Last year I got married, and my life changed in innumerable, positive ways. Among the many changes accompanying the evaporation of my bachelorhood, one in particular stands out: I now watch "American Idol."
Well, that one stands out to me, anyway. Until this season, I'd never viewed a minute of the show, nor did I have any idea which pop singers it had spawned. But the new Mrs. Muzio thought it would be fun to watch together, and I figured, "Why not?" She's usually right about what we'll enjoy, and I'm overdue for catching up on this aspect of American "culture," anyway. How bad could it be?
The answer, for me, is a split verdict.
In some ways, it's not bad at all. Certain contestant debuts astonish (like when Scotty McCreery's youthful face first began to sing, and a modern day Randy Travis' voice emerged). Others (like Naima Adedapo) begin with raw strength, and then develop style and finesse along the way -- presumably, thanks to experience and coaching. I like good music, I like professional development and I love it when people find ways to make a living doing what they enjoy. Score three for "American Idol."
On the other hand, something about the show has always annoyed me. Initially I couldn't figure it out; only when I pondered the show from the perspective of what I do for a living did my discomfort make sense. You see, my passion and my career revolve around designing group situations which inspire people to create greatness with minimal stress. "American Idol," for better or worse, is role modeling exactly the opposite. Here's how:
I'll bet that somewhere in academia, a psychology class, or maybe a film class, has dissected the number of minutes each episode spends showcasing and judging current talent, versus how much of the show is spent talking about... the show. Between commentary about previous seasons, references to previous singers, and "interviews" with anyone near a camera about what it's like to be on the show, a huge percentage of airtime can be summarized as "Now On American Idol: American Idol."
In an individual, this would probably be labeled as narcissism. In an organization, self-absorption hinders effectiveness. The point of an organization is its output, not its existence. A little sense of history goes a long way. Too much talking about the organization as its own end creates two problems: First, it steals valuable time from coaching, developing and evaluating real capability in the present. Second, it silently places unnecessary boundaries on the future. "This is how it has always been," said too often, carries a very strong implication that "you should do it that way again," even if doing so no longer makes sense.
Consider the "Idol" judges' traditional announcement after a successful initial audition: "Congratulations! You're going to Hollywood!" This is sensible in New Orleans or San Francisco. But what if auditions are in Hollywood? The answer, it turns out, flies in the face of common sense: The judges make the same announcement. Elated singers scream with glee when they hear those familiar, yet inappropriate four words: "You're going to Hollywood!" Then they leave the audition studio, look around, and realize... they're already there. If only such self-obsessed nonsense would never enter our workplace communications, we'd all be better off.
"Idol" is overflowing with instances in which the show is intentionally increasing dramatic stakes. To be sure, a person's ill family member or previous auto accident has no bearing on his or her talent as a singer. And yet, minute after minute, hour after hour, viewers get barraged with tear-jerking scenes of illness and "Eye of the Tiger" survival tales. Moreover, producers not only find drama, they help create it. Forcing dozens of people to self-arrange into groups and get stage-ready in less than 24 hours is a perfect example: It doesn't help anyone sing their best, or showcase their talent, but it does a great job of creating drama for the cameras.
That may be good for TV, but it's bad for people, and definitely bad for the workplace. We've all labored under false urgency, unnecessarily tight deadlines and constant reminders of how "stressed" we are. "These are tough times," managers say. "I can't believe she did that to you," coworkers exclaim. Over and over, we work to reinforce rather than diffuse each others' drama. It gives us something to talk about, a way to connect, but at what cost? Drama begets more drama, and eventually the energy drain of surviving the workplace leaves us little left over for the production of output.
Drama happens. When people try to work together, disagreements and discomfort are bound to surface. But we need not dwell on nor encourage them. When one of the "Idol" singers threw another one out of his group, for example, it was certainly a difficult moment. But that moment happened once, and in real life it lasted minutes. The only reason any of us remembered it days and weeks later was the repeated replay of the footage. "Remember when So-And-So did that? How terribly awful of him!" That type of instigation may have a place on TV, but not at work.
Unclear Success Criteria
Not to brag, but I've navigated some fairly complex human and technical challenges. I'm pretty good at determining what it takes to succeed, but I haven't a clue what constitutes "success" for an "Idol" contestant -- other than the obvious "don't get cut," of course. Judges sometimes make cuts based on one performance, other times by considering "other factors." Singers are praised (and also chastised) both for covering a song in their own style, and for sounding like another artist. Judges may critique "tone," or they may say that the "tone was off, but that's okay because you have the whole package." If performers don't get a bulleted list of "the whole package," all they can do is build it themselves, slowly, based upon what the judges say is wrong.
If you've worked for someone who redefined success as you went along by telling you what was wrong, you already know how detrimental this is. At best, it is the slowest possible way for a leader or expert to communicate what is needed. At worst, it creates a moving target for success that the performer can never hit. The only thing it guarantees is that the leader or expert will have "feedback" to give every single time, and that the performer will always have something new to try to fix, ad nauseum.
Love them, hate them or ignore them, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson are experts. They have achieved longevity in the career their aspiring contestants wish to enter. They're also tasked with providing frequent, incisive, brief feedback that will both help contestants improve and set up the need for more feedback on the next episode. On TV, it's better to spread performance problems over multiple episodes. In real life I'd rather see us solving those issues fast, and getting back to work.
Keep It On TV
I'm no expert in television production. Obviously, the show serves its purpose well: Organizational self-obsession, drama and nebulous, shifting success criteria make for good television. They keep millions of fans -- including my new wife and me -- tuning in each week.
What they don't do is make for a good workplace.
So the next time you're at home, looking for a way to relax and unwind, you might want to check out "American Idol" and see what you think. But please, just promise me you won't reprise it at work the next morning.
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