Monday, November 10, 2014


Yesterday’s article about a college president making some staggeringly sexist comments about campus rape had some lessons beyond the obvious.  (For the record, the obvious would include “don’t be a sexist jerk.”)  

In grad school, grad students bonded by making jokes about everything and everyone.  Much of that derived from the combination of high verbal skills, extreme powerlessness, and the apparent absurdity of some of what we encountered.  We lacked the authority to change much, but we could at least validate each other’s observations, and appreciate zingers well-zung.

On faculty, some of the same habits carried over.  It was easy to cast snark at this administrative initiative or that one; at times, snark was the only sanity-maintaining response.  It built soilidarity within the ranks, and gave an accepted outlet for frustration.

When I moved into administration, though, I quickly -- and somewhat awkwardly -- discovered that comments that previously would have been considered well within bounds, suddenly weren’t.  Jokes or asides that had mostly generated smirks in one setting elicited fear in another.  And there were understandable reasons for that.  I had to make a conscious adjustment in how I framed certain things, just to prevent unproductive misunderstandings.

In writing classes, the issue was usually framed as “audience awareness.”  It’s almost a kind of code-switching.  In assessing the propriety of an explanation, a joke, or a mode of address, the question of audience matters.  I’ll make comments at home that I wouldn’t make at work.  The comments at home aren’t necessarily more true, exactly; comic exaggeration is a well-worn way of blowing off steam.  But an aside that seems funny in the context of family may seem cruel or shocking in the workplace.  The higher your rank in the workplace, the truer that gets.  Hierarchy is an amplifier.  At a certain point, you have to assume the microphone is always on.

I’ve noticed that sometimes, when someone has grown a little too comfortable in the spotlight, they start to lose their audience awareness.  Comments that might have belonged backstage, assuming they belonged anywhere at all, find their way onstage.  We usually think of stage fright as a bad thing, and it certainly can be, but a little bit of it can actually be healthy.  It keeps the speaker from forgetting that the microphone is on.  

I used to think of audience awareness as a form of lying.  I don’t see it that way anymore.  If anything, it’s a sign of respect.  The people who pride themselves on always “telling it like it is” are nearly always insufferable, because the subtext of their style is that they matter and nobody else does.  The fact of taking the trouble to couch a message so that the recipient can receive it as intended is a sign of respect for the recipient.  Yes, it’s possible to go overboard and fall into lying or manipulating.  But it’s not the same thing.

Parents generally know this from direct experience.  There are times when your kid wants your attention or participation in something, and you’re just frazzled.  In those times, it takes conscious effort not to just get snappy.  But you make the effort, because you know that in the long run, a healthy relationship with your kid is far more important than the fact that you’re wiped at a given moment.  I don’t think of that extra effort as lying; I think of it as paying attention to a longer-term truth.  
This may explain why introverted leaders often last longer than their more outgoing counterparts.  Introverts, as a group, are likelier to behave as if the microphone is on.  For them, in a sense, it always is.  They never entirely lose the sense of performance in public interactions, which means they rarely get so comfortable that they forget the onstage/offstage distinction.  Paradoxically enough, introverts often do very well on stage.  For them, daily life is a form of practice.

Diverse workplaces are probably less likely to lull leaders into a false sense of being offstage.  That’s good in itself.  Most of us are less likely to take stupid liberties when we’re at least a little bit self-conscious.  

Of course, if a leader is simply too narcissistic to register the presence of meaningful others, there’s probably no stopping him from stepping in it.  And in this case, there’s something to be said for the idea that he revealed publicly what he does privately, and that what he does privately does real harm to actual women.  To my mind, that’s grounds for removal.  

But beyond that case, I wonder if cultivating a little more self-awareness, and audience awareness, in leaders might do a world of good.  Leaders who think before they speak aren’t necessarily aloof or cunning.  They may be trying to be their best selves.  To the extent that this view suggests that diverse workplaces and self-aware leaders are less likely to end in jaw-droppingly stupid flameouts, those might be worth trying.