–  James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA

Testosterosis (Petulant Arrogance): A major management and leadership mistake

You have been there before, possibly many times. It’s the beginning of a hastily called meeting (maybe you called it) to discuss a looming terrible story about your organization and some of the people in it, maybe even about you.

There’s the usual first 15 minutes wasted trying to determine what the reporter’s motivations are, where the story came from, who the leaker might be and how can we find out (maybe call Security?). Can we kill the story? Does the reporter owe us any favors or, can we discredit his sources quickly?

Then the meeting gets tougher. You enter the Testosterosis phase

If it’s a whistleblower, is our rapid response anti-defamation counter action team ready to discredit, demean, and deconstruct any vulnerability the WB might have? Can we find ways to make their lives miserable?

Can we just plain deny it and see if the journalist can actually prove anything? If we can’t stop it maybe we can play it out before it really develops something really bad?

Maybe we just say nothing?

Can we shift the blame to someone else?

Can we come out swinging? What have we got to hit with? We are victims of this situation, maybe even more so than the people we expect to be named in the article.

Despite the fact that your organization has always been a respectable, responsible, good but quiet company the purpose of this meeting is moving to test whether or not the company will continue in that mode once the story has time to play a bit.

The tenor of the meeting shifts to determining if the story can be stopped, best way to do that (call PR, make them deliver something we need now for once!). Can we quickly develop a worse story than this one about somebody else and get it out there to preempt or question the need to place the one about us? One of our attorneys is always bragging about how he knows all the reporters and can do deals with them.

Testosterosis is among the most frequent early management responses to trouble. This behavior is mostly learned in practice and “taught” in management and law schools as an “expected behavior,” as a first response strategy. “Let’s slap them around a little bit and see what that does, before we get serious about settling the matter.” “Wouldn’t want to look like a sissy, right off the bat.” Aside from lying and blame shifting, Testosterosis is the most reputationally corrosive, long lasting self-inflicted, negative victim- and critic-creating management and leadership behavior. It is petulant and arrogant and there will be a price to pay for it.

The Symptoms of Testosterosis

When bad news comes your way:

  1. First, look for ways to deny then hit back, rather than to deal with or acknowledge that a problem exists.
  2. Refuse to give in, or respect those who may have a difference of opinion or a legitimate issue.
  3. Spontaneous disdain for anyone who disagrees or questions.
  4. Immediately demean, dismiss, denigrate or discredit those who challenge.
  5. Avoid any action that might (from you or your peer’s perspective) make you look like a sissy or worse.
  6. Never give an inch.
  7. Always strive to make the first and the last punch.

Controlling Institutional and Individual Testosterosis

“The Boss says, ‘Get out there, take control, get ahead of it, kill it, or deny it!”

Getting Ahead of Bad News (is never possible)

I have no idea where this concept came from, but it is simply impossible to achieve. Bad news has a habit of coming out regardless of attempts to preempt, distract, deny or prevent disclosure. The simple acts of working in this direction require revelation of the situation to individuals and people in the media who simply become more tantalized to do something about it. And they will. Here’s what happens:

  • Spontaneous disclaimers are generally considered admissions of guilt. (Remember Shakespeare: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Hamlet Act 3, scene 2)
  • The media will think, “We must be onto something BIG if they are going to issue a denial before we run anything.”
  • The public sentiment is, “Only guilty people deny things in advance of the accusations.”
  • This approach tends to confirm whatever story the media already has. It plays right into their hands. They will lead with your statement. This then becomes the promotion piece to attract viewers, listeners, followers, bloggers, bellyachers and victims. Your denial will be placed right next to other famous denials.
    • “It’s too complicated for the layperson to understand.
    • “The media will just sensationalize it and get it wrong.”
    • “It can’t be explained in a few words or 140 characters.”
    • “I’m not a crook.” – President Richard Nixon
    • “I did not have sex with that woman.” – President Bill Clinton
    • “If I tell a lie, it’s only because I think I’m telling the truth.” – Phil Gaglardi, Minister of Highways in British Columbia, Canada

You Could Be Lucky (unlikely if you are petulantly arrogant)

  • There is a chance that a negative story might not run without corroboration from you (the perpetrator) your spokesperson or a victim.
  • Preemption only works when your statement conclusively deals with the legacy media and social issues.
  • Only the boss or some other senior people really knows what’s going on and what the truth is. This is problematic because bosses rarely reveal what’s really going on, especially to staff advisors.
  • “Getting ahead of the story” is the boss’s fervent hope that he or she will never have to explain what’s really going on.
  • Denials often trigger confirmation of something worse from friends, uninformed but well-meaning employees, or previous victims.

And There’s More . . .

  • Denials often energize the disgruntled, the disoriented, the disappointed, the disheartened and the bloggers, bellyachers, back bench complainers.
  • If you don’t know the whole story, there’s a much lower chance (like impossible) that a quick and complete recovery is achievable.
  • If the media can prove that any part of what you said is or appears to be untrue, your entire statement becomes a lie.
  • Understand the rules of the game:
    • “Never fight the guy who owns the ink barrel, unless you have a bigger barrel.”
    • Unless you can respond conclusively and kill the arguments, those who attack you will bleed all over you for a long time.
    • Enemies and critics accumulate.
  • Yes, truth is an absolute defense against libelous accusations. But, getting to the libel itself is often an embarrassing, often humiliating and lengthy process of self-inflicted excessive, negative exposure. What do you win, if you win?
  • The public does resent the invasion of someone’s private life – even if the person is a celebrity, so long as they trust that celebrity. But the truth is, the public mostly doesn’t care. The reality is that once you start suffering these events, you’re going to be suffering alone. What you inflict on others through arrogant and petulant behavior, blows back in multiple layers.
  • The best strategy is to avoid petulant arrogance and the Testosterosis that it inspires all together. Instead use simple, sensible, positive, constructive and helpful communication approaches.
  • Sometimes I ask my clients what their Mom is telling them to do. Invariably, after a sheepish grin is,” She told me to grow up and get over it.”

Pretty good advice.

When someone calls about managing a crisis I ask them four important questions:

  1. Have you contacted your insurance company?
  2. Have you contacted a crisis attorney?
  3. Are you getting specialized crisis management advice?
  4. Have you talked to your Mom?

Then I tell them, no matter what the others have recommended, do what your mom says and things will likely get better by the day after tomorrow. Growing up might also help.

Whatever you do, remain calm . . . and give me a call.