Tag Archives: critical communication skills

Time to end our love affair with charisma

Is it time to end our love affair with charisma?

As an unabashed cheerleader for smart and engaging communication, I want to explore whether that mysterious quality is given too much weight.

The truth is someone who is extremely charismatic and/or connects deeply with a certain group can often skate on the knowledge required to actually do the job she or he has auditioned for. That ends up being no good for anyone because ultimately, that individual will be found out, often after much damage has been done.

On the other hand, we are human beings, having evolved over the millennia to be emotional and respond in kind. There is a natural selection process involved here that influences our choice of partners in both business and life and certainly in our decisions about what leaders to support and follow.

So the question, then, is not that an over-reliance on charisma can get us into trouble (it can), but how do we manage our response to it so it doesn’t overwhelm facts or our ability to make the most informed decisions?

nazirallyinggrounds2If you read my personal note, you saw I was recently in Nuremberg, Germany a city made infamous by Hitler and the Nazi Party and also famous by the German government and the Allies, which held the war crimes trials post-World War II. I walked in his footsteps. (If you look closely at this grainy photo, you’ll see Hitler in the foreground with his arm raised.) I then reviewed the propaganda. It was horrifying, to say the least.

In graduate school in communications, Hitler was one of the first leaders I studied. A charismatic speaker, we know he was able to inspire his followers, many of whom were average, middle-class people, to commit unspeakable acts against their fellow human beings.






(The Nazi Rallying grounds today)

Recognizing the horror of what had happened, an interesting phenomenon took hold: The country became a prime example of “anti-charisma.” I fondly recall working in Frankfurt some years ago for a big, international banking conglomerate and being struck by how “boring” the clients were. I didn’t get it at the time, though I should have. It was as if the German people had collectively decided that charisma could lead to very dark outcomes and should thus be treated with suspicion.

nazigroupinggrounds3v2That is a foreign concept to us in the US.

So back to my question about how to manage our response to charisma. First, in business, it is unlikely that charisma alone will get you the job, the deal, the recognition. There has to be some “there” there for that to happen. What it can do, however, is help you get a foot in the door.

Once that happens, it’s up to the person(s) responsible for choosing to do their homework, to thoroughly vet and research. To rely entirely on the emotional response and say, “I like her! (or him!)” is not enough. Behaving in that way is shirking a greater responsibility.

The true role of charisma then, in my opinion, is to function as a delivery vehicle for depth and knowledge. It does not stand alone.

 We saw what happened in Germany and Europe when it did. 

“Nothing’s Ever Off The Record.”

This statement is always included when I’m media training a celebrity or public figure and goes into the comprehensive written summary, as well.

It used to be a celebrity could depend on a reporter when they agreed something would remain off the record. And any well-trained reporter will be respectful of this time-honored arrangement. It’s the others just looking for a scoop and, more and more, the “citizen journalists” with no training or ethical boundaries. And sad to say, they’re everywhere looking for their own 15 minutes of fame.

But it’s not just celebs who have to be careful… we all do. When you’re in public, you’re a target and that goes for all public appearances including social media. As we have seen time and again, the media can either expedite a person’s public ascension, or quickly and devastatingly take him or her down. All of this is controlled through proper training and management. We all must become adept at navigating appearances and media interactions in order to benefit from the upside, while avoiding the “media slide” that is, unfortunately, so common today, where we all are judged and punished by a single misstep. Don’t risk your personal brand.

Quick to fall. Hard to get back up. Brutal. Doesn’t have to happen.

Mo’ne Davis, Trolls, & The Online Dis-Inhibition Effect

Trolls. These are the posters on social media, blogs and elsewhere online, who feel free to express their most vile, insulting, obscene, and/or hurtful thoughts. It just happened to teenage baseball wiz Mo’ne Davis. (Do a search for the story.) Some idiot from a college called her a slut. Inappropriate to say the least. He didn’t know her. So what caused him to think anyone would be interested in this type of opinion?

It’s known as the online dis-inhibition effect and it has resulted from our continuing preference for communicating in writing, particularly when the poster can remain anonymous (though not in this case). There is a significantly lower level of inhibition vs. communicating face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice). Online, people don’t watch what they say. In this case, the poster was expelled from his university. But often, there are no consequences. We’re all victimized by this type of thing from time to time. But are we the victimizers, too?

When we are communicating via written means (text, email, etc.), we are more likely to express ourselves inappropriately. We more easily say things while sitting alone at the keyboard that we would never say face-to-face. We are less restrained and controlled. These are the types of communications we might even decide to let go, leave unmentioned or, at the very least, state more diplomatically.

I first noticed and started to write about this phenomenon several years ago with my kids, who seemed able to be very frank with friends and others when text messaging. At first, I admired that they could and would say what they really felt. I thought it was refreshing. As a regular cheerleader for directness in communication, I could not imagine how this could be a bad thing — until one of them broke up with a boyfriend via text message. That was my wake-up call. For the important stuff, face-to-face has tremendous advantages. (I’m not saying that two 16-year-olds breaking up is that important; it is, however, practice for dealing with future conflicts.)

When we communicate facing another person, a cascade of nonverbal signals that can be very subtle constantly cues us. The flick of an eyebrow, the twitch of a mouth are only two among many other signs we read and consider. They occur in fractions of seconds and we are barely conscious of them, but we do read and consider them and they influence our responses. Our empathy centers are activated and we work to ensure the communication stays on track, even goes well.

And empathy is key. In my speeches and writings, I identify it as one of three critical communication skills (the other two are apology and courtesy. When we are alone, typing, there is an absence of information that we instinctively respond to when we are in another’s presence. We hit send before we think better of it. This creates problems. I see it with my clients all the time and I experience it myself both in email exchanges and in rude and gratuitous comments to my blogs and on social media. It is a major component of cyber-bullying of young people.

It is just too easy to hit that send button. I know we live in a frenetic, sometimes frantic world, but it’s important to take a step back. So follow this rule: if you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it in writing.

By the way, Mo’ne Davis asked that the offender be reinstated.