Posted by: David Stewart | January 8, 2015

When self-editing fails

I was talking just yesterday with a colleague about the comments made by Microsoft’s new CEO about women and pay raises which caused a big controversy. He was called out for them and apologized publicly. “I answered that question completely wrong,” he said later in an email.

I just finished listening to the virally popular first season of the Serial podcast. An amazing piece of long-form reporting on a single story, the reporter Sarah Koenig spent over 40 hours interviewing a convicted killer, Adnan Syed, over a year’s time. In a letter after the interviews, Syed told Koenig that he had weighed every single one of his words with her, to ensure that he was not trying to sell his innocence in any way. That’s a lot of very careful talking. As of this writing, he is still in jail.

And as I’m writing this, the world is reeling over the brutal shooting of 12 people in Paris, who worked at a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. As far as we know at this point, the motive for the attack appears to be revenge for cartoons in the paper which were intended to be provocative and … well … satirical.

Words have tremendous power. And not just the words themselves, it’s also in the delivery. I learned early in life that “it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” A lesson I learned very early in my career as a manager is that the passion I have for something can get out of control, leading me to say something I shouldn’t or in a way which hurts people needlessly. The net effect of this is to hurt my ability to lead without actually having any positive effect.

I’m not paid to be a satirist or a comedian. I’m paid to be a manager and a technologist and a leader.

On this blog and on the several social media sites I interact with, there are many many things I intentionally avoid writing about. This can be somewhat tricky, particularly since controversy attracts more attention.

  • Some of my friends post things on social media which make me very angry, disgusted, horrified. Often, it’s taking a political position which I disagree with. Calling them out, disagreeing publicly, even in a joking way, rarely leads to anything but a mess. Since nothing is achieved to educate or change anyone’s mind, why do it? I have to keep repeating the mantra, “MUST … NOT … FEED … TROLLS.”
  • There are political sensitivities about technical topics as well.
  • There is a lot of stuff that goes on at my work that is too sensitive to talk about, much less write about on social media. Everyone has this to deal with, whether they work at a non-profit, do volunteer work, or have any kind of social connections.
  • I’m fairly selective the aspects of my internal spiritual landscape that I write about online. Mostly that kind of stuff goes into my personal journal.

In spite of this strict self-editing, I fully admit to saying things which can cause unnecessary pain or send the wrong message. Either in the substance or the delivery.

As embarrassing as it to get called out for saying something insensitive or ill-considered, I do appreciate the people who have pointed these things out to me. I’m a richer person for it. Thanks.

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