Thursday, December 17, 2015

Quick Draw Harreld and Why Language Matters

During 2010 seven individuals of varying prominence discovered they had something in common. The group included a major corporation’s CEO, U.S. Army General, CNN correspondent, Department of Agriculture employee, talk show host, major political party’s national committee chair, and a White House correspondent.

What did they have in common? Each endured the experience of joining the ranks of the unemployed. Because of the economy? No; because of something they said.

I call them “the Outspoken Seven.”
-- Nicholas Johnson, "Was It Something I Said? General Semantics, the Outspoken Seven, and the Unacceptable Remark," Institute for General Semantics, New York City, October 30, 2010 [drawn from an expanded, footnoted, unfinished manuscript with the same title]
[B]asically we always talk about ourselves. Our statements are the verbalizations of our preverbal tensions. It is these organismic tensions -- not the external reality -- that we transform into words.
-- Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know (2009), Ch. 9, p. 118, Wendell Johnson, "General Semantics and the Neuro-Biology of Communications"
Communicating with the dead is only slightly more difficult than communicating with the living.
-- Author unknown
UI President Bruce Harreld has put his foot in it with the current debate surrounding whether he said teachers "should be shot," or whether he said he "should be shot."
"UI's Harreld Sorry for Saying Unready Teachers Should Be Shot," Associated Press/Iowa City Press-Citizen (online), December 15, 2015, 12:28 p.m.; hard copy: "Harreld Says He's Sorry for Teacher Comment; UI President is Under Fire for a Statement About Unprepared Instructions," Associated Press/Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 2015, p. A1

Vanessa Miller, "Graduate Students Say University of Iowa President Shiould Quit Over 'Should be Shot' Remark; Harreld Apologizes for 'Off the Cuff' Comment Made During a Meeting," The Gazette (online), December 15, 2015, 4:51 p.m.; hard copy: Vanessa Miller, "Higher Education: UI President Apologizes for His Remark That Unprepared Lecturers 'Should be Shot;' Graduate Students Say He Should Quit Over 'Off the Cuff' Comment," The Gazette, December 16, 2015, p. A3

Vanessa Miller, "University of Iowa President Harreld Tries to Clarify 'Teachers Should Be Shot' Comments; 'I Never Said Teachers Should Be Shot,'" The Gazette (online), December 16, 2015, 4:04 p.m.; hard copy: Vanessa Miller, "Higher Education: Harreld 'Should Be Shot' Remark Misquoted; The UI President Says His Comment to Staff Inaccurately Reported," The Gazette, December 17, 2015, p. A3

Jeff Charis-Carlson, "Harreld Tries to Clarify 'Should be Shot' Comment," Iowa City Press-Citizen (online), December 16, 2015, 6:41 p.m.; hard copy: Jeff Charis-Carlson, "UI President Harreld Attempting to Clarify 'Should be Shot' Comment," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 17, 2015, p. A1

Corey Hickner-Johnson, "Harreld's Comments Out of Line," December 16, 2015, 5:33 p.m.; hard copy: Corey Hickner-Johnson, "UI President's Comments Are Out of Line," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 17, 2015, p. A9
One could probably organize a seminar around all the categories of issues this suggests for discussion.

There is the science of communication, and as the last two quotes suggest, the miracle that human communication ever accomplishes what the speakers intend.

One could inquire into the kinds of punishments that have been imposed on those whose words were found to be unacceptable -- along with an exploration of what our society's standards should be in this context, and the due process that should be followed in the fact finding preceding punishment. (That is the subject of the sources from which the first quote comes. If you'd like to see what the "Outspoken Seven" actually said, how the complaints against them were processed, and some commentary on what might have been preferable punishments to their being fired, click on the links following that opening quote.)

In the course of this discussion, one might compare Harreld's remarks with those that resulted in the firings of the "Outspoken Seven."

Finally, there is the matter of "executive communication 101" -- what Harreld did, why it was problematical, and how he made it worse for himself -- the subjects this blog entry addresses.

A law school colleague told me the story of running into a large law firm's hiring partner one day in the school. The partner inquired about a student the professor knew. The professor raved about the student in question -- how bright he was, how he was always prepared to recite in class, his quality writing. At that point the partner interrupted, "No, I know that, or at least assumed it. What I want to know is, can he tie his shoestrings?" In other words, does he have common sense, good judgment, and reasonable social skills -- what my mother's generation would have described as "the sense God gave geese."

There are people who start every day believing they will be disrespected by others, and then look for examples. Given the attention paid to what executives say, and the difficulties associated with human communication under the best of circumstances, referred to above, they need to be more careful than the rest of us. They need good judgment. An ill considered choice of words, expressions, or stories, can harm an organization's morale, and an executive's reputation among those who may already harbor grievances and a willingness to think the worst -- however unchallenged the language might be among the boys in an all-male boardroom, barroom, or country club locker room.

As with sexual harassment by supervisors, the words used by Harreld (on the assumption he was not talking about literally shooting any UI employees) suggest a kind of tough guy approach to administration-employee, university president-faculty, relations that creates considerably more intimidation than if it came from a peer, or casual bystander. It reminds me of an occasion when I couldn't help but overhear a passenger in an airline's executive lounge shouting his demands of an employee into the phone. When he hung up, he turned to me, smiled and said, "I don't get ulcers, I give them." That's one style of management -- one I never found useful as a government official. We don't know what Harreld's style will be as he weighs layoffs and budget cuts. But his reliance on forceful figures of speech, like shooting the unprepared, even if not literally likely, are not reassuring.

There have been shootings of instructors on college campuses, including the one on which Harreld now resides (in 1991), as well as in K-12 schools across the country. As Corey Hickner-Johnson points out in the opinion piece linked above, one should be able to anticipate that attempts at lighthearted references to instructors being shot are probably not going to be well received by instructors -- even if the remarks do not inspire real harm from the deranged.

Words matter. TV host Glenn Beck infamously advocated that the best way for conservatives to deal with liberals was to "shoot them in the head." A correlation is not a cause, but many suggested that this kind of language from Beck, Sarah Palin, and others may have played some role in subsequently motivating the shot in the head of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, seven months later, on January 8, 2011 (along with the injury and death of 18 others).

There is an expression in the business literature, and elsewhere, that if you find yourself stuck down in the bottom of a deep hole, the first step to getting out is to stop digging. It has its application in Executive Communication 101 as well. Or, as law professors advise their soon-to-be new lawyers, once you've won your case, stop arguing.

After his gaff was called to his attention, Harreld's first instinct was his best. In an email exchange with the person who emailed her complaint about his remark, he replied, “I apologize and appreciate your calling my attention to it." She responded that she appreciated his apology and understood his remark to be rhetorical. Had he left it at that he would have taken a lump, but the story probably wouldn't have made it into the next news cycle.

Not content to leave this resolution alone, and rejecting the wise counsel from the adage that "yesterday's newspapers are used to wrap fish and line bird cages," he kept the story alive. That was his first mistake. The second mistake was that what he came up with by way of a defense made no sense at all. He contended that, in the context of a discussion of UI instructors preparation to teach, while saying that "unprepared teachers should be shot" would be inappropriate, that was not what he said. He claimed he said that if he was, or when he was, an instructor that if he was unprepared "he should be shot."

He thereby insured a second round of stories in the next news cycle, and since there was no recording of what he said, the rejection of his assertion by some of those present. It also created the sense that although he once seemed to understand what he'd done wrong and apologized for, he was now trying to excuse it as OK -- and with a distinction that was unpersuasive at best.

Watch this space.

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