Four Tips for Avoiding Tone-Deaf Leadership

| By TMA World

You may have seen the movie Florence Foster Jenkins in which Meryl Streep played the role of the real-life Florence – an aspirational opera singer who unfortunately was tone-deaf.  She was adored – and ridiculed – because her performances were so terrible. In her own mind, Florence sounded pitch-perfect.   

Used as a metaphor, tone-deafness in a leader is a damaging lack of awareness of the potential negative implications of a behavior or written/visual/aural statement. Florence Foster Jenkins was trapped in a distorted reality fashioned by her disability, while tone-deaf leaders are trapped in distorted realities created by the narrowness of their understanding.

We have had some classic instances of leader tone-deafness in the news lately.

Think about Pepsi’s recent Kendall Jenner ad that appropriated and trivialized a scene from a Black Lives Matter demonstration.  It caused a storm of protest on social media.  Trying to capitalize on the grave injustice felt by African-Americans was . . . well, tone-deaf.

Sean Spicer – the Trump Administration’s Press Secretary – compared President Assad of Syria to Hitler, while adding that even someone as despicable as Hitler hadn’t used chemical weapons on his own people. 

Uproar ensued!  What about the gassing of millions of Jews, communists, gays, gypsies, and the handicapped?  Don’t they count as German people?  Making things worse, he referred to the death camps as “Holocaust Centers.”  It’s not that tone-deaf leaders don’t know the notes to be sung, they are just insensitive to how their notes sound to important segments of their audience.  

Another tone-deaf debacle has been the response of the United Airline’s CEO (Oscar Munoz) to a passenger being physically removed from an overbooked flight.  In a statement after the incident, Munoz said that it was an upsetting event to “all of us here at United.”  He apologized for having to “re-accommodate” these customers.  PR experts derided the statement as “astonishing,” “sterile”, and “tone deaf.”  It was bland corporate-speak. It didn’t express any sincere emotion or offer an apology to the passenger, or take-into-account the horrified feelings of others on the plane.  It also didn’t mention how United would go about fixing the problem.

United’s stock value lost about $1 billion between the incident on the Sunday and the following Tuesday afternoon.  The backlash in China was particularly strong as the passenger appeared to be Asian. Very quickly there were 130 million hits on the Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.  It should be noted that United got about 14 per cent of its revenue in 2016 from flying Pacific routes.  Oops!

One sign of a leader’s tone-deafness is the lack of appreciation that an audience can become global in seconds. Ironically, Mr. Munoz was recognized as PRWeek US Communicator of the Year in March 2017.

The second statement by Mr. Munoz was only a marginal improvement.  It was defensive, cold and impersonal, and laid all the blame on the passenger.  “Our employees,” he said, “followed established procedures”, and he told staff, “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” 

What Can Leaders do to Avoid Tone-Deafness?

1. Empower Others to Be Resourceful

Patrick Smith is an active airline pilot and blogger.  About this incident, he says, “what lies at the root of this unfortunate episode was a lack of empowerment.  There is no reason that an overbooked flight should result in the forced, physical removal of a passenger. There had to be a better solution.  Yet nobody thought of one. Why?”  From the evidence, it appears that the United crew had reached the end of their procedural options, and didn’t know what to do.  Nobody was courageous or resourceful enough to avoid the fallout.  That’s an organizational cultural problem!

Smith says, “I hate saying it, but airline culture and training is often such that thinking creatively, and the devising of proverbial outside-the-box solutions, is almost actively discouraged.  Everything is scripted, regimented, rote, and procedural . . . Workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.”

Tone-deaf leaders can avoid catastrophes if others are given the creative – or commonsensical space – to act appropriately.  

2. Listening Outside-the-Bubble

Everyone – including leaders – exist in bubbles of ‘sameness’. Tone-deaf leaders tend to over-value compliance and the comfortable stroking of yes people.  Florence Foster Jenkins was surrounded by people telling her how wonderful she was.

Sean Spicer’s bubble, for example, is shaped and reinforced everyday within the narrow confines of The Whitehouse.  I know that Spicer’s job is to articulate the views of the President’s Administration, but when he steps up to the podium he is not just talking back to the Administration; his audience is diverse and global. Even someone trained in communication can be tone-deaf if their world is relatively narrow. 

3. Develop Self and Situational Awareness

Tone-deaf leaders can be blind to their own traits and limitations.  They are often stubborn, overconfident and resistant to listening and learning.  Anyone who is defensive, controlling, passive-aggressive, self-absorbed, or grandiose is likely to be cut off from reality.  Increased self-awareness is part of the cure, but situational/contextual awareness is also necessary.  Tone-deaf leaders tend not to read situations very well, and over-rely on habitual ways of seeing and acting – often putting themselves, others, and their organizations in danger.  

4. Anticipate Potential Organizational Minefields

Who in an organization is anticipating the potential negative consequences of policies, procedures, and priorities?  Tone-deaf leaders tend to be narrowly obsessive.  While not speaking of tone-deafness, Adam Hartung in Forbes magazine highlights the ‘operational excellence’ focus in United.  He says, “Management from bottom to top, is rewarded for operational performance, while all other metrics are ignored.  The dogmatic focus on efficiency and low cost has driven customer satisfaction out of their success equation.  In J.D. Power’s 2016 ranking of airline customer satisfaction, United was last.

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