As the Minnesota Orchestra dispute drags on, I’ve been struck with a thought. For some time now, I’ve been documenting, analyzing and critiquing the MOA leadership’s actions in my blog. Time and again I’ve pointed out that from my perspective, they are causing serious, long-lasting damage to the organization.
But I’ve never dug into a deeper question… why?
No one in the MOA leadership is evil or stupid—they are in fact intelligent, savvy business people and administrators who have achieved great success in their careers. And collectively they have given large sums of money to the Orchestra over many years, and supported it in a variety of other ways.
So why would the leadership be so willing to let this destructive pattern play out like this? Why would they let top talent walk away? Why would management dig its heels in so thoroughly in support of a strategic plan—especially when that strategic plan is so obviously null and void at this point?
And why are they blind to the reality that even if they have the best of intentions, they’re damaging the organization?
This is a key problem that goes deeper than bad PR plans, shoddy strategic plans, anti-union agendas or any other particulars in this dispute—unless we can identify why they are willing to let all these things happen, there is a high probability that the underlying problems will persist even after the dispute is resolved.
I haven’t interviewed any of the principal players in this ugly affair, and I feel safe saying that at this point they would not likely be willing to sit down with me for a discussion. So, I’m left to speculate.
Of course, ideological blinders comes to mind as a reason, but let me take a different track and look at this from a business management perspective. There is a rich body of business management writings that can be helpful here—particularly those works that analyze destructive management techniques. This literature identifies a variety of “blind spots” that frequently trip business leaders up, leading to all sorts of negative consequences for their respective companies.
So let me take three of the most widely discussed red flags from the business world and see how they apply to the Orchestra’s situation.
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1. The “Halo Effect.” This term was coined by Edward Thorndike in his 1920 article “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”. Essentially, Thorndike described it as a situation where the perception of positive qualities in one thing or part gives rise to the perception of similar qualities in related things or in the whole. For example, if we like a person (“He’s nice!”), we’re more likely to ascribe all kinds of favorable characteristics to that person (“He’s trustworthy, too!”), even if we have no empirical basis to do so.
This is why companies hire celebrities as spokespeople.
Phil Rosenzweig famously applied these principles to management in his 2007 book, The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers. He argues that when a company’s sales and profits are up, people often conclude that it has a brilliant strategy led by a visionary leader. “In fact, a lot of the things that we say drive business performance are actually attributions based on performance,” he argues. “That’s simply because there’s a lot of things in business—leadership, corporate culture, execution—that are kind of fuzzy concepts. It’s hard to measure them separately from company performance.” So observers look at one element of success, such as a company’s financial success, and extrapolate from there about the strength of its leadership, governance and strategic planning. As a result, many of the things that we commonly believe are contributions to company performance are in fact attributions. In other words, outcomes can be mistaken for inputs.
Rosenzweig uses the example of Cisco Systems to illustrate his point, a company that achieved astonishing growth during the 1990s to become the largest company in the world in 2000. In the example of Cisco, observers felt the company was thriving because of the strength of its visionary leadership. In actuality, it was the reverse—the company’s overall performance enhanced the perception of Cisco’s leadership.
This point has a clear parallel with the Minnesota Orchestra’s situation. In the case of the Orchestra, it feels like the leadership of the MOA has fallen into a trap where they look at the successes of the organization of a whole over the last few years, and ascribe them to the leadership. This was clearly the thinking behind the $200,000 bonuses given to Michael Henson. When defending these bonuses in the press, the Orchestra’s Board Chair Jon Campbell made exactly this point—essentially arguing that since the Orchestra successfully amassed the funds for the renovation of Orchestra Hall and concluded a successful Carnegie Hall under Michael Henson’s watch, he should receive the credit. Unfortunately, this notion overlooks the fact that the campaign to refurbish Orchestra Hall began many years prior to Henson’s arrival, and that Osmo Vänskä’s was instrumental in securing the Carnegie Hall invitation and leading the actual performance.
But there’s an insidious additional layer as well. Another aspect of the halo effect is that leaders are also more prone to implicitly trust their peers—other “visionary leaders”—and to uncritically accept their assessments, judgments, plans and ideas. Suggestions that come from people outside this group are inherently discounted because they don’t come from the preferred source.
The MOA leadership has displayed this tendency many times during the ongoing labor dispute. Simply put, the MOA leadership has been unable to recognize other talents, skills and judgments that are different from their own. So, when non-profit managers like Alan Fletcher have critiqued the MOA’s actions and strategic planning, they are discounted as people who “just don’t get it.” When the musicians make suggestions in areas such as governance, marketing and development, they are summarily dismissed as being “unrealistic” and are written off as pawns of a national union. When the leadership’s chosen mediator, Senator George Mitchell, urged them to accept a compromise plan with the musicians, they demurred and negotiated around him. When the group Orchestrate Excellence provided a detailed comparison between the Minnesota and Cleveland Orchestras, leadership dismissed it out of hand. Again and again, the MOA leadership has fallen into an echo chamber where only their own voices are heard… and respected.
2. “The Peter Principle.” The Peter Principle was first introduced in an article in Esquire magazine by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1967, and has been a staple of business courses ever since. Stated humorously, the idea is that people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence. In other words, as people continue their path of promotion, they are eventually promoted right out of their field of expertise and into a position where they are utterly and helplessly incompetent. The most famous example of this comes from the U.S. sitcom, The Office, and particularly office manager Michael Scott. Michael was a successful salesman, but he is hopelessly unqualified to be a manger. He flails ineffectively (and hilariously) in his job, spouting off half-understood business buzzwords, badly implementing new initiatives, launching inappropriate team-building exercises, and generally crushing productivity.
Overmatched leaders are a particular danger for a business—when challenged, they tend to try to reduce the organization to reflect their own limited understanding of what’s happening.
Worse, they frequently try to achieve success by latching onto a flashy, trendy business idea. Without a solid base of critical thinking and experience to guide them, they latch onto a popular business idea as a panacea that will take care of everything. In doing so, they buy into a dangerous perception that success in business follows predictably from implementing a few key steps. Unfortunately, many of the “hot new ideas” are based on questionable, usually anecdotal data that can’t be replicated regularly in the real world.
How does this apply to the Orchestra? First, let me be clear that I have no practical experience of working with Michael Henson or anyone from the board, and I don’t want to casually toss of the oversimplistic view that anyone in the MOA leadership is inherently incompetent. But there is a reason the Peter Principle is so widely covered in business school—it is far too easy to hire and promote people, based on success in one area, into an area where they are no longer effective. In 2007 the Minnesota Orchestra was looking for board and administrative leaders with a specific skill set. It was trying to launch a major renovation of Orchestra Hall, and secure the funds to do so, and assembled a leadership team based on those expectations. But shortly thereafter, it got clobbered by the Great Recession and was desperately trying to hold its finances together. The situation that developed after 2008 was beyond anything leadership had prepared for.
And at the same time, I think it’s a fair statement to say that the labor dispute has similarly expanded beyond anything leadership had prepared for.
I wonder if the leadership is up to the task of dealing with these things. Michael Henson seems to have a fairly thin, highly targeted résumé suggesting he was brought in primarily to deal with a narrow set of issues—primarily as a money manager. Is he the best person for the job in the new, far more complex environment that requires a very different set of skills? Is he the best person to preside over a wrenching organizational transformation? To manage a diverse organization with many kinds of constituents? To solve an unprecedented labor dispute?
3. “Toxic Leadership.” There are many parts to this concept but let me focus on the most obvious—leadership that crushes opposition and protects itself at all costs. Often, leaders in this mold will do a reasonably good job of communicating up to superiors and presenting an amiable public persona. Unfortunately, they tend get defensive when challenged by facts. They tend to cover up any negative feedback and camouflage survey results to convince superiors that they’re doing a good job.
But there is worse to come. As Marcia Lynn Whicker described in her influential book, Toxic Leaders: When Organizations Go Bad, toxic leaders “Succeed by tearing others down. They glory in turf protection, fighting and controlling rather than uplifting followers.” They are often bullies, and like all bullies are fundamentally weak and insecure. They frequently follow a “divide and conquer” approach to leadership—essentially establishing a culture where people are against each other and engendering a culture of fear and mistrust.
This seems to have a particular resonance for the Orchestra situation. I think it’s fairly obvious that that the Orchestra leadership has established an “us vs. them” mentality where the musicians have been systematically scapegoated and marginalized from the other principal groups in the organization. In an interview on Minnesota Public Radio, violinist Peter McGuire confronted Michael Henson on this very issue, saying “There was this kind of ‘the bully’s going to meet you at lunchtime’ feeling for at least a year and a half.”
I’ve noticed this same thing myself. From the outset of this dispute, there has been a clear campaign directed at the musicians, painting them as greedy, out of touch and vaguely irrational. I’ve been bewildered at why the MOA’s leaders would smear the musicians this way—while that might secure an advantage in the short-term, it can also inflict long-term damage that lingers long after the dispute is over, making it all the harder to draw audiences or donors.
And from reading the MOA’s report to the city of Minneapolis, it seems clear that management is still trying to put all the onus on the musicians for the impasse. In the report, Michael Henson states the MOA doesn’t have a willing negotiating partner who is bringing offers to the table… conveniently overlooking the multiple offers the musicians have, in fact, made from the very beginning.
Plus, the MOA’s leadership has engaged in a defensive “circle the wagons” approach. This was most obviously on display at the Orchestra’s annual meeting, when in the face of repeated challenges from city and state lawmakers, the board reaffirmed Michael Henson, Richard Davis and Jon Campbell in the same positions of power.
But it manifested itself in other ways as well. As I’ve covered in my blog, when challenged by the audience advocacy group SOS Minnesota on its finances, the Orchestra released a huffy response that didn’t address any of the fundamental concerns. When the city of Minneapolis demanded a report on the Orchestra’s artistic activities, the leadership complained loudly and submitted a “report” that was a study in deflection and equivocation. Repeatedly, outside voices that have offered advice or criticism have been dismissed because “we know what we’re doing.”
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Over the past year, the MOA leadership has lost financial support, burned bridges with the community, incurred the ire of lawmakers, been vilified in the national press, lost key staff members, watched their famous music director resign in disgust, been called out by other arts leaders from across the country, and more in their determination to “win” the labor dispute.
Such single-minded determination goes far beyond ideology, politics, negotiation tactics, or sheer stubbornness.
So… why do they persist?
I think the above points shed a great deal of light on the situation. Each of these points is a well-known management problem that plagues businesses across the country, and I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to see that they are influencing the MOA’s destructive behaviors here as well.
But I’m open to other ideas. I ask this honestly: is there another reason why the MOA leaders are engaging in such destructive activities, long past the point of diminishing returns?
Can they explain their actions in clear terms, or give a compelling rationale for what they’re doing without the scapegoating, easily disprovable statements, or airy dismissals we’ve experienced so far?