What do these three have in common? They were all embroiled in massive controversies in the past week. Pepsi released an ad that can only be described as bizarre, featuring Instagram celebrity Kendall Jenner as a social justice warrior distributing Pepsi to presumably racially-biased cops. United Airlines had a passenger violently drug off a plane (Kendall Jenner should have handed those cops a Pepsi). Sean Spicer favorably compared Assad to Hitler (which is literally one of the few people that Assad is at least not quite as terrible as).
So, how did each of these three groups respond?
The Pepsi Response:
“The creative showcases a moment of unity, and a point where multiple storylines converge in the final advert. It depicts various groups of people embracing a spontaneous moment, and showcasing Pepsi’s brand rallying cry to ‘Live For Now,’ in an exploration of what that truly means to live life unbounded, unfiltered and uninhibited.”
The United Airlines Response:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
The Sean Spicer Response:
“I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly, I understand your point, thank you. Thank you, I appreciate that. There was not in the, he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. What I am saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of towns, it was brought — so the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”
What do each of these responses have in common?
They each doubled down on their mistakes.
Each of these responses completely misses the point and critique levied at them. It’s like they’re all coming from a different planet.
Pepsi believed they had crafted a masterpiece of a commercial, having spent millions of dollars creating what they believed was a “moment of unity.” However, the only thing that was “unbounded, unfiltered, and uninhibited” was the stark backlash against this tasteless ad. Pepsi’s initial response is indicative of a company so enamored with itself and its “visionary” ideas that it is unable to properly handle the real world (where, you know, a socialite handing a Pepsi to a cop is hardly the cure for police brutality).
United mistakenly believed the only thing it had done wrong was to “re-accommodate” a passenger. Dear United, if that’s a “re-accommodation”, then please don’t accommodate me in the future. It’s one of those “sorry, not sorry” responses that makes one rage. It’s like when someone says, “I’m so sorry that you got mad” rather than “I’m so sorry for the terribly stupid thing I did.”
Spicer tried to justify his Assad critique by stammering and essentially saying, “well, at least Hitler didn’t gas Jews from airplanes.”
While I grow tired of the “outrage culture” and the never-ending controversies constantly inundating our social media and parading around as legitimate news stories, each of these stories this week serves to illustrate an important point: People have a hard time admitting when they’re wrong.
In each of the above-mentioned cases, the companies and individuals involved were clearly wrong, both in content and tone. Yet each of them failed to see it. And the three people that crafted each of the above statements represent bright and intelligent people and organizations that genuinely care about other people.
Each of these statements was crafted by people much better at PR and navigating the media than either you or I. Why is it so easy for us to see where they went wrong but so hard for them?
Of course, all three have eventually come around to apologizing in different ways and to different degrees. But why didn’t they do this initially? Why did it take several hours of self-reflection to be able to see their own mistakes?
When we get into arguments, our brains shut down. Our cortisol levels spike. Our body language may get more aggressive, as we cross our arms and glare across at our opponent. We may feel our mouths get dry and our heart begin to race. We immediately get into fight or flight mode. The cortisol and added adrenaline serve to short-circuit those parts of our brain that are most adept for self-awareness and self-reflection.
When our work gets challenged, we get even more defensive. Work has this natural way of being deeply personal. Given that work is a product of our mind and creativity, it often feels as though challenges at work are challenges to our intelligence and competence. In these mentally-impaired moments of spiked cortisol and increased stress, it’s easy to misunderstand our colleagues and to completely miss the points of their critiques.
Because in these moments it often feels like a death-match. It’s our idea and our work versus theirs. And we do not want to lose.
What we need to be keenly aware of is the fact that this occurs. When we find ourselves feeling threatened or attacked, we need to regulate and be mindful of our emotional responses. Because oftentimes these responses are triggered out of completely misinterpreted information. It’s easy to believe the person is challenging me. Instead, the person is challenging my idea.
By detaching yourself from your work and your ideas, you are able to view them objectively, which is an essential part of improving your work and ideas. If you are so invested in your ideas that you are no longer able to view them objectively, those very same ideas will fail precisely because of your lack of objectivity. This is the passion-project gone awry. We see this in business strategies and product development. We see this in advertisements, and, yes, at times even from the Press Secretary.
Imagine if, once Sean Spicer had said his comment, he had simply said, “Wow! Yeah, you’re right. That was a stupid comment. I really should not have said that, and I apologize to the Jewish community.”
You can imagine reporters may have chuckled. And SNL would have done a skit. And a few days later, it would have all blown over. By refusing to accept the valid critique of his idea, Spicer made what should have been a minor controversy a major controversy.
And what’s silly is that he did eventually did apologize in full and retract his statement. While it may have taken him a few hours to realize he was wrong, he did realize it. But it took him stepping back and away from his emotions in the moment for him to come to this point.
If you feel yourself getting into a heated argument or feel threatened, your best bet is to just step away. Get to a place where you can regain control of your mind, which is severely impaired when you get into arguments. Remember that the person is not attacking you. They are attacking your ideas.
So why were we able to see the errors in each of these three situations? Precisely because we are not directly involved. We’re not Kendall Jenner. We’re not Pepsi. We’re not United. We’re not Sean Spicer. And it’s this distance that allows us to be objective about their ideas, actions, and ads. It’s this exact same objectivity that you can harness into your own life and work by recognizing that you are not your ideas. And thus, when your ideas are challenged, you should observe them as any other disinterested party, being critical and refining them where needed.
Don’t double-down on your mistakes by refusing to concede the critiques and objections of your colleagues and friends to your ideas and work. If you retain your ability to critically observe your own ideas, as a dispassionate observer, they will become refined and improve over time. That sort of thinking only comes from a mind clear of ego and pride that is humble enough to recognize the limits of its own ideas.