at that moment the staff member can request a meeting with the Board Chair or an appropriate board committee chair. Going around the manager to the board before the manager has had the opportunity to solve or deal with a problem should be a firing offense.

    Even with all this, I’m against them. I don’t believe they tell a competent manager what he/she doesn’t already know when they’re filled out honestly, and when they’re used to vent personal frustrations or animus, as they often are, there’s hell to pay.

    Bottom line, if a manager wants to find out what his staff is thinking, he should get them in a room and ask them.

    Non-profits exist in two modes, crisis and non-crisis.

    In non-crisis times, when people are getting raises, the board’s happy, and things are progressing, staff morale is rarely an issue. The exception is almost always related to a dysfunctional staff member or manager. In the former case, the manager will not need to do a survey to know where the problem is coming from. It will be apparent. If the manager is dysfunctional, it will be apparent to any board with eyes and ears.

    In crisis, poor morale is the norm, and surveying it is almost always done for ulterior motives. Either a board is gunning for the manager, or the manager, if it’s his survey, may hope to blame things on his staff.

    Finally, as long as no one is actually being abused, why should we care if a staff is unhappy? A decade ago, a major orchestra manager employed a psychologist to consult with staff members who stressed out over his self-confessed harsh management style. His priority was a highly efficient staff, and if they were unhappy because of the manner in which he lead them, that was totally secondary. Put another way, once staff morale becomes a priority, more important things, such as organizational effectiveness, become secondary.

    I know this sounds cynical, and the reader is right to suppose that some bitter experience informs my opinion. Actually, for most of my career, my staff was a happy group. Only when financial crisis reared did lack of raises and a hyper-active board begin to eat away at morale. I knew no impersonal survey was going to buck people up, so I took the direct, face to face approach. And the actions I took as a result made a difference.

  9. As a member of an orchestra’s administrative staff, I would only be interested in morale surveys if the organization first had a consistent and serious commitment to employee reviews. If a non-profit does not have a habit of internally communicating its own goals to the administrative staff in such a way that the staff can respond to the challenge productively, then a morale survey seems an irresponsible waste of time. However, if my institution suddenly began conducting employee reviews of the kind I was accustomed to in the for-profit world, I would probably be suspicious of the underlying agenda!

  10. One-off employee satisfaction surveys can have value if (a) they are well-designed (valid, reliable, cover appropriate variables, action-oriented etc.), (b) employees know why the survey is being done and what may (or may not) be done as a result of the data analysis, (c) responses are not coded to identify individuals or small departments and (d) actions developed from results are clearly announced as such

    They can be very important organizational tools if the organization plans periodic followup activity (evaluation of institutional response, periodic re-surveys etc.)

    Responding to some of the DeepNote comments above, I’d say that one should be concerned about morale if organizational performance or staff turnover are issues. I wouldn’t be very concerned about employee morale becoming too high a priority though, as for every one of those situations there are about fifty where it is not enough of a priority.

    • I certainly agree that the one-offs have their own unique value but making the surveys an ongoing effort is crucial to building levels of workplace satisfaction that sincerely tap the organization’s full potential. And that’s the real trick with all of this: reaching reasonable levels of buy-in.

  11. I work for a major (Fortune 100) company that does these surveys. Every year the same thing came back – bad morale, unhappiness with working environment and recognition/rewards, and every year management has paid lip service to fixing the problems therein identified.

    These surveys are only as good as management’s desire to actually improve things. Too often they are just used as “look! We care about you!” moments; without walking the talk they are worse than useless, and that’s true no matter what kind of employer is doing the survey.

    • No argument there; running through the motions is worse than ignoring it, if for no other reason than the organization is wasting resources. For arts groups, the buck stops with the board; if they don’t insist on putting a meaningful process into place and following through with proper evaluation and oversight, it’s all for nothing.

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