Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Deflection, Misdirection, & Leger de main--
A Technique to Protect Players  

They've shown me ways to lose I never knew existed
-- Casey Stengel on the early New York Mets

Sometimes when an employee fails to achieve the results you both hoped for, it her fault. But more frequently it's one of those "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug" moments, where she did her best under your direction and things didn't work out. In these cases, bad managers will make the team member a lightning rod to avoid any responsibility himself. Good managers will take on responsibility themselves while pointing out the random factors involved. The best managers master misdirection and deflection, owning up to the failure, but neither trashingt he player nor absorbing the full hit himself.

Baseball has some illustrative examples of the technique. Casey Stengel is by far the best.

Stengel was always a screwball as a player, patroling the outfield for more than half the National League franchises He was a good-enough, not very good player. But he was incomparable at using humor or an odd gesture to confuse his critics and redirect attention to something else.

According to researcher Sam Person, writing for the Baseball Library, Stengel was booed by the fans the first game back in Brooklyn after having been traded away, then back. According to Person, "Casey secured a sparrow, placed it under his cap, and removed the cap the next time a chorus of boos greeted him in Brooklyn. It is reported that when the bird lifted off from his head, Casey turned the boos to laughter. Conceivably, in so doing, a pattern was set for many situations that would happen at Ebbets Field over time, as the Dodgers became loveable losers."

He applied this lesson many times as a player, and when he became a manager, used it to defuse situations with the hot-house New York sports press, making himself the wit, the buffoon, the Pagliacci. When a player would collapse and take down the team in a game, he trained reporters to come to him for some bon mot they could use in the first three paragraphs of their story, instead of tormenting the player (with longer term consequences, like the installation of additional fear-of-failure).

He was informative and amusing enough that the talk of failure was diminished (not eliminated), And the by-product of his showmanship and wit was he became the story, promoting his own image. He actually marketed himself to peers and executives and the general public though others' adversity, while taking heat off them and rarely taking them down in the process.

In a totally unhealthy organization, you can't get away with this technique. In a totally unhealthy organization, the permanent attachment of the Tar Baby of blame is a sport in itelsef, as competitors for attention & glory make sure they can get ahead of you by pointing out all shortcomings. I call this Roller Derby Style society (the only way to score points is to leave someone on their ass or hanging over a rail).

In a somewhat healthy organization you can succeed with Stengel's approach. Collect and try to invent your own turns of phrase to use when someone in your group has been diligent but failed.It doesn't mean you ignore the problem or deny it, but make your wit the focus of attention and don't let the sharks take a bite out of your diligent players when things just didn't work out.

Stengel was both inventive on the spot, and a storehouse of little things he put away for later. Here a few choice ones from Steven Goldman's nifty column this week for YES Network.

The French have a wonderful phrase for that moment after an argument is over when you think of all the things you should have said when it was going on. They call that moment l'esprit de l'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." For my money, English sorely needs its own word for this and the German schadenfreude to really qualify as a major league language.

So that Grady Little and Dusty Baker can avoid staircase moments in the future, here are the seven best things Casey Stengel said to a pitcher who didn't want to leave the game:

7. To Tracy Stallard, 1963: "At the end of the season they're gonna tear this place down. The way you're pitching, that right field section will be gone already."

6. To Roy Parmalee, who had just been struck by a line drive: "Make out like it's your pitching hand. I want to get you out of here gracefully."

5. Asked by a pitcher why he had to come out: "Up there, people are beginning to talk."

4. To Tug McGraw, who said that he got the batter out the last time he faced him: "Yeah, I know, but it was in this inning." **

3. To Ray Daviault, who said he had made a perfect pitch: "It couldn't have been a perfect pitch. Perfect pitches don't travel that far."

2. The pitcher said he wasn't tired: "Well, I'm tired of you."

1. To Walter Beck, who wouldn't leave on Stengel's second trip, July 4, 1934: "Give me the damn ball, Walter."

** - I changed Goldman's text of the quote here to the way I've always heard this one. His original may be right, or mine may be.

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