Wednesday
Jun012011

Private Behaviour – Public Performance

It has long been a tenant of capitalism that one’s private behavior is irrelevant to one’s professional performance. There has been a clear demarcation between private and public behaviours, with extremely limited intrusion of the public into the private.

This was not historically true to the birth of capitalism. And it appears that we are increasingly unwilling to continue living with this divide.

The recent exposures of questionable, private behaviours and the real consequences on their public, professional roles indicates that we are collectively, increasingly intolerant of the public-private divide.

Because of his private behaviours of cavorting with women while married, and acting in ways that made it easy for this information to become public, Tiger Woods has suffered professionally. A number of companies removed their sponsorship agreements, believing that his bad behavior would impair their reputational equity. And I would be remiss not to mention the decline in his golfing performance. While a wise man explained to me that without the multiple balls in the air to manage, he has difficulty in focusing on the ball he needs to pay attention to, it does not take a sophisticated, professional therapist to know that there is some correlation between his private behaviour, public humiliation and professional performance.

Always considered the “bad boy” of fashion, John Galiano’s reputation was part of his charm, allure and success. But his public articulation of racist remarks cost him his professional job, and stature.

The revelation of the existence of his thirteen year old child with a member of his household staff has not only ruptured Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marriage, but has put his renewed Hollywood career on some type of hold.

Predatory sexual behavior has cost Dominique Strauss-Kahn his professional role, and will take him into a courtroom. While his qualities of expert strategist, financial leader, political savvy and leadership effectiveness have earned him professional respect and success, the flip side of these qualities are what have been his downfall. Indeed for all these individuals, their charm and charisma have been the source of success and demise.

There are a few solid reasons why private behaviours are connected to the ability of someone to perform professionally. How they treat people in private is a good indicator of how they will treat people in their organizations. The internal cultures of organizations are the working and living conditions of employees, and the degree to which they are supportive and bring out the very best in people is the degree to which an organization will be successful. Good treatment of people drives successful enterprises.

Second when we are talking about people in positions where their decisions affect the lives of many, then we want leaders who make wise choices. Private behavior is an indicator of the wisdom, sagacity and prescience of an organizational leader; so when they are making ill-advised decisions in their private lives, how good will their professional decisions be?

And third, great leaders are great because they get us to follow them. We trust these leaders to lead us down the right yellow brick roads. They make decisions that have real impact on how the rest of us can live and prosper. Private behaviours, when they are not aligned with their public responsibilities, impair our trust in them. And without trust in our leaders we lose our reason to believe, our connectedness, and can descend into the worse forms of behaviours.

Human treatment, wise decision making and trustworthiness – these are the legitimate reasons why public roles are measured by private behaviours.

There are also a few reasons why private behaviours are precisely that – private. We have individual tastes, quirks and preferences. That is what makes us individually interesting and collectively resourceful, innovative and able to create new futures. The elements that define our individuality need protection.

Not all of us carry the responsibilities and demands of public positions. While we hope that we do behave with decorum, wisdom and civility in our professional roles, if our private decisions are questionable, the power we wield professionally is inconsequential. So yes, our leaders are held to higher standards of performance, demanding closer alignment between private and public behaviours.

But perhaps the larger question, or concern, is the degree to which there is very little private space left. Social networking has begat a world where all private behaviours can now be public – voluntarily, or not. We are spawning a culture where people aggressively want to have their private lives publicly displayed. We also live in a culture where there that nurtures both the demand and the supply for salacious, private information.

The constant watching that now characterizes our culture is one of the ingredients that historical observers of the birth of capitalism argued would be the saviour of capitalism. Being watched, for Rousseau, would ensure we all behaved as Citizens, guaranteeing that the public interest would prevail over private self-interests. For Adam Smith, the famous “observer in your breast” – the “impartial spectator” would ensure that private individuals would be guided by the public good, not their private interests.

The concern that observers of early capitalism had was that a community of self-interested, private individuals would be unable to produce the public good. There needed to be ways to ensure that communities would be guided by public interest, not just the majority of private interests. And so Rousseau recommended an external public observation of all community members; and Adam Smith asserted that as social creatures that need the approbation of others, we are all imbued with our own internal observer that tells us what the publicly right thing to do is.

Today it would appear that we are again worried about the presence of private interests infecting public roles that command authority and demand wisdom while at the same time we live with almost complete publicity of even our minutest behaviours. We need to be worried about the lack of private judgement and trustworthiness. We need to also be worried about the blurring between private and public, because without clear demarcation, the public turns into a tyrannical ruler, not a benevolent force for public good.

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Reader Comments (1)

What happened to Tiger Woods is just tragic. He went from being nearly invincible to being just one of the other guys. The good news is, judging from his more recent performances, it looks like he is starting to get over his problems and going back to becoming the great player we all know him to be. Other players be warned.

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June 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Bola

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