Transitions and Trust

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is going through the same sort of uncomfortable transition that all organizations do when there is change at the top.  And, as with any such leadership transition, there is pain.  Pain from those asked to leave the organization.  Survivor’s guilt from those invited to stay.  Friendships tested as the community fractures into those in favor of the new world order, and those opposed, and those who don’t want to pick sides and just want to get back to work… and everywhere in between.  In the hullabaloo, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many long-time members, who wanted to stay with the chorus but didn’t pass the re-audition, are hurting.  You have my sympathies. I know I may face the same situation next year after my re-audition.

Here’s the background, via some uncontested facts:

  • Most high-level auditioned musical groups require members to periodically reaudition to secure their continued participation in the group.
  • The founder and long-time conductor of our chorus, John Oliver, had ceased using the reaudition process during his final years running the chorus.
  • John Oliver retired.  After two years (and several candidates), James Burton was selected as the new head of the chorus.
  • About a year into his leadership, in the fall of 2017, James asked all choristers to participate in a “sing-in” by preparing and performing a short solo piece for him.  According to James, some people did well, some people did okay, some people did not do well.
  • Following the sing-in process, James reinstituted the reaudition process, with some sight-singing and music theory requirements beyond what John Oliver had asked for previously.
  • Dozens of choristers declined to reaudition.  Dozens more were told they did not pass the audition.  Those cut included several long-time members who have spent decades singing in the chorus and have many ties within the organization’s community.

From there, opinions diverge.  Did James Burton treat the cut choristers fairly?  Did he communicate the sing-in and audition requirements and rubric properly?  How high should the bar be for a volunteer chorus?  Were those cut shown the respect they deserve after contributing decades of their time and money to the organization? Why did he tell people not to worry last year when the Huffington Post asked if “a new broom sweeps clean,” if he was planning to remove so many members?

Rather than litigate the answers to these questions — given I have friends and fellow musicians on both sides of the issues —  I will instead point out what was lost in this entire process: Trust.

There’s a great business book by Robert Bruce Shaw called Trust in the Balance which talks extensively about the importance of trust when building successful organizations.  He talks about how easily trust can be lost, and that once a certain threshold of distrust is passed, every action and behavior serves to further validate the leadership’s untrustworthiness — it even becomes difficult for supporters not to question every action.  He says trust is built through three pillars: results, integrity, and concern.

James Burton and the organization have been strongly focused on the results pillar.  He has repeatedly emphasized his desire to achieve artistic excellence by making a world class organization even better.  As the conductor, he has defined ambitious performance targets and made decisions on how to pursue them, and many (but not all) singers have come to trust the results he’s achieved and the process he uses to get there.  He and the organization have also built trust by demonstrating concern: engaging with the chorus, building familiarity and dialogue, and showing confidence in our abilities.  But integrity, however, demands consistency between words and actions, and a level of openness that was not achieved through the re-audition process.  The callous form letter notifications and the sheer number of people failing the reauditions were alarming departures from  the reassuring impressions at the start of his tenure. None of the chorus members anticipated the depth of change coming until the snail mail notifications began arriving one by one in people’s mailboxes.

We’re in the middle of this trust deficit now.  Fortunately, many choristers I know have not crossed that “trust threshold.”  They recognize that mistakes were made, but can be corrected, and they continue to trust in James Burton’s leadership.  Many choristers I know have long since crossed the trust threshold, and no one can convince them that anything James does is good for the chorus.  Several of those choristers apparently went to the Boston Globe with their story, leading to the publishing of a terribly unflattering front-page article about the situation which I hesitate to even link here.  It’s filled with vitriolic comments from James’s most ardent detractors.  (Outlets such as the Boston Music Intelligencer presented a more balanced viewpoint.)

What do these articles do, besides helping to satisfy those determined to ruin the organization?  They further erode trust.  The Globe narrative is “management vs chorus,” which will increase suspicion and paranoia on both sides.  It impedes the open communication required between the two.  As a chorus member, I’m reluctant to talk to other chorus members about my opinion on the answers to those questions, lest I alienate another friendship.  It will take a while to work through all this with my peers… just like it has for every “Reduction In Force” layoff I experienced at other companies in my career.  These are not new problems for an organization in transition.  And they will fade over time.

Trust is a precious commodity; hard to win, easy to lose and lose fast.  The solution, Shaw advises, is to make a concerted effort to overcome that distrust, by eliminating trust-eroding practices, over-communicating intentions with uncharacteristic openness, and rallying around opportunities to demonstrate teamwork — in this case, our upcoming rehearsals and concerts.  If they can continue to realign actions and words, the management team can demonstrate its integrity and slowly win back the skeptics while preventing others from crossing that trust threshold.  And then we can truly get back to what we all want to do — outstanding performances of choral works with the BSO.


5 responses to “Transitions and Trust

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful perspective on the recent events.

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