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.

Accepting Donations Is Increasingly Complicated Business

While I have written about this before, of late it seems that the decision to accept a donation from someone is increasingly one requiring deliberation. An article on The Conversation lays out a case for either having a morals clause or time limits on any donation that involves naming rights.  Citing the number of non-profit arts, cultural and educational institutions who have refused to accept donations from the Sackler Family due to their ownership of opioid maker Perdue Pharmaceuticals, author Terri Lynn Helge notes it is easier to refuse a donation than to refund one.

As a nonprofit law scholar, I have seen that it’s much harder to sever prior arrangements with donors embroiled in scandals than it is to stop taking money from donors who are the object of public outrage.

[…]

When these scandals strike, charities face a dilemma – keep the money given by the now-tarnished donor or return the tainted funds. But returning the funds may be easier said than done.

Once the money is given away, it’s committed to charitable use. Returning that money just because the donor’s reputation is now sullied may get the charity in trouble with state regulators.

Helge mentions donations from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby as cases where organizations began to experience negative perceptions of their brand and were faced with refusing a donation or making public statements distancing themselves from the donors.

Increasingly these are issues non-profits of any size need to consider as they accept and recognize donations from a variety of sources. Both returning the donation and grinning and bearing the bad publicity can be equally bad options:

They can give the money back, perhaps with interest. They can suspend programs or professorships named after the donors whose names have become an embarrassing burden, perhaps with threat of litigation from the donor for not fulfilling the charity’s end of the bargain. Or, they can continue to maintain the donor’s name and face public outrage.

[…]

Once the cost of doing nothing gets too high in the long run, charities may implement costly options to terminate the association.

That is why in my view, museums and other recipients of the drug-making family’s philanthropy could eventually redirect their donations. But that won’t happen until what they lose by honoring Sackler gift agreements becomes more exorbitant than satisfying all of the anti-Sackler movement’s demands.

First Rule Of Arts Club–Talk To Everyone About Arts Club

I came across a study conducted in the UK where the researchers found some benefit to new attendees of arts and cultural events having the opportunity to participate in peer-lead audience exchange conversations.

They were pretty particular about excluding someone with (perceived) expertise from the group as including such a person either led to people deferring to the person’s expertise or feeling too intimidated to contribute to the conversation. The researchers drew comparisons with book clubs, but encouraged arts organizations to facilitate the formation of such groups since people rarely organize themselves. (emphasis from original)

Deborah (DX): “It’s really nice to talk about it afterwards. Rather than just sort of taking it all home with you”.

Bridget (IKG/BCMG): “[…] at the contemporary music thing, it was quite nice to sit down at the end and talk with other people about the experience [agreement] because otherwise you sort of wander away with a couple of inane comments, and sort of forget about it. But sitting down with people is an interesting way of reflecting –” [Doris: “It can add to the experience.”]

This deepening of experience through conversation was also evident in the group discussions themselves, as participants wrestled with their own responses to an event and sought insight and reassurance from others in the group. They emphasised that the particular kind of discussion they had enjoyed in the audience exchange was not the same as the conversations with performers sometimes offered by theatre or concert providers, where Doris (IKG) felt she “would feel a bit intimidated about saying something not terribly deep and meaningful – but this doesn’t intimidate”.

Some of the commentary the researchers recorded was very interesting to learn. I was trying to figure out how an arts organization could go about capturing this data without being there. An obvious answer is to record it if that doesn’t impact what people are willing to say. Otherwise, asking someone to take notes. Among the comments the researchers recorded were ones about the marketing materials organizations were putting out.

Even while the new audience members struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about their response to a concert, some felt that the language being used by the arts organisation also failed to capture their experience, with too much of an emphasis on analysis and not enough on the emotional impact of the music:

Bryony (E360A): “For me that description of tonight doesn’t make it sound very exciting – it makes it sound a bit rubbish!” [laughs].

Adam (E360A): “Especially the Martinů one, like that was my favourite one, and it says it ‘exhibits the flute to great effect’ [laughter] but to me it was the violin that was really interesting, and the variations in the music”.

These sort of discussions can be helpful for new attendees because they can validate the reactions they have. Some of the discussions revolved around feelings of guilt about being bored or having one’s mind wander. Someone else in the group piped in defending her “’right to daydream’, expressing the view that if the music encouraged her into personal thoughts and memories, this was in itself a response to the performance and not one for which she should feel apologetic.”

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