Back in 2007, The Washington Post collaborated with leading concert violinst, Joshua Bell, to organise a stunt, their coverage of which has since ‘gone viral’ on the world’s social media platforms. You can read their own article here (and other coverage here and here, for example), and come to your own conclusions as to whether or not the journalist had interpreted the event before or after it happened, but the event certainly does ask interesting questions about human reactions and how examples of great performance can often pass unnoticed.
Having been both a journalist and a busker/musical performer – and still being a cynic – I confess that my own response came with the size of ‘pinch of salt’ that would trigger a red flag on food packaging. Some rather basic questions sprang to mind, including ‘How people would recognise Mr Bell even from a photograph of a concert performance?’ and the even more prosaic ‘At a busy station during rush hour, what did you expect to happen?’ Yes, people do filter out quite a lot of what’s going on around them, but at 8.30am on a busy city transport system that may be more a case of survival mechanism than behavioural quirk. (Hats off to the performer for wringing global press coverage out of being largely ignored, however: I hope steps have been taken to protect him from subsequent outbreaks of Busker Envy.)
The point that interested me most was perhaps less obvious: to express it as a question, ‘How can ensure that our moments of great(est) performance don’t go unnoticed?’ As most of us aren’t successful concert artists, and the majority of us don’t ‘make’ an otherwise unexpected $40ph for moments we might consider failures or lost opportunities, what is our learning?
The first learning point is perhaps that busking is a poor analogy. Few of us achieve formal recognition or reward by performing unannounced and uninvited in an arena where our mere presence is either unwelcome or even illegal. Rewarding a busker is a discretionary activity: we have paid to be transported in a more literal sense, and our assessment of the transit system is most likely to be based on reliability, crowding, safety and hygiene than impromptu cultural contributions.
In our workplaces, we are – for better and for worse – less likely to pass unnoticed. Unlike buskers, we perform to job descriptions and against performance targets, completing timesheets and being monitored and tracked by any number of both people and systems. If a busker has a bad morning, that’s their problem and the issue ends there. Equally, however, buskers are not at liberty to request a brief meeting with their potential audience to discuss the possibility to pursuing a personal project. I have yet to be leafleted on public transport to the effect that someone would like to perform a Vivaldi opus on Thursday morning and seeking my assent to proceed. Buskers may have the advantages of being self-appointed, but they must also deal with the consequential disadvantages.
As employees, we equally have aspects in our favour and beyond it. We have – or at least should have – a reasonably clear idea of both what and how it is expected that we will perform, where, when and for/to whom. We will – or, again, certainly should receive feedback, both positive and negative but hopefully constructive, on our performance(s). And unlike buskers, we may have at least some advance notification or indication of the nature of performance that would be most appreciated.
The employee’s dilemma is different: where the performance they wish to highlight or pursue lies outside the parameters that have been outlined to them, or within but falling on deaf ears, how do they attract attention to what they feel is being ignored.
The optimist’s answer is through dialogue. As part of an organisational structure, employees can seek to open conversation with colleagues and managers about contributions they would like to be able to make (but currently don’t have opportunities to), or to request feedback on contributions already made but left unremarked. (Buskers trying this kind of approach may find things other than coins heading in their direction.) While this places a potentially heavy onus on the person with the lowest status to initiate such a conversation, organisations that are mindful of engagement and staff retention may recognise the roles that having a sense of contribution and thoughtful job design can play in helping everyone to be more successful or sustainable.
The pessimist’s answer might be closer to Joshua Bell’s experience, but without the hat full of small change at the end of the day. If the employee’s enthusiasm falls on deaf ears, if their efforts find outlets in directions only that go unnoticed (or risk being labelled as ‘not sufficiently aligned with strategic objectives), or if discussion is not on the agenda, their ability to empathise with a gifted individual getting cold feet on a metro station may increase sharply, although their career prospects probably will not.
Whether or not their subsequent absence would be a loss to the organisation or not is something only the organisation can answer. The problem is that those most likely to find themselves in this situation are perhaps those most likely to be unable to arrive at the right questions.