Asking Audiences How They Perceive Our Motives

I went to the Arts Midwest conference last week and I am still sorting out all the notes and brochures, etc that I picked up.

There were a couple general bits of observations I wanted to share.

Blake Potthoff, Executive Director of the Fairmont Opera House in Fairmont, MN gave me permission to share something he said in one of the professional development sessions.  He opened his comments by expressing a problem totally opposite of the one the rest of us face–he wanted advice attracting older generation audiences to his shows, specifically those from Generation X. Apparently he isn’t having problems attracting millennials.

Later, he mentioned that one of the ways they evaluate how their shows were being received was by convening an advisory group every other month and asking them whether they felt a show in the season had been programmed for impact or for dollars.

In other words, once people have seen the show, the organization asks their advisory group if they felt the inclusion of the show in the season had been purely motivated by money or if they felt the show had been meant to have some impact on their lives.

What didn’t come up in the professional development discussion was the fact that the arts org can often lose more money on what people perceive to be a cash cow than on a lightly attended event.

Potthoff said these discussions have really impacted how the organization plans their season and experiences.

The approach was pretty intriguing for me. This isn’t a question we generally ask our audiences.

Usually, the rule is not to ask a question if you don’t intend to act on the answer. In this case, I am not sure what my response would be to the answers I would get.

If my goal is to have an impact on people’s lives, does it matter if people think a show has a commercial motivation and turn out in sufficient numbers to support it? If people answer that a show was impactful, but too few people show up to make it financially viable –well this situation is what we generally assume. Things that aren’t popular are still worth doing for the impact.

If people feel a show was both motivated by commercial success and feel the show was highly impactful for them, that might provide some direction, especially if I felt the show was mostly feel good fluff without much value. I just have to put my snobbery aside a little and explore what contributed to  people feeling this way.

Then there is the final option where none of our expectations are met – what we intend to be impactful is viewed as commercial and what is intended to be a money maker is viewed as impactful. Some answers may lead you to place where you resent your audience for being out of tune with your intent.

In some respects, this may be a question that you ask not knowing exactly what you will do with the answer–except that you resolve to be open minded and not reflexively decide the answers are irrelevant.

Because you probably also need to ask, does your community care whether something is meant to be a money maker or impactful? Do they have negative associations with their concept of what the intent to make money entails?

When they perceive something was intended to be impactful, do they feel that it has improved their lives or that they viewed it like vegetables–they know they are supposed to consume it for its cultural value, but they really prefer something else.

Even beyond the question of profit vs. impact, it may be enlightening to generally ask people what they perceive our organizational motivations to be.

Writing Contracts With An MOU Attitude

Earlier this month, F. Javier Torres and Leila Tamari wrote a piece on shared power and transparency in grant making for Inside Philanthropy. They were reflecting on some of their practices over the last decade at ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund.

One of the things that caught my eye was their discussion of memorandum of understanding (MOU) with grantees. I had written about MOUs vs Contracts for ArtsHacker about three years ago where I mentioned that MOUs generally aren’t legally binding where contracts are.

Despite the fact they were granting significant sums of money to people, Torres and Tamari say it is that non-binding characteristic that lead them to use an MOU versus a grant agreement.

…we developed customized memorandums of understanding (MOUs) instead of using grant agreements. We chose MOUs because they are intended to be jointly negotiated. They allowed us to share power and build consensus about our relationship and expectations of each other (beyond the financial investment). Through this back-and-forth process, funded projects could request non-financial resources in support of their goals.

While using MOUs was a step in building a more equitable power dynamic, funded projects rarely took advantage of this opportunity, and we recognized we still had the ability to “reject” a request as the holder of resources.

Even though the use of MOU didn’t solve issue of an unequal power dynamic as they had hoped, it struck me that this was a benefit of MOUs I hadn’t spoken about in my original ArtsHacker article. Though as I had written in another ArtsHacker article, even though contracts are supposed to formalize an agreement at the end of a discussion rather than be used as a sort of bludgeon at the start of the conversation, contracts are often employed in this latter role.

So if you want to avoid having either party feel like their options are being limited from the outset, perhaps starting the conversation with the intention of creating an MOU is the best approach. As the conversation evolves, you may feel that the relationship is better formalized with a contract instead.

Granted this is probably overly complicating things because both parties are likely to realize their arrangement really requires a contract from the outset, but starting with an MOU mindset may be more conducive to a constructive relationship.

The Best Customer Is The Emotionally Satisfied Customer

Back in 2009 I wrote a series of articles on the book Human Sigma after I had heard someone at a conference remark that arts administrators were often so emotionally satisfied with their work that they didn’t feel the need to keep up on current literature and attend to professional development. I had asked the person where he heard that and he directed me to Human Sigma.

Human Sigma is actually more about interactions between customer facing employees and customers than professional development so what the authors, John Fleming and Jim Asplund, have to say is pretty applicable to arts organizations.

Emotional connection and satisfaction are very important when building a relationship with customers. As I wrote about one of my biggest revelations I received from the book:

What surprised me was that those who are rationally satisfied “behave not any differently than customers who are dissatisfied.” They use the example of a credit card company. Those who were emotionally satisfied spent an average of $251/month and used the card 3.1 times a month. Those who were rationally satisfied spent an average of $136/month and used the card 2.5 times each month. Those who were dissatisfied also spent $136/month and used the card 2.2 times.

What informs people’s emotional satisfaction is often tied to a perception of fairness. While the definition of fairness can differ from person to person, one thing that is true for pretty much everyone is that anything that appears to make the interaction easier for the business than the customer is perceived as unfair.

I wrote prime example of this,

…is the phone queue with the recorded message about your call being important leaving you to reconcile how this can be if the place is so poorly staffed the average wait time is twenty minutes. What the authors say about this really struck me, (my emphasis) “From the customer’s perspective, any process or system whose primary purpose is to solve a business problem rather than a customer concern is unfair.”

They also note that treating people equally can appear unfair. If your customer service staff follows the exact same scripted process with customers not recognizing that the script can’t cover all eventualities, the result may make you look incompetent and patronizing for asking questions or suggesting solutions which obviously do not apply to the situation.

In the third post of my Human Sigma series, I devoted the whole post to the authors’ suggestions about how to handle customer complaints. I will list them here. Check out the post for more detail.

The importance of handling complaints well is extremely important. As the authors write,

“customers who encounter a problem and are extremely happy with how the company handled the problem often have levels of emotional attachment equal to—and in some cases exceeding– those who have no problem at all.”

They say that customers don’t expect a business will always resolve a problem to their liking, “but they do except the company to handle them in an exemplary way.”


They have found that people who have a high emotional investment are likely to give a company the benefit of the doubt when a problem arises viewing it as an honest mistake or even pondering how they may have contributed to the situation. Those with low engagement are more likely to place heavier blame on the company for the problem making it more difficult to please them.

Here are the six steps to addressing customer complaints they suggest as I first wrote in my post:

First is to acknowledge the problem exists. Second is to apologize. They are quick to add that apologizing is not accepting the blame.

The third step they suggest is “Take ownership of the problem and follow up, even if the problem is unresolved.” Promising to follow up by a certain time or date is better than a vague “as soon as possible” because the customer may feel they have to continue checking in on your progress.


Suggestion four is to handle problems on the spot rather than bumping it to a supervisor.


Their fifth suggestion is have a process which quickly brings the problem to the attention of a supervisor or manager.


The last suggestion is to leave people better off than they were before the problem occurred.

In the next post I wrote, I noted that Fleming and Asplund said the best way to achieve this is to empower the employees to find the best way to solve customer problems rather than create a formal process/decision tree. Essentially, tell the employees the end goal and then let them figure out how to get there. Employees are evaluated on achieving the end goals rather than how well they adhered to processes.

There Is Creative Conflict And Then There Is Creating Conflict

Last Monday I wrote about how intrinsic motivation can often be more effective than external motivators like rewards and punishments, but suggested non-profit workers not allow people to use that finding to insist they will be more productive if they are poorly paid.

I fear I may need to reiterate that point having read the following in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, (my emphasis)

Consistent with these famous case studies, scientific research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. For instance, a recent study of 100 product development teams found that two common disruptors of team harmony, namely diversity and task uncertainty, were positively associated with creative performance. Likewise, a review of theoretical and quantitative studies showed that teams are often more creative when they have fewer rather than more resources (for example, time, money, and people). Furthermore, teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict — expressing disagreements, negotiating between different views, and working under a certain amount of tension — tend to be more innovative.

Actually, I only call attention to that phrase as a segue to the major topic of the piece which is that too much harmony may inhibit creativity.  This doesn’t imply a laissez-faire approach to team management is the way to profitability.

Just as we don’t want people suggesting that under funding and under resourcing groups is for their own good, this passage shouldn’t be read to suggest that fomenting dissension or creating hostile work environments will increase innovation.

There are some suggestions for leaders in the piece about how to introduce a moderate amount of conflict and tension, but I want to focus on the section of the article that emphasizes the necessity to have a team composition which is able to process the tension to constructive ends.  Employing or introducing a degree of discord has to be deliberate and considered rather than randomly tossed out with the idea that uncertainty will get people’s blood pumping.

Make sure that the team has the right personality characteristics. While one size does not fit all, teams with higher aggregate levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness will be better equipped to manage diversity and conflict. Team members will be more likely to hold themselves accountable to agreements, will try to smooth over relationship conflicts, and will ensure that the task focus is not derailed by personal dramas.

Increase psychological safety. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as nondefensive and open responses to those risky behaviors. In a recent study, intragroup trust was found to be the best predictor of productive task conflict, without creating relationship or personal conflict.

Give the team a chance to settle. Sometimes there is no substitute for the passage of time. Teams that develop sufficient familiarity create both emotional connections and precedents that allow them to productively work through tensions. For example, a NASA study found that teams with a shared working history made half as many errors as newly formed teams. Loyalty is a powerful source of resilience, as religious groups, movements, and families have always known. And in the absence of a shared history, team members with similar values are more likely to put up with tension and turn task conflict into a positive outcome.

You are likely to recall situations in your own experience when you witnessed groups thriving under similar conditions where conflict and tension helped drive the effort rather than derailed it.  Artistic pursuits by their very nature revel in embracing challenges and solving problems.

But as the article suggests, while it might be self-perpetuating once established, this environment is one that needs to be monitored and maintained because it exists in a balance between unmotivated satisfaction and destructive conflict.   While you might be able to recall experiences where groups thrived in a tense environment, if you have worked in non-profit arts and culture long enough you are even more likely to recall toxic, resentment filled environments and/or organizational cultures which seemed paralyzed by avoiding any appearance of conflict.

Send this to a friend