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Too Many Standing Ovations

I had the good fortune to hear a wonderful classical concert last night. The music was familiar but performed in such a wonderful way, but a symphony with a wonderful reputation. The soloists were enjoyable, providing vocal accompaniment to a fantastic symphony. The whole experience was very enjoyable but I wouldn’t say it was more than I expected from this calibre of orchestra. When they finished, the crowd literaly roared and everyone stood up, the typical standing ovation. What is it about American culture that requires every experience to be treated as though it were superlative? I admit to being a bit of a curmudgeon on this issue.  I like Wikipedia‘s entry on standing ovation, which says in part that it should be used on “special occasions” or for “extraordinary performances of high acclaim.”  The orchestra last night was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by Paavo Järvi, and is a wonderful organization.  It has been a long time since I enjoyed a concert so much.

But just because my enjoyment was that much greater than normal, didn’t mean that I thought that their performance was so exceptional.  The CSO is an exceptional group; they are not performing at the same level as a high school orchestra.  I didn’t hear a note missed nor any of the other jarring effects of a less accomplished orchestra.  And by not joining in the standing ovation, I didn’t wish that the concert had been better.  Yet there was the audience, on its feet as though a soloist had been circular breathing into a didjeridu for an hour – now that would be something exceptional!

I was heartened to see that there are other curmudgeons out there, as evidenced by this
USA Today column or Tyranny of the Standing Ovation, in the New York Times, Dec. 21, 2003, by Jesse McKinley.  It may also be that some folks don’t think for themselves and just stand up because they see everyone else doing it.  I was particularly tickled by the one woman on the orchestra level who did her own individual standing ovation, for a performance by a soloist and smaller part of the CSO that was far more deserving of it than the finale.  But as the NY Times piece notes, some pieces encourage a standing ovation, through their very crescendo and rousing endings to bring the audience to their feet.

I have seen this same thing happen as a manager.  Employee reviews creep more and more into “superior performance” because no-one wants to make their staff feel bad, to take the position that “satisfactory” is, in fact, a perfectly reasonable place to be.  The problem with having an entire team performing at “superior” standards is that they can’t possibly all be superior unless your measurement is out of whack.  In fact, what ends up happening is the truly superior staff see themselves lumped in with the truly mediocre.  By making the extraordinary into ordinary, by making everyone a “superior” performer, everyone is also a mediocrity.

I look forward to many more fantastic peformances from the CSO and do not wonder at all that someday I’ll be on my feet with the rest of the audience at a truly exceptional performance by this world-class orchestra.

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.