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September 2, 2007

Talk, don’t spin
Posted by Teresa at 11:17 AM *

If I ever get back to that thing I was writing about moderation, there’ll need to be a section about dealing with internet scandals and other PR disasters. A rudimentary notion of it:

(1.) Get out there and say something, fast.

(2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions.

(3.) Explain what you’re doing to help fix the problem. Be telling the truth when you do it.

(4.) Give up all hope of sneaking anything past your listeners. You’ve screwed up, the internet is watching, and behind each and every pair of eyes out there is a person who knows how to Google.

(5.) Corporate-speak will do you more harm than good. Instead, speak frankly about what’s going on. React like a human being. Talk like one, too.

There. It’s not much, but evidently it’s more than ________ and ____________ and ____ know to do.

(Reposted from the comment thread.)

Comments on Talk, don't spin:
#1 ::: Deb Geisler ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 11:44 AM:

We've been sending this same message to students in public relations classes for decades (and long before the Internet was the Internet). For some reason, many PR professionals lose sight of the fact that trying to cover up a public scandal once it's broken is as frustrating (and futile) as a cat trying to cover up a mess on linoleum.

Sing this louder and harder, sister. Even if only a few people learn the lyrics, it'll make a difference.

#2 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 12:05 PM:

No, no.

Someone in the other party did something just as bad.

We tried to bring in a law (or budget) to deal with this, but the other guys voted against it.

The figures you're quoting are a month old. Everything's got much better since then.

This was an unauthorised action by a low-level operative and I can't be held responsible for everything that happens in my department.

It's not a resigning issue.

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 12:32 PM:

I don't recall remembering a memory of that.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 12:49 PM:

In a pinch, I can get it down to one sentence: Behave toward your users/readers/customers the way you'd behave toward someone in your own social circle. That covers everything -- speed, frankness, personal responsibility, and tone.

The corporate-speak spindoctoring style is an artifact of the old hierarchical one-to-many mass communications system. In these circumstances, any message you try to convey in it is going to automatically have the following invisible first paragraph added to it:

"You're down there. I'm up here. I'm a real person. You're a generic audience member. I have no obligations where you're concerned. I speak, you listen."
It's disastrously inappropriate.

#6 ::: julie ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:10 PM:

But pointing fingers is so much fun!

Seriously, we have this culture in which admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness. It's difficult to own up to your mistakes, but doing so shows a strength of character.

Yeah, I'm just screwed up. Obviously. ;-)

#7 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:16 PM:

If I ever get back to that thing I was writing about moderation

Oh please God/Goddess/Anthropomorphic Personification of Your Choice, make it so. The world *needs* The Troll Whisperer and needs it *now*.

Deb @1: But why don't they *listen*?!? Seriously, is there something in the culture of large institutions, corporate or otherwise, that makes them forget or ignore your teachings?

It reminds me of how David Pogue, NYT Technology columnist (not a low-profile guy) has been telling cell phone companies for *years* that:

the way to dominate the cellphone industry isn’t taking out more ads on billboards and newspapers. It’s creating a service that’s so good, the customers love you, recommend you and (here’s the big one) don’t leave you at the first opportunity.
In other words: reasonable service + accurate billing = world domination. It shouldn't be that hard to do, so what's stopping them?

#8 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:23 PM:

julie@6:

we have this culture in which admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness
Everyone says this is so, but I don't see it. I need examples of public/corporate figures who got into *more* trouble by admitting mistakes than they would have by blustering, dodging, and covering up.

I think that instead there is a problem *within* corporations/institutions where the person who admits a mistake loses big time. Basically, finger-pointing is an effective strategy within an institution, especially a large one, so the PR & spokes people try to use the same strategy when dealing with outsiders (e.g. customers).

#9 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:28 PM:

Teresa #4: the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by" or "Treat other people in a way you would like to be treated yourself". But you express it better because for many people, their own socail circle is "us" and users / readers / customers / everyone else is "them" who need not be considered. Maybe that's human nature.

Hierarchical one-to-many is what people in power do. You'll very rarely find them on blogs or in any serious many-to-many environments, and their discomfort shows when they are wangled into situations where they have to deal with the people "down there" without a script (e.g. answwering questions from a real, unselected studio audience). If you do find one doing many-to-many, when his power position doesn't require him to, he's a goodie.

#10 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:28 PM:

Wouldn't that be better phrased as:

"Behave toward your users/readers/customers the way you'd want someone in your own social circle to behave toward you."?

Individuals don't always behave well towards other people, even in their own social circle.

(Not even me, and most people seem to regard me as a saint. Being saintly is a pain in the butt, by the way; unfortunately, the times I've tried being a selfish asshole, it's usually blown up in my face, big time.)

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:36 PM:

If I ever get back to that thing I was writing about moderation

Teresa, if you write it, I will bind a copy of it as beautifully as I possibly can and send it to you*.</bribe>

-----
* Assuming I have your permission to print it out, or a copy of it in sheets, of course.

#12 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:42 PM:

I think there should be a Teresa-Signal, like the Bat-Signal, that politicians and companies can deploy when they are facing self-inflicted PR wounds and find themselves in need of someone with a lick of sense.

Not sure what the signal should be. A pair of knitting needles? A small block of disemvowelled text?

#13 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:42 PM:

Indeed, Teresa, it occurs to me that every one of your original points is contrary to usual (and AFAICT effective) strategies for dealing with problems internal to a large organization:

(1.) Get out there and say something, fast. Delay. Something else will come up.
(2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions. Deny that anything has gone wrong. Use as many elaborate and passive constructions as possible.
(3.) Explain what you’re doing to help fix the problem. Be telling the truth when you do it. Explain what you're doing ("proactively") to fix the problem. Take all the credit. Lie.
(4.) Give up all hope of sneaking anything past your listeners. You’ve screwed up, the internet is watching, and behind each and every pair of eyes out there is a person who knows how to Google. The higher-ranking officials or managers don't know how to Google. They probably don't know what your business actually does, either, so they'll be easy to fool.
(5.) Corporate-speak will do you more harm than good. Instead, speak frankly about what’s going on. React like a human being. Talk like one, too. Corporate-speak shows you are an insider, one of the important people. Talk like a corporate insider and you will become one, too.

The question then is, how do you persuade spokes/PR people to set aside the habits that work well for them inside the organization?

#14 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:51 PM:

Teresa @ #4: I'm afraid some of these people are doing just that: bluster, lie, blame, deny, try to intimidate critics, just as they would among their family and friends.

Your recipe is absolutely right though. I had to deal with screw-ups in my company from time to time, and it relieved most people's minds if we simply got out in front to say "We screwed up, we're trying to fix it, and please be patient with us while we try to figure out the right thing to do."

#15 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:51 PM:

#7 Doctor Science: Unfortunately, it's a lot more expensive to create the cell service we all would love than it is to create cute ads pretending you have already created such a service. (I love the Verizon Wireless "I told you to come alone" ad even as I loathe and despise Verizon Wireless.)

The goal of most of the evasive "problem solving strategy" Teresa is trying to counter is to avoid admitting that what happened, if it didn't happen on purpose, happened as a direct result of conscious anti-consumer policies.

#16 ::: julie ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 01:58 PM:

@ Doctor Science: That's certainly my experience in corporate America. People who admit their mistakes tend to get blame dumped on them for things they didn't do. After all if you've made one mistake, what's to say you won't make more? Those types make a convenient target. This is one big reason I'll no longer work for a large corporation except as a contractor.

#17 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:13 PM:

Doctor Science @ 13

That's a pretty good precis of what would be in the Corporate Executive's Handbook, if there were such a thing. The problem with teaching students the right way to do things is that corporate culture trumps education every time.*

* "I know you have a Master's Degree, but we won't hold that against you. Just remember that the academic stuff you learned in school doesn't work in the real world. You'll learn how things are really done here."

#18 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:15 PM:

but what if it's a thing that involves a court case and "we're not allowed to discuss the case"?

or maybe a few other things like that.

(by the way it's interesting that the Google ads sidebar is assuming this thread is about politicians)

#19 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:31 PM:

#8:Everyone says this is so, but I don't see it. I need examples of public/corporate figures who got into *more* trouble by admitting mistakes than they would have by blustering, dodging, and covering up.

That's the funny thing. The quip "It's not the scandal. It's the cover-up" has been around for years. But we, as a culture, have yet to assimilate this. This quip wouldn't exist were if people were simply willing to admit error, rather than trying to bury it. I don't think people rationally weigh the alternatives before choosing to compound their problem. The whole notion of having done something wrong is so powerful that people flee from it.

I used to work in hardware design verification. (I've since switched sides. I do design now.) One of the things we were careful instill was a "bugs are good" attitude. The verifier's job was to get the bug count up as high as possible, and finding bugs did not reflect badly on the hardware designer. Of course, the idea was to see the bug rate drop towards zero despite verifiers' best efforts. So finding the same bugs over and over again, or a bug rate which failed to converge did reflect badly on designers. But the point is that pointing out bugs, admitting that they're there, and fixing them immediately is the way to go.

Coincidentally, this is also the sort of attitude that makes you lose respect for manages who wanted you to artifically lower the bug rate so that the design team would look better on the presentation slides.

However, the point is that needing to foster this attitude in the first place shows that we're in a culture which is so deathly afraid of error, that we panic and (ironically) compound the error rather than admitting it. (I'm not saying that I've solved this myself. I merely recognize the problem. I know I still feel a little sting every time I see a bug filed on me. Some of my co-workers, OTOH, use their bug lists as a to-do list.)

#20 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:35 PM:

Teresa, I think you just boiled the whole Cluetrain Manifesto down to one sentence.

#21 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:46 PM:

JC @ #19, "use their bug lists as a to-do list"

Well, yeah. They have to be fixed, and they're out there in front of God, your co-workers and customers. What else should you do with them?

This far removed from programming, I could guarantee a very long bug list if I went back to it.

#22 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 02:54 PM:

Lynn Truss says something about this in Talk to the Hand that I found sort of lighbulbish.

Roughly (my copy is on loan), she says that apologies require a splitting of self (This part of me did something. This part of me can see that it was a bad/foolish/careless thing to do, and wishes to acknowledge that, and to reconcile myself with the world, and knows how to do so) that used to be entirely normal, and that people are now taught to resist fiercely.

With the result that apologising is regarded as a form of self-immolation.

I apologise quite a lot, and people keep telling me I need to stop it. This is, you understand, people who like me and wish me well. We'd talk about it and they'd say, you know, you don't have to apologise all the time and I'd say yeah I know that, so what?

It puzzled me horribly until I came across this idea of splitting.

#23 ::: Ima Pseudonym ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 03:09 PM:

A number of years ago, I worked for a company that made modeling software. I'm probably still bound by the confidentiality agreement, so I'm gonna be careful here.

One day, one of the regular participants on the company mailing list / customer forum wrote that when he ran standard-textbook-case X through the model, he got result A instead of the expected result B; he wanted to know what was up? After a brief flurry of checking and testing, we discovered that a logic error in the software sometimes resulted in an error in the math. The numbers were usually not badly off, but occasionally there was a concatenation of errors which led to a result which was qualitatively wrong.

The company president felt that we should just fix this in the next software release ("all software has bugs") and keep it quiet. He thought it would look bad if word got out that our software gave incorrect results.

I felt that we had a responsibility to let all of our customers know about the problem -- they were relying on the results of the model in research papers, to decide what to do for development, etc. This wasn't a bug which would lead to a crash, or wrong colours showing up on a screen display, or something obvious; this was a modeling system which sometimes reported numbers and results that were somewhat wrong. The word was already out (on our mailing list!) and I thought it was better to admit the problem, apologize, and do what we could to rectify the problem, getting a reputation as a company that dealt honestly with a mistake, than to risk getting a reputation as a company that tried to cover things up. And this was, dammit, a standard textbook calculation; if anything, it was somewhat surprising that the problem hadn't been noticed long before.

In the end, I got my way... sort of. There was a not-very-prominent description of the problem on the company website, which got more-hidden fairly quickly. There was a brief note, not highlighted, in the newsletter sent to some customers. And of course there was the mailing list. We made a software patch available on the website (and mailed it on request), along with a script which could be used to check a given model file to find out if it would have been affected by the error. But IIRC, no effort was made to contact even the customers who'd sent us contact information on the software registration cards, let alone to seek out our customers by other means.

This attitude was one of the things that helped push me to leave the company.

A couple of years later, I discovered a couple more somewhat-wrong-numbers bugs in another of that company's software packages. When I reported the problem, I was told that they'd see about fixing it in the next release.

#24 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 03:20 PM:

The idea of 'fessing up to your mistakes so they can be fixed more quickly, is part of a basic world-scheme of "we're all in this together". Both the corporate and political types are simply not in that world. The live in a Hobbesian scenario, where anybody who shows weakness gets ganged up on and destroyed. ("Eating their wounded".) This is characteristic of situations where the attempt to build a community with common goals has flat-out failed.

Also, for anyone who didn't figure it out, TNH's rule is a variation of the Meta-Golden Rule: "Treat your inferiors as you'd like your superiors to treat you". (For any given heirarchy.)

#25 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 03:22 PM:

#21:They have to be fixed, and they're out there in front of God, your co-workers and customers. What else should you do with them?

Sorry, I wasn't clear. What I meant was that they used their bug lists as literally their To Do list, as their entire task list. That is, they used the bug reporting mechanism to track all of their tasks, bug related or not.

What I do with my bug list is use it to prioritize my bug fixes. I don't find the bug reporting mechanism a very good way of tracking my tasks, in general. But it does apparently work very well for some of my co-workers.

#26 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 03:45 PM:

One of my earliest lessons in dealing with the corporate world was to say sorry fast, sincerely, and if at all possible, to have the fix in my hand as I was saying it. Best case: be the one who discovers my screw up and report it myself--that way no blame gets hurled by anyone but me at me. But people screw up; lying about it just prolongs the agony.

I was raised not to want to draw attention to myself, to fear any sort of blame. It still takes a lot of fortitude to draw negative attention to myself; only a sincere belief that lying, blaming, or tapdancing draws much more, and much more protracted negative attention makes it possible.

And if I can figure this out, one would think Highly Paid Professionals could too.

#27 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 03:58 PM:

There was, for a while, a concept in software development called "egoless programming", in which programmers were encouraged to consider the project results, rather than their own personal results to be the measure of how good a job they did. This meant taking responsibility for bugs quite literally: if you were the one who broke it, you were the one who fixed it, and no blame or shame was attached; it was just part of the job description.

It took me a long time to really assimilate this idea, but by the time I went into the last job I had at a large corporation* I believed (and still believe) firmly in not just owning my mistakes, but in actively looking for them and correcting them.

Then I went to work for a company where the corporate ethic was "this is a competition, and the weak go to the wall". The first time I admitted to a problem I was branded as weak, and my fate was sealed. The problem they had with me was that I was one of the best and most experienced developers they had, and their hiring policies ensured that getting people with that much experience was almost impossible. So for about 2 years we did this little dance where my manager kept insisting I had problems doing the work, while praising my abilities. I finally found a job at a small company I thought would be better and left, just after cashing in the last of the stock options they'd given me before they found out I was a weak one, due for the stock pot.

The key attribute of corporate culture that results in this sort of failure is the highly top-down style of management. An edict from above must be carried out, even if it's predicated on nonsensical assumptions about what can or should be done by the lower levels.** The assumption is that no lower worker can know more than the boss does about anything.†

* which will be literally last; I'll not take another job at a large company again.

** I started to type "lower depths" there, because I got a flash of Metropolis, mixed up with Morlocks.

† Even when the boss knows nothing about the worker's area of expertise. "We don't need to send in police or security forces, the Iraqis will greet us with flowers and spontaneously create a democratic government."

#28 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 04:03 PM:

Sorry, I wasn't clear. What I meant was that they used their bug lists as literally their To Do list, as their entire task list. That is, they used the bug reporting mechanism to track all of their tasks, bug related or not.

If the project doesn't do what it's supposed to, it's a bug. Even if the reason is that nobody's done that bit of it yet.

Perverted, but it works.

One of the things we were careful instill was a "bugs are good" attitude. The verifier's job was to get the bug count up as high as possible, and finding bugs did not reflect badly on the hardware designer.

Unfortunately at the moment I find myself working in a company with pretty much the opposite attitude: as a software developer, bugs I let into the code are pretty consistently held against me. I can see how counterproductive this is: every time a bug is reported, I get defensive, trying to find ways to argue that it isn't a bug, instead of just fixing it.

But somehow my business partner doesn't understand. He assumes that if he stops yelling at me about bugs, there'll be more of them.

The annoying thing is he might be right. His constant complaining has persuaded me to get up and learn techniques to avoid them being created in the first place. I'm finding Test Driven Development extremely handy, even if my productivity is a little down because of it.

#29 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 04:14 PM:

The "non-apology apology" (now on Wikipedia!) seems to violate all of those constraints, but its popularity is high and possibly rising. I think there is a real association of admitting error and weakness, but not so much an association of committing errors and weakness.

It's impressive that meaningless apologies can still be dishonest - even when the so-called apology is "I'm sorry that you were hurt when your stomach violently collided with my fist", it's usually clear the speaker is just sorry the incident went public.

#30 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 04:22 PM:

JC @ #25, Gotcha. If your bug list is your entire to-do list, maybe you're lucky. I was the DP Manager; bugs by necessity had to be prioritized along with other things. "Are we getting all the raw data for keypunching in a timely manner? Will we get the bills out on the date they're supposed to go out? Do we have sufficient boxes of blank bill forms to print the necessary quantity of bills?" Etc., etc.

#31 ::: Tania ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 04:27 PM:

Best boss I've ever had was a believer in this philosophy. When I came to her and had this conversation:

"Kate, I forgot to include XX when I projecting expenses on this project, and I authorized _________ to spend $12,000 more dollars than s/he really has. However, I think if I go and talk to _________ and we can work something out between the other interrelated projects, the department will only have to eat about $5,000. Is that ok, and do I still have a job?"

"Will you ever forget to include XX again?"

"After this? Of course not!"

"Well, then this has been a pretty cheap learning experience, all things considered."

Kate died about three years ago, I still miss her.

#32 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 05:06 PM:

An edict from above must be carried out, even if it's predicated on nonsensical assumptions

And thus we get collapsing bridges and Microsoft Vista.

#33 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 06:35 PM:

Jules @ 28

I think you'll find that Test-Driven Development will increase your productivity in the long run. You'll be catching more bugs early in the process, and that's cheaper in your time, as well as overall development expenses.

There's another thing you can use TDD for. Lots of "bugs" late in the cycle are actually diagreements between development and the software's intended customer, whether in-house or out-house (sic), over what the software is supposed to do. If you tie the test design to the requirements (and if you don't have written requirements, your project probably won't succeed anyway), then you can show that the software meets the requirements when the customer has forgotten the written requirements or has discovered they were wrong, and wants to blame you.

This is part of what I call "defensive programming". In an ideal world where blame wasn't an issue, and everyone just accepted the problems as given and moved on to fix them, this wouldn't be necessary. Need I say this isn't an ideal world?

#34 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 06:57 PM:

I may do this too much, but I've found that taking responsibility for, and apologizing for, things that weren't necessarily my fault (or even necessarily happened) can be an appropriate response. It gets us beyond the problem. Sometimes this makes someone think less of me than the reality for that situation, so what? There are plenty of things that I've done wrong, and not gotten caught or called out on. Maybe it evens things out a bit. Maybe all that person needed was an apology from someone. A simple apology doesn't cost much.
We live, however, in a world where we aren't supposed to acknowledge certain problems because it makes us liable for the situations that caused the problems. Your insurance company will not be happy if you admit liability in an accident where you may have done something that triggered the accident, and therefore feel guilty, but were legally not at fault, or even just arguably not at fault.
Choose your response wisely. Think about the impression you made. Think about how your audience will interpret it.

#35 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:00 PM:

The biggest lie is when a large, bureaucratic, organisation decides to call all the people it deals with "customers".

#36 ::: debcha ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:08 PM:

I think part of the reason people continue to use 'spin, don't tell' might be because we are still in the transition phase.

Consider: We have selection bias for scandals/mistakes/whatever that were not successfully covered up. In any case where the spin techniques worked in the past, we don't have data points. So it's possible, even likely, that these blame-avoidance manoeuvres were effective until recently.

However, given a world with Google, mailing lists, blogs - basically, lots and lots of ways for your customer base/constituents to share information - the spin techniques are going to be increasingly less successful. People like Teresa, at the bleeding edge of this culture, have figured this out. People who get their secretaries to type up their e-mails, not so much.

#37 ::: Nick Mamatas ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:31 PM:

Now now, Burt just made a mistake. In fact, he has acknowledged that he has made three mistakes — by which he means he received three counter-letters — in "tens or hundreds of thousands" of takedown attempts.

The fix is clear, and Burt has that too. This was his recommendation: hire someone named Job or Jesus to do the job instead of him.

#38 ::: Luthe ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:35 PM:

I was wondering when you would get around to commenting on the recent LJ kerfuffles and PR screw-ups.

#39 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:46 PM:

Dave Bell @ 25

{deep_cynical_bitterness}
If you look up the term "customers" in the Corporate Executive's Handbook you will find the definition, "Those on whom we feed".
{/deep_cynical_bitterness}

#40 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 07:47 PM:

Luthe, I personally have pretty much given up on LJ/6Aand their relapsing remitting PR nightmare.

Open communications with customers only works when there's a firm and explicit policy to begin with and when the public faces of the organization do not answer questions unless they actually know what they're talking about.

#41 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 09:48 PM:

As regards the PR students, don't forget the other part of the formula:

Bottom line, whatever they think (or were taught) is the best approach, when PR Student becomes PR Guy, they need to do/make/write their PR to correspond to whatever the Boss's position is.

So if the PR Guy says, "You really should go public and apologize. It's the fastest way for this to blow over." and the employer decides, "No way! I can't do that, write me a plausible denial." The PR guy may try to argue him out of it, but in the end the PR Guy has to do it.

#42 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 09:49 PM:

Bruce @ #27: That story's kind of almost impressive, in a train-wreck kind of way. I'm glad to say since I got hold of the concept of "egoless programming" back in the '80s, I've never had the misfortune to work in a place that took things as badly as you describe. (In part that's because I've had the chance to set the management tone for some of those places, but the latest contract client seems to be impressively cool and professional too.)

#43 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 10:20 PM:

pedantic peasant @#41, this is why PR gets my vote as the Profession From Hell: you have to defend decisions you disagree with, and insulate the people who made them from the consequences. (Disclosure: my husband is a PR Guy.)

#44 ::: vian ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 10:42 PM:

One recent example of The Apology Which Works came recently from our current Leader of the Opposition. Someone connected with the Department of Dirt-slinging alerted the media that Mr Rudd had visited a strip-club (I shall pause in my narrative here so that we can all express our collective shock and horror)

(pause ends) while on some ministerial junket or other to NY.

He immediately called a press conference, announced that yes, it was alas true, and that his judgment on the night in question had been impaired by booze and had become more so as the night wore on, that he was rather embarrassed by the whole thing, and does not reflect on it as his finest hour.

His points in the polls actually went up, with many respondents reporting that the whole disclosure had given him a human touch which he had been perceived as lacking. Even his expressions of penitence were seen as sincere.

#45 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2007, 11:36 PM:

This is part of what I call "defensive programming".

It's not a bug if the specification is wrong.

#46 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:23 AM:

Marna, #22: How much is "quite a lot"?

I'm wondering if this has any relevance to something I'm seeing elseNet: there's a blog I read which is written by a professional in her 70s, and over and over again I notice that she puts herself down all the time. Any time there's a communication gap, she takes all the blame for it; when she has trouble with technological items, it's always because she's stupid or slow; when she describes people around her treating her with discourtesy, again she always makes it all her own fault. It drives me batshit, because most of the time I can see just from what she says that the blame is (at the very least) shared, and she's being much too hard on herself. I've been putting this down primarily to the social conditioning of her age and gender, but this makes me wonder if there's a worldview difference as well.

David, #24: Good point! And again, typical of the disconnect between "left" and "right" types (in quotes because there are always exceptions) -- things that are blindingly obvious "common sense" to us are scarily alien to them, and vice versa.

#47 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:25 AM:

JC @19:

I don't know if it's a question of us being in "a culture" where no-one wants to admit they've made mistakes. Clearly, there are different cultures that we all move among, and there's also a basic human desire for mistakes to be somebody else's fault (cf. Genesis 3:12-13).

It's interesting, though, that Teresa's 5 Rules apply on the Internet. As David Harmon points out @25, these Rules pre-suppose that "we're all in this together", contrary to the hierarchical assumptions of most large organizations. The human connections on the 'Net aren't very strong (e.g. it's easy to get away from someone who bugs you, compared to RL), yet the feeling of horizontal community, of being "in this *together*", is more important than hierarchy.

If one of TNH's and our goals is to persuade capitalists to follow her Rules, instead of my list @13 (which might be called Dilbert's PHB's Rules), one line of argument might be that capitalist free-market relationships are like the weak connections on the 'Net, not the strong hierarchical relationships you get in aristocratic or communist societies.

#48 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:34 AM:

All the way back at #2 John Stanning wrote, Someone in the other party did something just as bad.

Which often becomes, "...something that was not as bad, but we can spin it as though it were, and some people who hear that 'explanation' will believe it."

#49 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 01:04 AM:

David Harmon @ 24: "The idea of 'fessing up to your mistakes so they can be fixed more quickly, is part of a basic world-scheme of "we're all in this together". Both the corporate and political types are simply not in that world. The live in a Hobbesian scenario, where anybody who shows weakness gets ganged up on and destroyed. ("Eating their wounded".) This is characteristic of situations where the attempt to build a community with common goals has flat-out failed."

A perfect example of the incompatability of these social systems is the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Once the scandal broke, Bill held a press conference and apologized to the people simply and sincerely. Most people saw this as a noble admission of failure, and his poll numbers went up. The Republicans saw this as an admission of weakness and impeached. They were unable to understand how admitting to his mistakes made him stronger, not weaker in the public's eyes.

I think this might be related to the general Republican belief that what you do in secret (have sex with men, embezzle, lie, cheat, steal) doesn't actually matter--unless you get caught. There is no internal moral sense, only the desire to adhere to public perceptions of morality. Taken to the extremes this means that, with good enough PR, theoretically anything is permissable. Sound familiar?

#50 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 02:24 AM:

#46, Lee:

As often as I feel I have failed to live up to my own standards, or when I've clearly done a jig on someone else's.

Which can be pretty often, yes.

I've been putting this down primarily to the social conditioning of her age and gender, but this makes me wonder if there's a worldview difference as well.

Quite possibly, or a cultural one.

Self-deprecation is a common form of humour and social bonding in quite a lot of the Commonwealth, for example. Doesn't actually mean we have limited self-respect and no opinion of our own brains.

I mean, I'm Canadian, and you know all those jokes about Canadians. (The one I've most often heard is that when someone steps on a Canadian's foot the Canadian apologises; to which joke my usual response is "What POSSIBLE harm?" In fact, when two Canadians bump into each other they usually BOTH apologise; social equilibrium is restored, no-one is humbled.)

As John noted in #34, sometimes it's partially diplomatic, but the two usually go together: on the one hand, nothing defuses a situation faster than one person apologising for their own part in it, and on the other I've rarely been in a kerfuffle where I was utterly blameless, so I don't see this as grovelling or as a betrayal of myself.

(And if the other person views this as a sign of weakness and becomes MORE aggressive? I eat their face. Politely.)

I don't feel especially unworthy or unloveable or inferior or stupid. Just normally imperfect.

#51 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 02:44 AM:

Clifton @ 42

Well, I don't claim I handled that situation very well; it might have been less of a train wreck if I'd been quick to reassume the CYA strategy I once used. In my own defense, my previous job had been 8 1/2 years at a small company that was founded by engineers, where the culture expected us to admit to and fix problems, and where there was a general feeling of being on a team, not in a winner-take-all competition. So I was very much out of practice.

So let's just say that when I have lunch with a friend of mine who's still working at the large company (and in fact just insisted he be taken off the project that I quit to avoid), I'm very sympathetic with him.

#52 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 04:10 AM:

#45: It's not a bug if the specification is wrong.

Spoken like a true programmer...

Of course it's a bug if the specs is wrong; just a bug in the specs rather than in the software.

But try and convince some programmers that yes, they should fix that bug even if the specs say they're right. Sofware built to unworkable specs is software that's not going to be used.

Because in the end, it's the users that determine if your software is going to be succesful or not and you can built the bestest sofware int he world, but if it clashes with user expectations, it's going to be a failure.

#53 ::: Peter Darby ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 06:55 AM:

"Treat other people in a way you would like to be treated yourself"... wasn't this what Larry Craig was doing to the guy in the next cubicle?

'Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you--their tastes may be different' - GBS

And that's why you have to be real careful, like our gracious host at the OP and #4

#54 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 07:13 AM:

#47: Doesn't refering to Genesis to establish a fundamental basic human desire undercut the idea that we all move among different cultures? I would think refering to solely Genesis establishes it within one culture, or, at most, a family of cultures. (Now, if you find the same story among the creation myths of a whole bunch of different cultures, not unlike how many, different cultures have their own formulation of the Golden Rule...)

Incidentally, saying that it's a part of our culture doesn't negate that it might also be a fundamental human desire. i.e., it might be why it is a part of our culture. I haven't really thought about it, so I don't want to close it off as a possibility. Certainly, if it is a fundamental human desire, it would be hard for it not to be part of any culture.

#49: There is no internal moral sense, only the desire to adhere to public perceptions of morality.

Isn't this, literally, the definition of a psychopath?

#52:But try and convince some programmers that yes, they should fix that bug even if the specs say they're right. Sofware built to unworkable specs is software that's not going to be used.

Yeah, I see this in hardware, too. In these sorts of situations, regardless of whether I'm the verifier or designer, I usually find myself also, "the guy who gets the spec changed."

#55 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 07:21 AM:

Jen Roth #12 - Am I the only one to remember that Teresa already has a signal for responding to bad movie plots masquerading as terrorist plots? Could it do double duty? Or will Teresa need another secret identity? (Having a secret identity as a PR troubleshooter would probably be counterproductive - "A Spokesperson" wouldn't instill much confidence)

#56 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 09:16 AM:

#49: There is no internal moral sense, only the desire to adhere to public perceptions of morality.

Isn't this, literally, the definition of a psychopath?

And, relevantly to the people discussed @49, doesn't it underly the otherwise incomprehensible insistence in certain circles that morality is impossible without belief in a vengeful deity?

#57 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 09:23 AM:

JC #54: That passage from Genesis was written at least 2600 years ago, so I don't consider it to be in the "same culture" as our present one in an anthropological sense. It was a very different place and time in almost every way, but the basic human strategy of finger-pointing is still visible.

Now that I think about it, the way this particular passage is interpreted is diagnostic of whether finger-pointing is an acceptable strategy, at least among Christians. The traditional-authoritarian Christian interpretation is that the blame-shifting is correct: Satan is more at fault than Eve, Eve more at fault than Adam.

But the other way to look at the story is to say that Adam is a jerk, that his true original sin isn't disobedience, it's finger-pointing -- and look at the mess *that* made. There's a kind of bitter humor in this story, a dry mocking of human folly and our propensity to pass the buck (IIRC Harold Bloom talks about this in The Book of J, but the point has been made by more conventional scholars and rabbis, too.) -- even though, as S. Morgenstern would say, this was *way* before bucks.

#58 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 09:34 AM:

Martin 52: Of course it's a bug if the specs is wrong; just a bug in the specs rather than in the software.

As I used to say back when I was in QA: "It may work as designed, but it wasn't designed as required!"

#59 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 10:05 AM:

#52:
But try and convince some programmers that yes, they should fix that bug even if the specs say they're right. Sofware built to unworkable specs is software that's not going to be used.

Yeah, and if you do that you will be replaced by someone overseas who is paid less, doesn't require health benefits, and, most importantly, will follow the specs without talking back to management. One might have been able to get away with that kind of talk during the boom. Not any more.

(BTW: Our hosts need to split this thread; the talk about programming is really a separate subject than the initial one, management damage control.)

#60 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 10:11 AM:

Heresiarch #49:

I seem to have a rather different memory of Clinton's handling of the scandal. (In particular, the initial response to the scandal involved smearing Lewinsky as some kind of a stalker or psycho.) I suspect there's a certain amount of confirmation bias at work when you watch people on your own side or on the opposing side. I catch myself on this a lot with the Bush administration, because it's really hard for me to resist putting the very worst possible face on anything those guys do at this point. "Aha, he's resigning. Must be about to get indicted for stealing money and torturing Muslims and wiretapping Democrats."

Honestly, this isn't an attempt to restart the Clinton Did It Too/No He Didn't wars. Just an observation....

#61 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 10:28 AM:

Amusingly (2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions is itself a passive construction. Better, "Acknowledge that you screwed up."

If you're the boss you did screw up, even if the actual error was made by a guy on the night shift who you couldn't pick out of a lineup. Authority can be delegated. Responsibility cannot.

That's one of the differences between corporate culture and military culture. (And that's one of the ways in which the Bush administration is broken and has been breaking the military. See above about Abu Ghraib. It wasn't a bunch of low-level enlisted on the night watch that was the problem. That was a symptom. The problem is that the chain of command is broken all the way at the top.)

#62 ::: Mac H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 11:54 AM:

Quote #49: "A perfect example of the incompatibility of these social systems is the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Once the scandal broke, Bill held a press conference and apologized to the people simply and sincerely."

Err - no he didn't. When the scandal broke Bill held a press conference and made the famous public statement "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false." How on earth was that an apology?

Or was that sarcasm? I'm never sure on the inter-web.

Mac

#63 ::: Nate ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 11:55 AM:

re: the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Once the scandal broke, Bill held a press conference and apologized to the people simply and sincerely.

You mean the press conference where he looked right into the camera, pointed his finger at it, and said "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky"? Or do you mean after the scandal had been brewing for months, the grand jury testimony was all in, and it was finally clear that he couldn't get away with denying it any longer? It would appear we have different definitions of when that particular scandal "broke" . . .

If Clinton had followed Teresa's advice above and done the "simple and sincere" apology thing the first time, I agree that the impeachment probably never would have happened, and the country would have been a lot better off. Unfortunately, he didn't.

#64 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:19 PM:

James #61:

I don't actually disagree with you, but I think it my be more useful not to say that e.g. the chain of command is "broken". Rather, the Bush administration tries to run everything like an especially cut-throat, hierarchical corporation. It's no coincidence that Bush II's biggest donor was Kenneth Lay & Enron. Bush II really is what he promised he would be, "the CEO President". The question people should have asked was, "CEO of what?" -- and the answer was "Enron."

Back on topic, one thing people like TNH have to do is figure out how to persuade upper managment that the Pointy-Haired Boss Rules aren't in their own best interests in communicating with the outside world -- and by implication they aren't a good idea inside, either, but I think that's a tougher job because too much of their experience says otherwise.

Those of you who've worked in large corporations (or other institutions) where bug-fixing was more of an internal priority than finger-pointing, do you think this priority *has* to be set at the top of the organization? That is, is there any hope of changing the corporate culture if you're Dilbert?

...

It kind of sounds like I've answered my own question, doesn't it?

#65 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:26 PM:

Jim 61: Only "there have been screwups" is arguably passive. "Acknowledge..." is an imperative, and so is "Avoid..."

#66 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:34 PM:

James D. Macdonald : #61::
"the chain of command is broken all the way at the top.)"

I'd say not so much "broken" as "deformed". The Command Chain is intact, but the (implicit) commands are Wrong -- "Torturing prisoners is acceptable as long as you don't /g/e/t/ /c/a/u/g/h/t/ produce visible & lasting evidence of organic damage". That starts at The Very Top, and runs quite efficiently all the way down the chain of command, pooling messily at the bottom.

Well... okay, it sometimes works that way, and sometimes someone in a (sub-) chain of command will decide "that's stupid" and subvert it, as can happen when something isn't a Direct Order. Master-Sergeants tend to be especially good at this, and without them the Army would go alltohell in short order. (This I say in tribute to (among others) the late Kinardo Metzler, Master Sergeant of the 40th Division, 160th Infantry Medical Company c. 1952 in Korea.)

#67 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 12:37 PM:

Macdonald@61: How much is that really true for the military of the past few decades? What I've been reading suggests that one black mark on an officer's record permanently screws him; after that he'll keep not getting promotions and finally get discharged for spending too long in grade.

Can this be an effect of a military that has been kept oversize in order to maintain a threat? When people can't be rated by relevant achievements (because there's been little call for such achievements) but must be rated, anything can be used for ratings.

#68 ::: Shani ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 01:56 PM:

Was this perchance influenced by the latest set of LiveJournal fiascos? You have perfectly captured everything they failed to do.

I too will happily offer bribes for that post on moderation.

#69 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 03:50 PM:

Jim MacDonald @ 61

I think the military (when it's working properly) is a prime illustration of how we have to (and do) go farther then "Authority can be delegated. Responsibility cannot". IMO there can be no delegation of authority downwards without a comparable "delegation" of authority upwards. They must balance for the natural homeostasis of the organization to work.

#70 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 03:52 PM:

My apologies for mistyping James Macdonald's name. I'm one of the people who insists that capitalization is important, so I should get it right.

#71 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 09:05 PM:

Jon Meltzer @59: [..] Our hosts need to split this thread; the talk about programming is really a separate subject than the initial one, management damage control.

Topic drift is a feature, not a bug :)

#72 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 09:25 PM:

Spoken like a true programmer...

Except I'm not, of course. You seem to have started wrong and gone downhill from there.

Of course it's a bug if the specs is wrong; just a bug in the specs rather than in the software.

No, it's not a bug, it's a design error. A bug is an implementation error. It results in an outcome that nobody intended, including those who created the specification and those who coded the project.

If the spec says 2+2=5, the software needs to deliver that result. This isn't a bug -- it's badly spec'd software operating correctly.

As to your tangent about users, define the user base. Software written for my purposes doesn't have to be easy to use, it has to operate correctly, because (for example) *my* users want their email, and don't care about the complexity of the servers that get the email to them.

MUAs are very different from MTAs, of course -- because they have vastly different user bases, and generalizing across them leads to, amongst other things, design errors.

#73 ::: Scraps ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2007, 11:57 PM:
Amusingly (2.) Acknowledge that there have been screwups. Avoid passive constructions is itself a passive construction.

I assumed that was a joke.

#74 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 02:31 AM:

60, 62, 63: Well--yeah. You're all right, of course. I should have reviewed the facts a little better. On the other hand, even a more accurate account stills supports my point. In the first press conference, while he did deny that anything untoward had happened (also known as lying), he did it in person: treating the American people like they mattered, like they were a friend (and this is the real trick, as Teresa says @ 4). He got a 4-point boost out of that (according to this). Then, when the truth came out, he held another press conference, and only lost a single point. When they tried to impeach him, he gained ten points. Clearly, his strategy, even if it wasn't entirely honest, was effective.

#75 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 03:12 AM:

We've talked about how many of us are amazed that corporate America in general hasn't figured out that lying and covering up costs them in the long term. What astounds me, and that hasn't been mentioned here, is that they have at least 2 major examples over the last 25 years of companies that did it right and managed to put behind them disasters that could have put them in bankruptcy in short order. One of them even started out wrong, realized the error and recouped.

In 1982, seven people died from taking Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with. Rather than hem and haw, Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of the manufacturer, issued a nationwide recall of all Tylenol products, and put up advertisements in all markets telling people not to take any they'd already bought. What might have resulted in a complete shutdown of all Johnson & Johnson products instead made them heroes; they capped that by developing a pill that couldn't be tampered with without obvious visible signs, and took back a majority share of the acetominiphen market.

In 1993, an e. coli outbreak that killed 4 people and sickened hundreds was traced to Jack-in-the-Box. At first, management used the usual spin / FUD / obfuscate cycle, but when it didn't work, they switched tracks and became helpful in finding the cause and championing changes in meat-handling in the food industry. They eventually paid out over $1E8 in settlements, generally without arguing too much, which allowed them the good PR image they needed to come back and be a solid second-tier business in their market.

These are both well-known cases; you'd think managers would draw the reasonable conclusion that they're better off cooperating than obfuscating.

#76 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 05:11 AM:

In particular, the initial response to the scandal involved smearing Lewinsky as some kind of a stalker or psycho.

Myself I think she's a shopping mall Daisy Buchanan - a rather stupid trust fund narcissist who used the spot inside the White House daddy bought her to write an exciting new chapter of The Story of Her where one of the minor supporting characters was the president of the United States. You'd want to keep in mind that she told her friends back home that she was going to tear off a chunk of him before she ever met him.

Being an irresponsible scalphunter doesn't necessarily translate to psycho or stalker, but I'm not sure how psycho stalker Monica would have behaved any differently than needy solipsist Monica.

#77 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 06:29 AM:

The fix is clear, and Burt has that too. This was his recommendation: hire someone named Job or Jesus to do the job instead of him.

"Instead of taking care of all the details himself, Ridcully preferred to pick on one person and make his life difficult until everything happened the way he wanted. (A policy followed by many managers and several notable gods.)" -- Terry Pratchett

#78 ::: Doctor Science ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 08:08 AM:

Bruce #75:

AFAIK the Tylenol case is taught in B-school as an example of "what to do", alongside the Exxon Valdez case as "what not to do". It's certainly not lack of knowledge that's preventing businesses from doing the right thing.

As Teresa says, her Rules can be boiled down to "treat others as you would be treated." But if people are used to playing by Dogbert's Rules *inside* the group, how can they be honest when dealing with outsiders?

The downside of the Golden Rule is that you will tend to treat other people *no better* than you expect to be treated yourself. If finger-pointing, blame-shifting, deniability, and eating the wounded is the usual practice inside the organization, I don't know if it's psychologically possible to be honest with customers & other outsiders.

#79 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 08:20 AM:

#78 Doctor:

I suspect (as other people have speculated) that a lot of bad corporate PR behavior is individually rational behavior--openly taking responsibility and acknowledging the screw-up might be best for the company, but it also is a risky strategy that might lose you, personally, your job.

#80 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 08:35 AM:

Heresiarch #74:

Yeah, I think there were several examples of successful PR from the Clinton administration which didn't exactly stick to the Golden Rule as Teresa points out, but which were quite effective. And there have been still more from the Bush administration. I'm not sure any of these add a lot of credence to Teresa's point, though.

The Clinton administration was the first time I saw the phenomenon of someone getting up before the public, saying "I take full responsibility for this fiasco," and then being seen to suffer no consequences whatsoever for it. I'm not sure that wasn't common before, but Janet Reno's example is the one that sticks in my mind first. And this continued--remember, years before he resigned, that Don Rumsfield took "full responsibility" for the Abu Girab screwup? That didn't mean he resigned in disgrace, went before a grand jury on charges of violating US law, or took the next flight to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. It just meant he said "I take full responsibility," then went back to his desk and drank the rest of his morning coffee.

I suspect that Teresa is right that in the modern Google and blog equipped world, this strategy is less effective than it used to be. Plausible good-sounding lies are easier to check, and it's a lot harder to threaten or bribe or cajole all the major media sources to keep contradictions off the front pages when everyone has online access to the world. But plausible lies and casual deception and misleading spin might still be in use because they work pretty well.

IMO, the great problem here is that plausible sounding lies are often what the listener *wants* to believe, and so a lot of listeners find reasons to believe them and to doubt any source that contradicts them. Clinton's bimbo eruptions are all the result of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Iraq is really in very good shape, and the Evil Liberal Media is lying about it being a mess. Better tools for finding the truth aren't enough to defeat that--you also need a willingness to look for truth you don't want to be true, and that's damned rare.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 09:10 AM:

Doctor Science @ 78

I agree. This and similar effects in the behavior of humans in groups led me long ago to discard the "rational actor" concept so beloved of economists and political scientists for such a large part of the 20th Century.*


* And still believed by some today. Not the rational ones, of course.

#82 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 09:59 AM:

albatross #80: Reagan used to "take responsibility" as a way of fading the heat for his subordinates all the time. That's one of the reasons why he was called the Teflon President. No one had the strength of will or political power back then to take the logical next step of impeachment. These days, the logical next step is to give the miscreant underling a Medal of Freedom and a pat on the back.

#83 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 10:02 AM:

Dammit, Google Ads is hawking "free Ann Coulter email" on the sidebar. So much for breakfast.

#84 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 10:06 AM:

Dr. Science (way back at #47): If one of TNH's and our goals is to persuade capitalists to follow her Rules ... one line of argument might be that capitalist free-market relationships are like the weak connections on the 'Net, not the strong hierarchical relationships you get in aristocratic or communist societies.

Is the recent discussion of Wikipedia's problems on another thread a sign that something supposedly open became too hierarchal (that guy a lot of comments were vilifying), or does it indicate that large, nonhierarchal groups can be just as bad? At least *good* moderation (like Teresa's) is completely different from bad top-down management. (Pre-second-coffee post: I hope it's semi-coherent!)

#85 ::: Greg Morrow ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 10:34 AM:

Jim @ 61, Xopher @ 65: there have been screwups is not passive at all. A passive construction is made with a form of be and a past participle (such as in this very sentence).

there have been screwups is a statement about the existence of screwups in a construction that indicates that the screwups are complete, that is, not on-going. It happens to omit the agent that screwed up, but that doesn't make it passive.

Existential statements are interesting cross-language. For example, a large class of languages lack a verb like have and imply possession with an existential statement. I have a pencil becomes There is a pencil.

It's also worth noting that, contrary to what folks were probably taught, there is the subject of there have been screwups. It's a dummy subject closely akin to the it in It's raining, but it behaves like every other subject in every other English sentence. Look at question inversion: Have there been screwups? Only subjects and auxiliaries invert like that.

I'm getting most of this from Language Log, and the Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, based on their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If you're interested in what real English grammar looks like when you look at it like a scientist, the Student's Introduction is terrific.

#86 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 01:41 PM:

As Teresa says, her Rules can be boiled down to "treat others as you would be treated." But if people are used to playing by Dogbert's Rules *inside* the group, how can they be honest when dealing with outsiders?

I'd take that one step farther. When you're doing external crisis management, you will almost always be having to manage the crisis internally, as well. So if you're job and livelihood depend on successfully playing Dogbert's Rules with your boss, you can't be saying something contrary to the public.

#87 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 04:09 PM:

Faren Miller @ 84

IMO Wikipedia's problems indicate that the problem isn't hierarchy, but the abuse of power. Hierarchy can confer power*, so it's often involved in the abuse. In WPs case, power has accumulated in the hands of a relatively small group that isn't in a hierarchical relationship to those they wield power against, but the abuses are just as real.

* Or not, consider the case of a figurehead at the top of the pyramid, whose power is actually wielded by the next level down.

#88 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 04:25 PM:

Earl, 83: "free Ann Coulter emails"

Dang. I misparsed the quotation marks and thought for a second that she was in jail. How very disappointing.

#89 ::: Florian Schwarzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 06:34 PM:

All right.

So what do you do if there really is no screw-up?

The media's attention can fabricate scandals without anyone truly trying to:

Right now, Berlin is shaken by a scandal that might see a secretary of justice impeached - because there is drug smuggling going on in one of Berlin's prisons.
There is no prison in the western world that's drug free. Even among ordinary people, drugs are traded. How would they be absent from a group almost by definition more inclined towards crime than the average? Yet, the secretary is being pummeled not because she didn't ensure everything was done to limit the drug trade, but because she didn't cut it out completely - an utterly ridiculous demand.
All this started with a small exposé on one such smuggling ring by a German TV station. The gap exploited by those people was quickly closed, but a paper picked up on the story, and it only grew from there.

How are you supposed to react if you are under fire for something inevitable, or for some minor irregularity that might seem like a screw-up to the unintitiated? Give wrong promises? Kotau to the uninformed and disinterested journalists and act as though a mistake had been made? Isn't that an invitation to further scandals when the unfixable remains broken?

Sure, if you screw up, you screw up. But what if the guy on the other end of the camera did?

#90 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 08:47 PM:

89: How are you supposed to react if you are under fire for something inevitable, or for some minor irregularity that might seem like a screw-up to the unintitiated?

Tell the truth and shame the devil.

1) Acknowledge the flaw. It's still a flaw.

2) Start reducing the numbers of the uninitiated as quickly as ever you can. There's a difference between spin and getting information out there.

So you say "We HAVE, in fact, reduced the incidence of drug use in prisons by X amount, and we're still working on it. We know that we will never get it down to zero, but we're going to get it as close to zero as humanly possible and *this is how we're doing it*. Also, this is what we are doing about that PARTICULAR snuggling ring."

Do not tell any lies, not even little tiny white ones. If the truth is on your side, keep it there.

3) Wait a decent amount of time for people to assimilate and check the information you've put out before attempting anything that looks like attempts to gain support for your side of the story.

4) Allow OTHER people to point out that your opponents are being disingenuous scandal-mongers. As you have yourself just shown, if you are in the right, you will have defenders.

#91 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 10:07 PM:
At least *good* moderation (like Teresa's) is completely different from bad top-down management.
It isn't tyranny until you barricade the exits. Any of us here could go somewhere else if we were dissatisfied with the moderation; we stay because we want to. The consequences for leaving or attempting to leave tyrannical managers and politicians typically range from loss of income to death.
#92 ::: Jen Roth ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 10:50 PM:

this is what we are doing about that PARTICULAR snuggling ring

Well, that's one way to make prisons less violent.

(sorry, couldn't resist)

#93 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2007, 11:33 PM:

I really want to join a snuggling ring!

#94 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 07:00 AM:

Bruce @81: Adam Curtis mentioned it in his latest series, The Trap, though I think he was quoting someone else: The only true rational actors are sociopaths and economists.

#95 ::: Verbalobe ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 07:59 AM:

And again: apologies do not contain the word "but."

#96 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 09:37 AM:

Note from the inveterate tennis watcher (very glad AZ is on Pacific time this summer): Serena Williams does not know how to apologize -- or praise the opponent who bested her.

#97 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 09:47 AM:

My deepest apologies to Faren Miller for reading #96 as "invertebrate tennis watcher", and wondering what a volley between Great Old Ones would be like. What's the rule on the number of rackets you can use at one time? But it was because I'd only just started drinking my coffee, so it wasn't really my fault.

#98 ::: Erin Underwood ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 10:40 AM:

My boss talks about this quite a bit. It's the way she runs our dept and it's one of the reasons I like working for her. She calls it "the art of framing your argument before it frames you".

She says that the first comments that are made about an issue are usually the ones that all other comments are measured against. If you let someone else make the first statement, you will find yourself on the defensive end of the conversation. This puts you in the passenger seat, which is not a powerful position.

#99 ::: MacAllister ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2007, 11:23 PM:

The same advice works oddly well for traffic stops, IME.

A recent conversation I had with a nice officer in a tiny little town in the middle of the night:

"Do you know why I stopped you?"

"Errr, was it driving ten miles an hour over the speed limit, running that four way stop back there, or the U-turn in the middle of the street? And I'm so very glad to see you -- is there a gas station here with credit card pumps?"

No ticket, happily.
And he led me to the local gas station (a tiny Cenex on a back street that I'd never have found on my own...)

#100 ::: Marna Nightingale ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 02:47 AM:

92, 93: I've heard some disturbing things about prison "snuggling rings".

One of these days, I really MUST learn to type.

Meanwhile, let there be snuggling rings!

#101 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 09:01 AM:

#100 Marna:

"Today police broke up another snuggling ring in Southeast Washington. Three teddy bears and warm fuzzy blankets with an estimated street value of overt $1,000 were seized in the bust, codenamed "Operation Cold Scalies".

#102 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 11:45 AM:

Jesus, albatross, what were the blankets made out of? Gold? Cocaine? Fuzzy coke blankets?

#103 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 03:05 PM:

No, you know the way the police and DA's do it: Find the highest price anyone has ever paid for something, add a couple zeros to the end, then declare that your "Street Value." It's not like the average juror will ever admit to having comparison shopped for illicit goods and services.

#104 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 03:56 PM:

Kevin Andrew Murphy @103, the standard procedure for inside grow-rooms is to weigh the plants, growing containers, and growing medium, then set the "street price" as if the entire weight is groomed bud.

(or so I've heard)

#105 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 07:33 PM:

Jon Meltzer #59: Yeah, and if you do that you will be replaced by someone overseas who . . . and, most importantly, will follow the specs without talking back to management. One might have been able to get away with that kind of talk during the boom. Not any more.

Actually, a large part of the reason I get paid well is that I don't blindly follow any specs. If I don't think they're right, I argue about it. So far, it has never happened that an agreement wasn't eventually reached (more often than not, corresponding to what I argued for).

But you'll notice you were actually arguing against someone's refusal to not follow the specs (or, perhaps, to follow the new specs).

#106 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2007, 08:00 PM:

Erik V. Olson #72: A flaw in the spec can be a bug. It's a bug in the implementation of the high-level design (PHB says "Make it do this") as a spec.

Bugs don't exist only in code. There can also be bugs in mathematical proofs (or, rather, attempts thereat).

Greg Morrow #85: "There have been screwups" is passive. "There were screwups" is passive. "There are screwups" is passive. "There will be screwups" is passive. "Screwups happen" is passive. "Someone screwed up" is not passive.

#107 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 12:49 PM:

While I don't know that Steve Jobs read ML, he seems to know at least the PR basics.

After he got hammered for dropping the price on iPhones by $200 two months after a lot of people bought them, he didn't let it go unresponded to.

More companies should try something like his open letter to iphone owners when they get in trouble.

#108 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 12:56 PM:

Michael #107:

The only problem with store credits is that they always end up with me spending more money. And what is there to buy at Apple if you've already got the iPhone? (Assuming you didn't have any plans to buy a laptop this week, thank you very much.)

#109 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 01:18 PM:

"Someone screwed up" is not passive.

"Someone screwed up" may not be grammatically passive, but it can be functionally passive when used in a crisis-management public announcement.

It does the exact same thing as "There were screwups" - acknowledges problems without either accepting or assigning blame, and without letting anyone know who is accountable for fixing the problem. A passive mindset and explanation.

#110 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 01:21 PM:

joann@108:

Yep, it's not the perfect solution, but in terms of TNH's 5 point discussion, it seems to hit the 5.
(1.) a fast response.
(2.) acknowledges that he needs to take better care of early adopters.
(3.) Explains how they want to do it.
(4.) Not being sneaky.
(5.) Frank about what they're doing and why.

I could be taken on #4. If Cringely is right and it was all planned this way as a Steve Ego Gratification move, then maybe. However, that seems a bit too over-the-top.

If you can't think of anything to buy with yours, buy a $100 iTunes gift card and send it to me. :) Or heck, buy yourself a screen protector for $20 and send me an iPod shuffle. My wife would like that.

My plan is to use it to buy Leopard for $100 off.

#111 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 01:33 PM:

Michael #110:

I didn't buy one, partially because of price and partially because I'd just switched *away* from AT&T at the beginning of June.

I'm actually quite fascinated by the iTouch iPod; it just seemed to me that it would be a retro step for anyone already owning an iPhone.

(I haven't used a Mac for a bit over 8 years; not having enough memory to print even one chapter of my dissertation--ok, there were *lots* of pictures--and no upgrade path was, umm, depressing.)

#112 ::: Gar Lipow ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 01:40 PM:

There is an important distinction between connotation and denotation here. The use of the word "someone" is counteracted by the use of the word "screwup". Using the latter word pretty much admits that your company screwed up.

#113 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 02:51 PM:

albatross @101: "Today police broke up another snuggling ring in Southeast Washington. Three teddy bears and warm fuzzy blankets with an estimated street value of over $1,000 were seized in the bust, codenamed 'Operation Cold Scalies'".

ethan @102: Jesus, albatross, what were the blankets made out of? Gold? Cocaine? Fuzzy coke blankets?

Although neither Jesus nor albatross, I shall venture a reply.

It depends on whether the value was per item or for the entire stash; after all, the teddy bears could've been stuffed with various stuff. If you're limiting dicussion to the blankets, however, there are at least three possibilities for natural fibers: vicuña (from a South American camellid), qiviut (from musk-oxen), and shahtoosh (see below).

Cashmere has become relatively affordable in recent years to the extent that it's possible to find cashmere blankies for less than one hundred dollars each. It's difficult to estimate the probable value of blanket-sized swaths of the other three, so for the purposes of comparison, I'll have to refer to the pricing of raw fiber for handspinning hobbyists (despite the title admonishment of this... thread), as well as peg Optim merino (a pre-stretched wool) as a common reference point.

At this site, 4 oz cashmere = $48 and 4 oz Optim = $20.

At this site, 4 oz Optim = $22 and 1 oz Optim = $5.95; 1 oz qiviut = $75; 1 oz vicuña = $250.

As for shahtoosh, I don't think it can even be legally bought/sold anymore. About ten years ago, shahtoosh shawls were selling for at least $5000 each (and helped kick off the pashmina craze) until there was a harsh crackdown on their trade, due to each shawl requiring about three chiru (an endangered Tibetan antelope) to be shot dead so its fine coat could be pulled out. This article from last year sets the price of black-market shahtoosh shawls at about $15k each.

#114 ::: ethan sees hysterical laughter ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 03:39 PM:

Julie L #113: Hmmm...I seem to be invoking Jesus a lot recently, what with this and my Good News.

And Holy Christ, if snuggling rings require the poaching of endangered animals in Tibet, I'm behind breaking them up.

#115 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 03:40 PM:

Heh. That hysterical laughter tag wasn't supposed to still be there, but I suppose it applies.

#116 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 03:59 PM:

If good news can summon hysterical laughter, it stands to rights that hysterical laughter can summon good news. Merry Xmas!

#117 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 04:15 PM:

Ursula L (#109) says "'Someone screwed up' may not be grammatically passive, but it can be functionally passive when used in a crisis-management public announcement."

Which is why banks, as described in P. G. Wodehouse's Psmith in the City,* employ firing-clerks, whose job is to be called on the carpet and summarily dismissed in front of irate customers. If the dressing-down is particularly vehement, the clerk may ask for a rise in pay.

Which is just to say that telling us who screwed up may not be as valuable as we might hope.
______________
*or possibly Psmith, Journalist or some short story. But certainly Wodehouse's Psmith.

#118 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 05:04 PM:

Seth Breidbart @ 106:
Greg Morrow #85: "There have been screwups" is passive. "There were screwups" is passive. "There are screwups" is passive. "There will be screwups" is passive. "Screwups happen" is passive. "Someone screwed up" is not passive.

Greg Morrow is correct; none of those is in the passive voice. A true passive-voice construction would be "This was screwed up by someone" or even "This was screwed up by me."[*] (Or "This is being screwed up..." or "This will be screwed up...")

What you want to say, I think, is that all but the last of your examples are agentless -- no person or entity is identified as the cause of the screwup. Which, in a case like this, implies that no one person or (Passive with agency: "This was screwed up by me." Agentless passive: "This was screwed up.")

[*] Which is wordier and more awkward than "I screwed up", but just as much a statement of responsibility.

#119 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2007, 07:25 PM:

There's also a fundamental disconnect between those who think "Our company screwed up" is a good and sufficient admission of responsibility, and those (like me) who don't believe a company can have agency in itself.

#120 ::: platedlizard ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 12:04 AM:

#108 joann

iTunes. If you don't think I could easily spend $100 worth of store credit at iTunes you are sadly mistaken. That's like ten albums, or so. And I am a consumer whore.*

*note: that's assuming the store credit counts for iTunes.

#121 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 08:41 AM:

Peter @118: For truly head-scratching passivity, it should be something like "When things are screwed up, responsibility is assigned and actions are taken, as deemed appropriate."

This has the advantage of making it impossible to determine who the actors are or the agency of anyone involved.

#122 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 09:50 AM:

Howard, don't you mean "Who the actors are is made impossible to determine"?

#123 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 10:30 AM:

Xopher #122:

In this thread, use of the active voice is helpfully corrected in later comments.

#124 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 03:36 PM:

albatross 123: You are thanked for that explanation.

#125 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2007, 04:31 PM:

platedlizard #120:

That had not occurred to me; I've been in Apple stores, but always to fondle the hardware. Suggestions for buying software (which includes iTunes, at least conceptually) came as a surprise. And I'm living on a backlog of 600 vinyl records, mostly classical, that we're in a long-ongoing middle of digitizing, so all I use iTunes for is organizing the results.

#126 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2007, 01:49 PM:

Though this thread has (like all of them) long since wandered away from its original topic, it still seems like a good place to mention an interesting type of moderation I found on the NY Times US Open blog -- my recent refuge, since no one else here wants to discuss tennis.

After a thread about the Williams sisters and the Belgian woman who beat both of them devolved into a lot of ranting about race, character, etc., the moderator started two new threads -- one for the ranters, the other for people who actually wanted to talk about tennis.

I suppose most "Making Light" discussions already cover everything from A to Z before they turn into into rant exchanges (followed by poetry and punning), but on a few occasions it might be interesting to leave the ranters to their own devices and give everyone else a calmer venue.

Teresa, you've probably already done this and I'm just forgetting -- if so, my apologies.

#127 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2007, 06:15 AM:

96

The Williams girls are truly effed up as human beings, probably by the competitive instinct taught up by their father.

Maybe that's what it takes to get to the top of your field, but the downside will be in the years to come. When she is no longer top of the game, the fans and the media will turn on her. And likely her personal life will be a complete mess.

See Campbell, Naomi, for the woman who has no friends.

#128 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2007, 02:42 AM:

Valuethinker, #127: Is there a male counterpart to this? That guy from back in the Jimmy Connors era who was such a hothead, perhaps? Or a more modern example on the men's courts?

#129 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2007, 07:48 AM:

Lee @128:
You're thinking of John McEnroe. He doesn't seem to have been ostracized over his SuperBrat antics.

Does Michael Jackson count?

#130 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2007, 11:56 AM:

Michael@129:

SuperBrat or no, I don't think he ever slagged an opponent off the court. (There is also some evidence for at least some of his "brattiness" being attributable to what was then considered 'normal' doses of steroids for pain relief, but are now considered well past dangerous.) He's certainly mellowed quite a bit.

#132 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2008, 06:20 PM:

From which, Doctor Popular, you can derive that Teresa was (and is) doing her darnedest to get folks to do the right thing in a timely manner.

#133 ::: Doctor Popular ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2008, 06:50 PM:

Oh yeah, James. After reading this entry, I get the impression that Teresa was put in to an uncomfortable situation against her better judgment. Unfortunately, it looks like she has now been made the brunt of the current BB hysteria.

#134 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2008, 08:45 PM:

Considering the timeline, the unpublishing probably happened before Teresa was hired, and most likely she was never consulted beforehand nor informed afterward.

This is the sort of situation that I used to run into from time to time when I'd say to the troops, "It isn't our fault but it is our problem."

I don't think that Teresa has the authority to do what is necessary, either. That authority likely resides at a higher level, and also likely requires that all members of a widely-dispersed group agree on what to do next.

I know what I'd do next if given the authority, and I suspect Teresa does too. All that's required is that the widely-dispersed group agree to give it to her.

If that widely-dispersed group were to read up on the Incident Command System, and implement ICS, much would be made simpler, easier, faster, and better.

ICS came out of experience managing California wildfires. Response required multi-agency cooperation across multiple jurisdictions, but wildfires wouldn't wait for you to get your act together.

There are other systems that can be adapted -- shipboard command and control, for example -- but this particular wheel does not need to be reinvented.

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