Saturday, November 24, 2007

Contemporary foolishness

The wise man wants to act righteously, and and welcomes correction as an aid to doing it. He will defend his reputation against unfair attacks, but only after examining the criticism to see if there is anything to learn from it. For him, doing right trumps looking right.

The fool wants to look righteous and regards correction as an obstacle to that goal. Defending his reputation is the first priority, and only after he once again feels his reputation is secure will he, possibly, examine the criticism for validity. For him, looking right trumps doing right.
Starting off a post with a quote like that, I guess I should be attributing it to some wise sage, but I'm afraid it's just me. Take it as a restatement of ideas taken from Ps 15:4c, Pr 12:1,15, and 2 Cor 13:7, with a generous dose of C. S. Lewis's principle of First and Second Things. Basically, it's a result of noticing how much of modern life falls into the foolish pattern.

I've long noticed a pattern in both politics and business that I've come to characterize as "prioritizing PR over actual effectiveness". Primary effort is put into making yourself look effective, with only secondary effort put into actually doing your work effectively. This goes beyond being merely commonplace in politics; nowadays it seems like this is the primary operating tactic of the majority of political campaigns, and failing to run your campaign on this principle will actually draw criticism.

You also see it heavily when a politician or business has to deal with bad news of some kind. Too often, it seems that first priority is put on spinning it in the most positive (or at least 'least negative') sense, and only secondarily (if at all) is consideration given to fixing the problem that produced the bad news in the first place. At least as far as we can tell, that's what happens. Too often, it seems like any direct attempt by the public to actually determine if the announced fix is effective are blocked. Like Dorothy, we're told to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" - "only listen to what our PR department tells you about how we're fixing this problem".

And those of us who behind the scenes are involved in having to deal with fixing the problem can often tell you that decisions about how to fix the problem are often colored heavily by the "PR before effectiveness" principle. A 'solution' which makes a public splash about doing something about the problem will be given priority over a less public solution which has a better chance of actually being effective. Being "seen" to be trying to deal with the problem is considered more important than actually being effective at dealing with it.

Now, I'll admit that you can't totally ignore perception. As a business partner of mine is fond of saying: "If you do a technically good job of solving a customer's problem, but the customer perceives you as doing a bad job, then you've done a bad job." There is, however, a large gulf between paying attention to the effects of perception, and making control of perception your number one priority.

Contrast this attitude with Paul's in 2 Cor 13:7:
Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved, but that you may do what is right, even though we should appear unapproved.
For Paul, priority is given to effectiveness as an apostle, teacher, and discipler, even if the result is a bad perception of Paul's effectiveness. It's more important that he be effective in his calling, in producing disciples that do well, that do what's right, than that he appear in men's eyes to be doing well.

How easily do we fall into the foolish pattern, particularly if we're in leadership? How easy is it to make obtaining (or, worse, enforcing) a positive view of ourselves from others a high priority? And how easy is it to self-justify by claiming that we can't be effective unless people view us positively?

Fools are fools, in part, because the things they do are eventually self-defeating, and so it is here. As Lewis puts it "every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made". Prioritize PR over what you're actually supposed to be doing eventually results in losing the good PR you were seeking. People generally eventually see through the pretense. Better to be humble, admit your limitations and faults, and put your effort into being as effective as you can than to put your effort into painting a picture of PR perfection and eventually be found to come up short.

1 comment:

John said...

It is easy to fall into that trap: to become defensive about criticism and reject sound critique because of the source. A humble heart can get us past our own egos. Hopefully.