Why (And How) Are You Apologizing?

Seth Godin recently wrote a lengthy post on the subject of apologies.  He addresses the issue of entities providing insufficient apologies but also the expectation of restitution which is out of proportion with the offense.  Since good customer service is one of the primary attributes that contribute to the success of non-profit arts organizations, it is obviously worth considering what he has to say.

We can start by asking, “what is this apology for?” What does the person need from us?

  • To be seen
  • Compensation
  • Punishment for the transgressor
  • Stopping the damage

The first category is the one that most demands humanity, and it’s also the most common. A form letter from a company does not make us feel seen. Neither does an automated text from an airline when a plane is late. One reason that malpractice victims sue is that surgeons sometimes have trouble with a genuine apology.

He says when people don’t feel they have been seen, it leads to demands for the other three elements: Compensation to make good on a real or perceived loss; Punishment which allows the victim to feel the transgressor has also suffered; Stopping the damage so that no one else suffers the same harm in the future.

These other three categories can be executed in a constructive manner, though it is easy for punishment to turn into a recurring cycle of damage.

However, Godin says some psychological and social expectations related to compensation, punishment and stopping the damage can have a destructive result.

Compounding these totally different sorts of apologies is the very industrial idea of winning. Victims have been sold that it’s not enough that your compensation is merely helpful, but it has to be the most. That you won the biggest judgment in history. That the transgressor isn’t simply going to jail, but is going to jail forever, far away, in solitary confinement. We’ve all ended up in a place where one of the ways to feel seen is to also feel like you came in first place compared to others.

Though it may not prevent someone who seeks to win to the detriment of others, Godin says the best way for an organization to address damage is to train and empower front line staff to provide an empathetic response.

The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed.


The alternative is to choose to contribute to connection by actually apologizing. Apologizing not to make the person go away, but because they have feelings, and you can do something for them. Apologizing with time and direct contact, and following it up by actually changing the defective systems that caused the problem.

“Yikes, I’m sorry you missed your flight–I really wish that hadn’t happened. The next flight is in an hour, but that’s probably going to ruin your entire trip. Are you headed on vacation?”

Path To Promotion Doesn’t Necessarily Have To Be Vertical

You have probably heard some form of the Peter Principle expressed before. At its most cynical, it is usually defined as, “A person will be promoted to their level of incompetence.”   While this has often been used somewhat tongue-in-cheek, according to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, some researchers set out to test if this was really the case.

Studying more than 40,000 sales people at 131 firms, they found this was largely borne out. It has often been assumed that the skills that made people successful at sales would be transferable to management roles, even though there are metrics that are reliable predictors of managerial effectiveness. In fact, the effectiveness of salespeople under the supervision of an improperly promoted supervisor is often inhibited.

…we find evidence that firms systematically promote the best salespeople, even though these workers end up becoming worse managers, and even though there are other observable dimensions of sales-worker performance that better predict managerial quality.


What is striking, however, is that – among promoted managers – pre-promotion sales performance is actually negatively correlated with managerial quality. A doubling of a manager’s pre-promotion sales corresponds to a 7.5% decline in manager value added; that is, workers assigned to this manager will see their sales increase 7.5% less than workers assigned to the manager who was a weaker salesperson.

What drew my attention to the Marginal Revolution post was the discussion of how to motivate people to perform well without necessarily promoting them to a position which is a mismatch to their strongest skillset. Non-profits often don’t really have the option of providing the increase in pay that would generally accompany a promotion. In many cases, people applying for positions at non-profits are motivated by tangible and intangible factors other than money. (I shouldn’t need to add that this is not a license to normalize paying ridiculously low wages.)

This is good because the first thing the researchers suggest as an alternative to promotion is incentive pay and that may not be a viable option for non-profits. They do caution about totally eliminating promotion as an option since some workers are more motivated by promotion than salary increases. What they do suggest is decoupling job performance in a current position from a set career ladder associated with that position.

So for example, in a non-profit setting you may not look to promote an event coordinator working in the Development Office to assistant director of development if they don’t have the best social skills. Instead, you may want to shift them toward a management or director position in an operational role in recognition of the superior organizational and planning skills they exhibited with events.

Do They Know They Are Hard To Reach?

On the Arts Professional UK website, Imrana Mahmood, discusses her experiences becoming a creative producer in a manner that reminded me of two other speakers/authors I often cite. Mahmood’s experience seemed to be at the crossroads of Jamie Bennett’s TEDx Talk about people not recognizing their capacity to be creative even though they already engage in creative activity and Ronia Holmes’ piece on how disinvested communities aren’t bereft of creative and artistic practice.

Mahmood’s article immediately recalled Holmes to me thanks to the title, “A Seat at The Table.” Holmes had talked about how people in disinvested communities are often offered a small seat at the big table by other organizations  when they actually own the entire table in their own communities. Mahmood’s article starts along much the same lines (my emphasis):

As a British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, I grew up with an intrinsic love of the arts, including qawwali, henna, calligraphy and poetry. It was therefore a surprise to be labelled as being part of a hard-to-reach community with low arts engagement, as I struggled to reconcile the reality of my lived experience with an inaccurate perception of my identity.

She was encouraged to apply for funding as an “emerging creative producer,” but says she was initially reluctant “to view myself as an arts professional.” I attribute this to her mention earlier in the piece that

“…a career in arts was not considered to be a proper job. This was despite spending much of my spare time running community arts projects as well as having a keen interest in visual arts and live performance.”

Throughout the rest of the article she mentions experiences which involved perceived tokenism and gatekeeping as well as instances when she felt she and others had license to express themselves on their own terms.   If you take one thing away from this article, it should be her call for organizations to reflect on their own inaccessibility.

Paying lip service to diversity and only conversing with creatives of colour as though we exist as a monolith is hugely problematic. It is time that organisations committed to engaging hard-to-reach communities reflect on the reality of their own inaccessibility.

Along those lines, I have some reluctance in citing Ronia Holmes’ original piece as if it were a monolithic representation of the needs and sentiments of all communities, but I often return to it because it for its perception of all the dynamics motivating arts and cultural organizations.

You Are Never Too Young To Start Producing Shows

So given the context of all the deserved gushing over a North Bergen, NJ’s stage version of the movie Aliens with a $5,000 budget and recycled materials,  Ken Davenport’s suggestion that high school productions have general managers and press agents doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable.

Davenport’s  motivation is to get as many kids involved in a production as possible. Everyone knows the larger cast you have on stage, the larger an audience you are likely to have as friends and family show up to support students. But he also notes that being involved in administrative roles opens people’s eyes to a much wider range of career opportunities than just actors and technicians. (his emphasis)

Because whether a student decides to pursue a career in the theater or decides to be a lawyer, I firmly believe that there is no endeavor in the world that teaches collaboration better than putting up a musical.


They’re probably the type that thinks putting on a musical is just a hobby.  Because no one has told them any different. But you and I know it’s a business . . . just like any other.  And that businesses need all sorts of talents to make a show a success.

He outlines the following as tasks students could pursue in the different roles.  Davenport encourages everyone to pass the post link on to any high school teachers who might be interested in pursuing this. He says he will even write up the job description and list of duties so the teacher doesn’t have to.

The Producer would be in charge of overseeing the production, of course, as well as fundraising.  Yep, give him or her a goal of raising $X and let them find a way to do it (car washes, bake sales, Kickstarter and more).

The General Manager would learn how to put a budget together for the show and keep everyone on a budget.

The Press Agent would try to get articles written in the newspapers, online, and even invite people like me to come to see it.

The Advertising and Marketing Director would get the word out to sell tickets, get a logo designed, manage the social media, and more.

The Casting Directors would schedule the auditions, run them, put out the offers and maybe even convince the high school quarterback that he’d make a great Teyve.

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