Preface: This continues the previous post, How to Reduce Stress at Work through Conscious Use of Self: Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and the Blizzard, Part 1, in which I described how Oprah Winfrey coped with an nerve-wracking incident at work. Superstar Jennifer Hudson was unexpectedly late for a scheduled taping of the Oprah Winfrey show, throwing off the entire day’s schedule. The unfolding events were shown in “Episode 116” of Season 25, the highly acclaimed reality show.
Oprah’s responses to this upset closely paralleled what my coauthor and I referred to as “conscious use of self” in our book, Reframing Change. Part 1 explained how Oprah demonstrated the first two of the seven steps:
1. Get your emotional attachments out of the way.
2. Accept responsibility for your own contribution.
Let’s pick up with step 3.
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3. Maintain integrity
Maintaining integrity means staying true to one’s values. As explained by Peter Walsh, a host of his own show on Oprah’s new network, OWN, Oprah’s values includes the following:
“Oprah’s catch cry has always been, ‘Live your best life”….Whenever you’re working on an Oprah show, she’ll ask you, ‘What is your intention here?’… We ask ourselves that question constantly.”
For Oprah, helping people live their best lives means focusing on building people up rather than tearing them down and helping them own their own truths.
To stay in integrity while negotiating the tricky terrain of Hudson’s AWOL, Oprah chose two pivotal actions.
First, she chose to not publicly attack Jennifer Hudson after she arrived. Instead Oprah went behind closed doors with Jennifer to talk privately.
At the same time, Oprah didn’t minimize the negative impact of Hudson’s actions with the waiting audience. She made it clear she was displeased, but did so in a humorous fashion to lighten the mood:
“Jennifer is here. I’m [going to] tell her if she was my daughter I’d put her on curfew right now. Leaving the house, didn’t tell nobody, out partying in Dallas and then missed her class this morning.”
4. Focus on the other person’s strengths
Many people believe that the way to improve someone’s performance is by pointing out to them the myriad ways in which they had been wrong. As a strategy, this often backfires. As my coauthor and I explained in Reframing Change, negative feedback can threaten people’s identities. Emphasizing strengths gives people the sense of psychological safety to reach for a higher level of effectiveness. People who feel valued want to do better.
Clearly, Jennifer’s actions had been irresponsible and costly. How did Oprah focus on Jennifer’s strengths under such circumstances? After the taping was over, Oprah said to Jennifer front of the audience who had been periodically updated on the unfolding developments:
“I told them before you came out here that if you were my daughter, I would put you on curfew for going out late last night and not telling your mamma. But I’m going to take you off curfew since you did such a good job today (emphasis added).”
Jennifer (head down, accepting Oprah’s gentle chastising): “Yes Mamma Oprah. Yes ma’am.”
The proof of the pudding is how Jennifer felt about herself afterwards – did she feel built up or torn down? At the end of the episode she commented:
“We went through a storm to get here. And to come and still make it and to see it still go on and everything still be accomplished. I’m thankful to Oprah for being so patient. That made it even more worthwhile. It turned out really well.”
5. Adopt a learning orientation.
6. Seek to understand the other’s perspectives
When people disappoint us, we can focus on their disappointing performance or we can get curious and seek to uncover any learning that may result. This contrast between a performance orientation (what did and did not work) and a learning orientation (what might we learn from the situation) determines whether we sink into blame and shame or aim for a higher level of personal mastery.
At key points within the episode, Oprah demonstrated a learning rather than performance orientation. For example, after Hudson arrived, Oprah was eager to find out from Jennifer’s perspective what had gone wrong. In her words:
“I wanted to be able to look Jennifer Hudson in the eye and say, ‘What happened here?’ So, I went backstage without cameras because I didn’t want this to be about me trying to scold her or have a t.v. moment. I just really wanted to know from her lips to my ears what had happened.”
After that fateful conversation with Hudson, Oprah appeared to be satisfied and have no need for recriminations. As she explained:
“Once I had the conversation with her, for me it was done, it was over….I don’t appreciate it. I think that that was not a good decision on your part, but you’ll learn from that, because she said, ‘It will never happen again and I learned from it.’ Well you can’t ask any more than that” [emphasis added].
7. Recognize your power and use it responsibly.
Oprah had the power to publicly humiliate Jennifer and she knew it. But this would not have been consistent with her (Oprah’s) values, nor with the image she wanted to convey. Her brand of “live your best life” requires owning one’s power and using it responsibly.
However, Jennifer Hudson had held up three tapings and inconvenienced a lot of people. The audience left waiting on Jennifer would want a sense that she was held accountable for her actions. As Oprah explained at the end of the episode:
“Jennifer being late backed up the whole day and put a lot of pressure unnecessarily on a lot of people. That’s just a fact. That’s just the truth.”
People are often advised to praise in public and criticize in private. This works if others are not affected by the recalcitrant person’s behavior. In this case, both the staff and the audience were put out because of Jennifer’s behavior. To reprimand her only in private would have left both the audience and staff with a sense of unspoken injustice and possible outrage.
By making public her displeasure – chastising Jennifer publically for leaving town “without telling her Mamma” — Oprah spoke for the others and let them know that she was holding Jennifer accountable for her actions. She also indirectly implied that she (Oprah) also held herself personally accountable for the audience’s well-being.
Did it work?
Oprah’s actions during this behind-the-scenes episode demonstrated her conscious use of self. She:
- got her emotional attachments out of the way
- accepted responsibility for her role and contributions
- maintained integrity by staying true to her values
- focused on Hudson’s strengths
- adopted a learning orientation
- sought to understand Hudson’s perspectives
- recognized her power and used it responsibly.
In explaining how her actions were critical to the eventual success of the show, Oprah commented:
“I thought the [actual Hudson] interview went great. And the reason the interview was able to go great was because I was able to clear my own stuff [signals a clearing by sweeping her hand up and down in front of head and chest, palm facing inward] so I wasn’t sitting there going, ‘why did you keep us waiting?’. Because that was all done.”
This is the promise of conscious use of self when challenges threaten to overwhelm us: We know how to purposefully choose our actions so that whatever it is we are trying to accomplish turns out “great.”
- What do you think about how Oprah handled the situation?
- What about you? In what situations are you challenged to consciously use yourself? How has it turned out for you?
- Reframing Change, Chapter 6.
- Barsade S.G.(2002). The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly; 47, 644-675.
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