Leadership

What Westboro Baptist and Jonah Hill Have in Common

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Westboro Baptist and Jonah Hill

Messer photo Messer photo 

Unlikely pair, wouldn’t you agree?

This week, Westboro Baptist hit the news for unlikely reasons. Singer Brad Paisley took the selfie you see above on his way to perform. Westboro showed up outside the venue to protest the sinfulness of his shows. Paisley showed up to play loud enough for them to hear the music from the outside.

Actor Jonah Hill found himself in hot water after making a derogatory comment to menacing paparazzi. I won’t rewrite the word, but let’s say it was something you wouldn’t want you momma reading on your Twitter. Mr. Hill went on record this week to publicly apologize for the remark, saying it was a “disgusting word” said in a moment of frustration.

Unfortunately for the both, the media has not been so kind. Public reaction, on the other hand, has. Comments, tags, posts, and blogs have buzzed about the sincerity of Mr. Hill’s apology and have extended him forgiveness. Westboro Baptist, on the other hand… well, we all know what the internet has to say about Westboro.

We also know what Westboro has to say about the internet, but that’s another story altogether.

Though on the surface the two stories share little to nothing in common, digging deeper we find they are actually standing on two sides of a fence, a fence we psychologists call the attribution theory.

The attribution theory is a theory that tries to explain how people make sense of others’ behaviors. Take, for example, a scout helping a little old lady across the street. When asked to describe the young man, we might say, “He was very kind.” Notice we didn’t say he was a scout. Nor did we even say he was helping the little old lady. We called him kind.

We associate the scout with kindness because of his actions. (This is called spontaneous trait inference, for all you nerds out there) Given a 1/10th second exposure to a picture of someone’s face, we will associate (or infer) a trait to them. Happy. Sad. Good. Creepy. Hot. Gay. All in 1/10th second.

So much for objectivity.

What does this have to do with Westboro and Mr. Hill? Consider the pictures above. What did you associate to Westboro after hearing their story?
Heartless?
Bigot?
Cruel?

What about Mr. Hill?
Ashamed?
Sincere?
Apologetic?

Chances are, you don’t have relationship with either, yet you and I find ourselves making judgements about their behavior and their image based on a couple of sentences and a picture. Why would it be any different for us? 

In work, in life, in our family – as leaders – we are subject to attribution. People will attribute traits to us based on our actions. And when we goof up, how we respond can change the trait completely. The action we take changes the perception we will get. Notice how both Westboro and Mr. Hill did something socially naughty, yet one is publicly considered as “cruel” and the other considered “apologetic.”

As humans, we can’t always avoid messing up, but we can still do the right thing and own our mistake. Though it may not always get us out of the dog house, it may be the difference between “bigot” and “better.”

I wish all the best for Mr. Hill. It isn’t easy to own up to something socially unacceptable. And as for Westboro, I hope at least they enjoyed the concert.

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Mission Mess: making your mess a mission

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“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind…

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“…then is an empty desk a sign?” -Einstein

In Manhattan on Broadway, there used to sit two magazine stores across the street from each other. One, a chain, put their Cosmopolitan magazine snugly and neatly next to their Fortunes. They had a powerful inventory system and training series that taught their employees how to make the most of their time with the customer. The other, owned by old Mr. Essam, haphazardly stocked his magazines without the aid of computer inventory or programs. He and his assistant operated from memory and straightened as best they could whenever they could. Can you guess which one survived?

Mr. Essam, of course.

This story is from Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman‘s smart and brilliant book, A Perfect Mess. They explain how mess makes the world a better place and why Mr. Essam is still in business. One reason was his lack of overhead – no profit eating computer system telling him what to do. The other, they explain, is mess.

I once worked with a young, startup company that had a beautiful business plan, great mission, clear values, neat goals. After they worked tirelessly for months to get the company off the ground, it sank like the Titanic. My diagnosis: they were too neat.

Though there’s something to be said about neatness, there’s a hidden benefit to mess, says Abrahamson and Freedman: flexibility.

Messy systems adapt and change more quickly, more dramatically, in a wider variety of ways, and with less effort. Neat systems tend to be more rigid and slower to respond to changing demands, unexpected events, and new information. – A Perfect Mess, page 77-78

Think about the messy improvisation of a jazz ensemble, or the chaotic and sometimes drunk-looking dance of a boxer. They aren’t at a loss; they are ready for change, whether in rhythm or response.

One of the biggest disasters an organization can commit with their mission statement is making it too neat and clean. A mission statement that does not make room for failure or change is, in itself, a failure. It lacks the flexibility life requires. Stuff happens. We have to adapt.

But think outside of work for a moment.

  • What about your household rules like, “Always share, with everybody.”
  • What about the unspoken family rules like, “We don’t fight.”
  • What about relationship rules like, “I have to have a positive disposition, even when we fight.”

These rules might work for some or most things, but life is messy. Stuff happens. We have to adapt.

Teams – whether they are work teams or families – require allowances for mess. NOTE: they don’t require the mess to become a disaster! They do, however, have to expect the mess. Teams that don’t expect mess tend to get a little obsessive-compulsive: so obsessed in cleaning up each and every spill that they are compelled to ignore their primary objective.

So when setting goals for work, or for summer diet/exercise, or for your marriage, or for your kids/parents, focus on two things:

  1. What is my primary objective here?
  2. Am I willing to forgive myself when I mess up/Am I expecting to encounter mess?

Expect a little mess. Don’t let your obsession to have a perfect and neat mission get in the way of reaching your goals. Smile when messes happens. They are just reminding you that you are human!