Difficult decisions and unpopular actions

Back at Vftp Int’l Headquarters, and I’ve had to attend to one of those jobs one absolutely dreads- finishing a long-standing personnel issue at an orchestra that I regularly work with.

There’s no worse part of a conductor’s job than having to be the heavy- no matter how kind one tries to be every day you come to work, one instantly becomes Darth Vadar the moment you have to deal with a difficult player or staff situation. Deciding to discipline or dismiss someone means embarking on a difficult and awkward process, and becoming, at least in the eyes of some, the bad guy.

Fortunately, these situations are exceedingly rare. Most problem colleagues act the way they do because they are unhappy in their position, and people who are unhappy tend to move on of their own choosing if they can afford to.

Worse is the situation when not only does change need to happen, but feedback needs to go with it. This is even rarer. In a litigious age, we tend to live in a world of silent consequences- it’s okay to stop hiring someone, but not to hurt their feelings. Hurting anyone solely to be cruel is never acceptable, never. However, letting large and vulnerable non-profit organizations suffer because we are unable to confront destructive behavior is irresponsible. Sometimes, it is not enough for a problem to go away- the organization needs to make clear its reasons, because some people will take advantage of an orchestra’s reluctance to cause friction.

I’ve always felt that difficult decisions should be dealt with when it is no longer a decision, but a necessary act. “You leave me no choice” is a cliché, but with some reason.

Today, I finally had to deal with one such situation. It is one that should have, in retrospect, been dealt with long ago. Had it been, perhaps such drastic action would not have been warranted. I believe in second chances, but I also have a responsibility to not ignore looming problems simply because dealing with them will be awkward and unpleasant. Now, having waited too long and having let too many actions pass without sufficient consequences, something had to be done.

In the end, I chose to handle this with a letter spelling out in unusually strong terms the nature of the issues at hand because I felt the behavior in question was among the worst I’d ever come accross. I’m sure it made the person extremely, extremely upset, and they came back to me immediately saying the recent problems had actually been caused by a family medical emergency they didn’t previously report to us. I can’t help but feel terrible at the thought of someone else’s family dealing with serious medical issues.

Of course, that is only the latest event, and there are ways of coping with family emergencies that allow us to support people in difficult times, and minimize the negative impact on the organization. In my experience, there are always reasons given for bad behavior that make perfect sense, but at the end of the day, 99% of the people we work with manage to do right by their colleagues even in difficult situations, and a track record is a track record. People get up from hospital beds and come running from loved one’s funerals to get to rehearsals and concerts because they understand they have a responsibility to their colleagues and to themselves.

Nonetheless, it’s left me feeling icky and down. The best non-musical part of being a conductor is being able to help and encourage your colleagues, friends and students and to see the positive results of your actions. When the best you can hope to do is end a negative situation, and in doing so know that nobody is happy about the outcome, well, that’s when you think about going back to playing full time.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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5 comments on “Difficult decisions and unpopular actions”

  1. ComposerBastard

    From a personal management perspective, some notes on this matter:

    – Past behavior – a series of warnings, (2x?), should be followed in sequence leading up to this dismissal. This would have allowed opportunity for the subject to be discussed on a personal level, one-on-one, and respectful of the integrity of the person involved, to get help for the person if they needed it – professional or informally. 90% of these issues are related to some internal problem and need to communicate it . It becomes internalized. “OK, Joe..come on…whats going on with you here?”
    – Family emergency – sorry on this, but family has to come first. That should be understandable. the person should have at least made an effort to contact you, or found a suitable replacement. Some effort of manners. A phone call..

  2. Guy Aron

    Dear Ken

    sorry you have had this awful experience. Having to be “the heavy” is never pleasant. I could never do this successfully in my professional life, and now know that a supervisory position is just impossible for me as the disciplinary aspect is just too stressful. But I am sure you have done it as sensitively and as fairly as you could. I agree with the previous comment to the effect that you can’t be expected to take things into consideration you didn’t know about.

    Quite coincidentally I am feeling pretty crap because one of my colleagues told me in the staff room a short time before that he has terminal cancer, and a prognosis of about six months. It gave me the reflection that at least I will be around (touch wood) to be complaining about things – which I intend to continue with! Please don’t take this in any way to diminish or dismiss your experience – just my reflections of the moment. In one of those synchronistic moments I have just been listening to one of my favourite pieces of music, Strauss’ Metamorphosen, in the sextet version – the first time I had heard this one. I think overall I prefer the orchestral version, but gee it did me some good! All the best, Guy.

  3. John

    I agree – it is the worst part of the job of artistic director. This past year, I had the unenviable task of letting a long standing member of an auditioned community chamber choir go. The toughest part is that my predecessor was the one who had let her in the choir in the first place. Now, it is my third year as director of the choir, so it’s not like I haven’t given her the chance to keep up with the pace of an ever improving choir – and somehow I thought she might have seen it coming, but it still doesn’t make it any easier. Perhaps a slightly different situation as it had nothing to do with personality or behaviour – just poor musicianship.

    I’ve also had to fail a student in CONCERT CHOIR of all things at the Uni (you have to try really hard to fail concert choir). After I told her she was going to fail, she also blamed her behaviour on medical and family issues – to which I asked why she didn’t tell me why I wasn’t made aware of them earlier, as I could have been more understanding, to which she said it was non of my business. Where do you draw the line between professor and friend in a situation like this? How can one be understanding of a situation when you didn’t know anything about it in the first place? Discipline within a choir or class has always been one of my weaker suits. I tend to hope that everyone who enrolls in a class wants to learn, and wants to be there – so why should I have to ever consider failing them? So many times I wish that the university did not hand out marks – and students could concentrate on ‘learning’ rather than “acing” a course. Of course, this would ruin the reputation of the institution, and leave the student with no basis for future graduate admissions or jobs… so I suppose we do what we must.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks Guy, John and GB for the comments, all of which I agree with.

    Just to clarify, as CBs comment leaves me worried I may have not made this clear…. We were not told of the family emergency until after taking action. Had we been told before the missed service, we would have sent flowers and tried to help out. Also, in this case, we’re dealing with a contractor, not an employee, which doesn’t make any of this less awkward, but which does have some bearing on how we deal with it.

    Ultimately, nobody I want to work with wants to go to work in a situation where bad behavior runs rampant. In the short term, I will take some heat as conductors always do, but I’m quite sure morale will improve. When bad behavior goes un-checked, all the good actors start to feel cheated and taken for granted. That had to stop.

    I quite sympathize with John about grading pressure in the university- something I experienced a lot of in my short academic career. I really, really, really think we’re doing students a huge diservice by giving everyone an A. Students need to know what they’ve learned and what they haven’t learned, otherwise, they are headed for terrible frustration in life. I often thought that whether I was getting paid enough to teach, I was never paid enough to grade!

    Cheers everyone

  5. composerbastard

    “Just to clarify, as CBs comment leaves me worried I may have not made this clear…. ”

    No, you were very clear…perhaps I wasn’t. This doesnt concern the last apex incident but any incidents that happened before this ( if they occurred). My only point is perhaps someone should have approach this person and made an effort to find out what the “real” problem they were having was. If this was the only incident they had, well, fine how could you know. However, if there were many incidents and they were high in intensity, someone should have tried to focus this person on the problem in a humanistic way. Easier to give advice than to actually perform it, I know…

    Coincidently, I had some HR training yesterday in Harassment. The legal repercussions here in the states are staggering and the cases which at first don’t seem like issues are big ones. Highly recommend you research what constitutes harassment legally federally and in your state (Oregon). If affects not only who you are working with, but also contractors and even the UPS delivery person who makes a delivery to you. Also the place it occurs doesn’t necessarily have to be at your workplace. Too much to go into here..but people who are abusive constitute a financial and personnel risk to our organization. So, If you are acting as an admin or hiring manager, you should definitely look into this or ask someone who has experience in HR management for information and help, so you can catch it up front and minimize risk.

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