An Emotional Bear Trap

Joe Patti, my Inside The Arts blogging cohort, posted an absolutely fascinating piece on 1/15/2008 which recounts his recent experience attending the "Learning to Lead" session at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Annual Conference. Although the post is relatively short, it is chocked full of meaningful observations into the root of negative learning cycles endured by nonprofit cultural organizations…

I found the following statement from Neill Roan’s every bit as interesting as Joe did:

"Someone who is rationally satisfied behaves no
differently than someone who is rationally dissatisfied. People behave
differently when they are emotionally satisfied…the pathways back to
learning are different where there is emotional satisfaction…I think
in our field and in the performing arts, there is so much emotional
satisfaction…that is actually a barrier to our need to understand and

There’s nothing more I could add to Joe’s post
that expands on what he identified as "The idea that emotional
satisfaction, which is probably what allows people in the arts to
tolerate low pay and long hours, is actually inhibiting progress…"
However, this concept becomes even more intriguing when applied
directly to the orchestra environment and labor relations.

Labor relations tend to impact those involved within orchestral
organizations more on the emotional than the rational. As a result, if
it is true that most employees on the administrative side of the
equation are subjected to emotional satisfaction then it begins to
become clear why contentious labor relations have such a crippling
impact on any given outfit.

For better or for worse, managers and staffers can work hard
and – according to Roan’s observations – even if the institution isn’t
meeting goals they still develop a certain sense of overriding
satisfaction. But that internal balance is torn asunder when rhetoric
flares between musicians and administrators. As a result, is it any
surprise why wounds run deep, perhaps deeper than if the same scenario
played out at a for profit institution, and the idea that the internal
environment can be patched up in short order just doesn’t happen?

There’s some real meat here in this discussion and although it
isn’t revolutionary by any means it’s intriguing to examine it under
this light.

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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1 thought on “An Emotional Bear Trap”

  1. In light of your comments above, and the tentative contract agreement in Jacksonville, I have been wondering how long it will take for the organization to heal itself. It seems to me that some remedial conflict resolution sessions would be in order. If I were a musician, I would want to have a meeting which would include all the members of the Board responsible for the decision for the lockout, as well as the CEO and Conductor, and have some frank exchange, to establish some kind of common ground for going ahead. It must be demoralizing to go back to work with such loose ends and residual bad feelings floating around. Even the President of the Board’s remark that it has been hard on everyone, “especially the patrons,” really struck me as insensitive: it’s been hardest on those who suffered the most from having no income and insurance. Doesn’t he even “get it” yet?

    Those are all good questions. According to a statement from Alan hopper the organization has a plan in place to address a healing process but no details have been provided. ~ Drew McManus

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