Friday, February 24, 2017

You're Fired!

Around New York City people care about what happens at the New York Times. If Mika Brzezinski was right and the media’s task is to control what people think, the leader in the field, for New Yorkers, is the Times. No. 2 is The New Yorker.

Among the more important positions at the paper is that of theatre critic. In olden days Frank Rich held the post and, because of his fine temperament, he was both admired and reviled by producers around town. 

You see, putting on a Broadway show costs mucho time and mucho money. If a producer invested all of that time and money, only to read in the Times the next morning that Frank Rich thought that the play sucked… all of that time and money just went down the toilet. This did not make Rich very popular among Broadway producers.

In the internet age the Times most likely has less influence on the arts than it once had, but still its opinion matters.

One notes also that theatre is an important element in New York’s economy, not just for locals but especially for tourists. And the producers have been notable advertisers in the paper. Between banks and department stores and the arts… along with the classifieds…you have much of the Times shrinking advertising base.

It’s not just about the art… but I am sure you knew that.

Anyway, the Times recently had a Trumpian moment when it called its No. 2 theatre critic, Charles Isherwood into an editor’s office where he was told: “You’re fired!” It was a little too close to “Celebrity Apprentice” for anyone’s comfort, so the story has made quite a lot of noise around the city. It inspired an extended story in New York Magazine.

For your information, the Times’s No. 1 theatre critic is Ben Brantley. The division of critical labor had it that Brantley covered Broadway and other important shows, while Isherwood covered the rest, especially out-of-town theatre. (By all indications Isherwood is not related to novelist Christopher Isherwood.)

Apparently, Isherwood was fired for failing to observe Times ethical guidelines. One does not know exactly which ones he violated, but we can at least make some observations.

Beyond the New York Magazine report, I am impressed by the commentary offered by organizational psychologist Liane Davey in Quartz. Davey offers a useful account of how it happens that people get themselves fired. Clearly, her analysis applies to other positions, executive or otherwise.

Davey begins by noting that Isherwood took the job as No. 2 theatre critic because he assumed, wrongly, that Brantley was about to retire. Thus, he took a job because he wanted another job.

She explains:

New York reports, “When Isherwood arrived in 2004, he was under the impression that [lead critic Ben] Brantley would soon retire.” When that didn’t happen, Isherwood reportedly grew “increasingly, vocally frustrated” with his second-string status.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen employees accept new positions with similar expectations about rapid promotion—only to have their hopes dashed. The lesson here is clear: If you feel you’re overqualified for or are uninterested in doing the job you are hired to do, don’t take it.

Evidently, once you discover that your dream is not coming true within the time frame you imagined, you are going to resent the individual who is standing in your way and you will start trying to push things along.

Isherwood could not control his frustrations or his bad attitude. Davey continues:

The powers that be seem to agree that Isherwood was very good at his job. But being good at your job doesn’t always make up for being costly to your organization in other ways. The story mentions that Isherwood had recently had tiffs with his editor, posted a sarcastic message about Times coverage of the arts to Facebook, and repeatedly (publicly) disparaged Brantley. This kind of attitude may get you turfed, no matter how good you are.

Being good at your job does not give you a pass to display a bad attitude, or,  one might say, not being a team player.

Evidently, Isherwood and Brantley did not develop a very good relationship. One does need to recall that one is working with other human beings and that, no matter how gifted you are, they will put up with only so much bad behavior.

Davey writes:

If there is one thing that is undisputed in this case, it’s that the relationship between Isherwood and Brantley was nasty, to the point that Isherwood was slagging Brantley publicly while participating in a panel discussion. That’s bad form. But some speculate that the Times liked the rivalry between the critics and the motivational effect it had on performance.

This is another good lesson. Beware when your boss pits you against a teammate, hoping that the competition will bring out the best in you both. Bosses are fickle. The same boss that stoked the fires may turn on you for having crossed some previously undisclosed line. You’re wise to resist the temptation to see your coworkers as rivals, and instead form alliances that will help you both succeed.

For the record, the word “slagging” does not exist in American English. It’s the Queen’s English… written by a Canadian. It has nothing to do with shagging, another word from the Queen’s but not American English. The dictionary explains that “slagging” means criticizing harshly. Personally, I find it to be a useful addition to our language.

Davey’s last remark deserves emphasis. Do not be tempted, she says, even if your boss suggests it, to enter into rivalries with your colleagues. You do better to form alliances. In that way you will succeed together and not appear to be dragging each other and the company down.

And also, do not take things personally. Isherwood was apparently unhappy that the Times had reduced the space allotted to the second-tier theatre critic. He took it personally and did not keep his bitterness to himself. He publicized it on Facebook:

Isherwood was reportedly frustrated that the space in the Times devoted to theater critique was dwindling. Recently, he took to Facebook to publish a review that didn’t make the paper. His post was accompanied by a sarcastic note reading, “This may never see print, welcome to the new world of the New York Times.”

Davey draws the correct conclusion:

The minute you chastise your boss for the difficult choices he or she is forced to make, you become a liability. If you want to make yourself indispensable, find ways to help your boss cope and adapt, rather than protesting the march of time.

It is better to be part of the solution than to make yourself into yet another problem.

6 comments:

Sam L. said...

If one finds oneself blocked from advancement, it's time to start looking for other employment. Slagging (I know that word, probably from watching Britcoms) one's coworkers, especially in public, will likely ruin possibilities of future employment.

I trust he's finding this out,

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

Whatever else is true, its always easier to get yourself fired by expressing personal aggression and hostility against colleagues.

What's missing for me is what advancement is worth. Is it simple status, or salary, or is it a matter of choice assignments?

Of course you never really know what happened behind the scenes (I didn't read the original article). We don't know if the public aggression was deserved or not, we only know it was unwise.

So perhaps the #1 guy was the real arrogant asshole, and was just smart enough to be unkind privately. And if you don't like someone for whatever random reason, and you can provoke that person to act badly in public, you can get rid of them without actually speaking against him publicly.

Of course its still about weak character, and people who are sensitive enough to "take things personally" are easier to manipulate.

Overall the only thing we really might know from personality conflicts is you should be smart enough to look good in public, and only behave badly when and where no one can hold you to account. I do imagine that little trick is getting harder now with cell phone cameras and recording devices everywhere. So clever tricksters may not get away with things as much as in the past.

Or on another side, I was listening to "Science Friday" today and one speaker way saying we're very close to being able to make realistic audio and video that can make it look like any famous or important peoplar are doing or saying whatever you want them to say, and it'll take experts to be able to catch this, probably the same experts who are enabling this new technology of manipulation. The brave new world keeps getting bolder, to see how far we can push fake news.

Like we might even soon see fake videos of Donald Trump's golden showers, and he'll at least be right about that. Really it all makes me think its better to avoid a public life. It really is bizarre to me than anyone would want celebrity status at all.

And for that matter, being a critic also seems like a horrid job to me, and I can see why a large fraction of them might prefer to be "fake critics" and go where the money tells you to go.

For myself, I'd imagine the only honest critic is one who has no financial interest to say anything at all, and then you know he's only speaking because he really cares what he's saying.

L. Beau said...

RE: Ares's comment, It really is bizarre to me than anyone would want celebrity status at all.

And for that matter, being a critic also seems like a horrid job to me, and I can see why a large fraction of them might prefer to be "fake critics" and go where the money tells you to go.


I suspect that some critics are in the game only for the $$$, or once got into criticism for other reasons, and now are only staying for the money. On the other hand, I also suppose that some critics continue with writing criticism because they care deeply about theater (or film, literature, etc.) and they have deeply held opinions that they want to express to as large an audience as they can. This may not actually be a "better" or "higher" motive than money, although it would not surprise me to learn that passion for a particular art form is the primary motive a great number of critics.

Ares also wrote, For myself, I'd imagine the only honest critic is one who has no financial interest to say anything at all, and then you know he's only speaking because he really cares what he's saying.

I cannot say that I believe that the only honest critic is one with no financial interest in writing. A critic might actually need the income from criticism (e.g., to support a family) but still scruple to write honestly, for the sake of the readers, or out of pride, or out of concern for one's public reputation, et cetera.

Also, I think that while a great many propagandists (religious, political, and otherwise) may really care about what they are saying, that is, in itself, no guarantee that the propagandists are being honest with their audiences. And my review of various political blogs suggests that many of those propagandists receive little or no financial compensation for their efforts. Might it not be the same with amateur critics?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @February 24, 2017 at 12:45 PM:

"And for that matter, being a critic also seems like a horrid job to me..."

You cannot possibly be serious, Ares. You are a critic exclusively.

"... and I can see why a large fraction of them might prefer to be 'fake critics' and go where the money tells you to go."

You're really believing all this "fake" stuff, aren't you?

What would be fascinating to hear about is your gauge for what is "real."

Anil Gupta said...
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