That’s a moment which absolutely, positively depends on someone else not doing or saying the wrong thing – and, despite all efforts to coach, train, and risk-proof the moment, that someone else becomes irresistibly drawn – as a moth to a flame – to doing or saying exactly what was prepared against.
I have experienced this my entire career – from staff meetings where we all agreed not to bring up budget shortfalls in front of bosses, only to have the first speaker cave and instantly point out the negative variance on page 7, line 32 – to discussions with real consequences.
Several years ago, I was working with a large mineral company to develop a “project management mindset” across all of its sites – subtly dislodging a core “Engineering Services” group that had become a de facto project office. The leader of this initiative on the client side – I’ll call her Erin – got an idea that regional project managers should involve themselves in an ongoing 25 million dollar capital improvement initiative, and she wanted to sit down with Engineering Services to negotiate the entry point.
The rest of the team – client and consultants alike – did not like this idea. We knew Engineering Services was uncomfortable with internal “competition”, and we wanted to be certain that the “dislodging” remained subtle and painless – there were more than enough projects to keep everyone in Gantt charts for a while. We were still building the long-term plan to integrate project teams, it was way too early to discuss this. The long-term would require negotiation and finesse, and we did not want to agitate anyone until we were more comfortable.
We said to ourselves, “What can go wrong with this approach, and with Erin’s meeting?” and we all agreed on one thing: Erin should make it clear that no one was trying to take over this build, and we were in no hurry to shift projects to local control. We made sure the slides clarified our desired status as observers only. We rehearsed with Erin, and we all said: Whatever you do, do not insinuate this is an attempt to take over this or any current project.
“But they’ll want to know what our plans are! I’ll have to tell them something!” That’s right, Erin, they will. Which is one reason why you shouldn’t hold the meeting in the first place. So, be careful – be honest, but do not over-speak. Your plan is to observe the daily management and project controls of this crucial initiative. Remember that.
“But what if they ask about our plans for future years’ projects? I’ll have to tell them something!” Erin, that’s another reason why you shouldn’t even be speaking to these people now. We simply do not know what will happen in the future. There are too many variables: your ability to recruit talent, capital approvals from overseas, our short-term success etc. Stick with the facts we know today – your plan is to observe the daily management and project controls of this crucial initiative. We discussed and rehearsed and wrote bullet points on white boards.
Cue up Mr. Lovejoy.
We had barely finished the opening Safety Share when the mine’s general manager asked, “So who’s running this project for me? You?” pointing to Erin, “or Engineering Services?”
Erin leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I think once we see what’s going on, the regional team can do it, and I think the consultants are just about ready with a plan to do that!”
Needless to say, our “develop a project mindset” initiative spent the better part of the next four months in damage control, and became more about negotiating who has the right to do what work, rather than elevating the skills and culture of the entire operation.
Erin gave them Mr. Lovejoy.
The Original ‘Lovejoy Moment’
In Get Shorty, John Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a cool but second-rate mob collector with a love of old movies; he’s dispatched to retrieve a gambling debt from Gene Hackman’s Harry Zinn, a similarly two-bit producer of schlocky horror fare. Harry had been borrowing from loan sharks – and giving them producing credits – on his screamfests, but he took his last loan to Vegas in a failed attempt to parlay it into seed capital for his masterpiece: “Mr. Lovejoy”. In addition to Chili’s calling on the casino’s marker, the loan sharks are after Harry as well. Chili senses a win-win – preventing Harry’s legs from getting broken gets Chili into the movie business – and he agrees to meet with Harry’s “investors”.
Chili preps Harry – where he wants the visitors to sit (facing the open blinds), where Harry should be (standing behind them), but most importantly, what to say.
“They’ll be looking at you,” Harry says, “But they don’t know who you are.”
“That’s right,” Chili tells him. “They’ll be saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ You don’t say anything. Do not tell them who I am. OK?”
“But I gotta say something to them!”
“No you don’t.” Chili gives him sage advice: “Don’t tell them any more than you have to. You tell them their movie has been postponed. But don’t tell them why. And whatever you do, don’t tell them anything about Mr. Lovejoy. You got that?”
Two goons, a twitchy Ronnie and a cool Bo Catlett, enter the office. As Harry seats them, he makes introductions. “This is my associate, Chili Palmer, who’ll be working with me.” Chili is obviously disappointed.
After some back and forth, Harry tries to get on message. “The main thing I want to tell you is, the start date for Freaks is being pushed back a little, a few months.”
Ronnie is upset: “We have an agreement with you, man.”
Harry nervously replies, “We’re gonna make the picture. I’ve just got another project to do first, that’s all. One I promised this guy years ago.”
The goon starts to get agitated, so Chili takes control with his legendary catch phrase: “Look at me.” Everyone cools for a moment. Chili takes in the room, recognizes that Bo (Delroy Lindo) is in charge and begins negotiating with him directly. Things are tense, but contained.
Tension makes Harry nervous – “This is the project, Mr. Lovejoy. I’m not trying to pull anything on you guys. This is it, right here.”
As Chili stares, aghast, Bo finds his play. “Harry, think we go to your movies? I’ve seen better film on teeth. It doesn’t make a difference which one our money is in. So how about you take our twenty points out of Freaks and put it in Mr. Lovejoy…”
After they leave, Harry realizes Chili is unhappy. “What?”
“I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t clear. But I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut.”
“I had to tell them something.”
And here Chili shares a corollary to his earlier advice. “Never say anything unless you have to…
“You tell me you want these guys off your back,” Chili continues, “Next thing I know, you’re saying, yeah, maybe they can have a piece of Mr. Lovejoy. I couldn’t believe my ears.”
What Causes a ‘Lovejoy Moment’?
A Lovejoy Moment is not the same as just saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – “nice to see you” at a funeral, for example. It is not a deliberate lie, nor is it intentionally destructive behavior like a gambling addiction.
But it is an affliction that has been vexing people for generations – Edgar Allen Poe wrote of the man who pulls off the perfect crime, only to blurt a confession at the first awkward moment, in “The Imp of the Perverse.” It is apparently widespread – the discussion boards on “SocialAnxietySupport.com”, for one, are filled with regretful posts about oversharing, misspeaking, and other signs of gibbering idiocy.
Why does this “imp” trouble us so? Why do we give away a piece of Mr. Lovejoy when we don’t want to?
For one, we humans are terrified of silence. We are not used to it – televisions are always blaring nearby (airports, cabs, the building’s lobby, even the finest restaurants), we keep our earbuds in, and everyone around us is always on the phone. We simply do not know how to handle even a few seconds of silence, made worse in meetings and presentations when all attention seems to be on us.
Our natural instinct is to fill the void and address questions with the first response that comes to mind, rather than take a moment and consider a thoughtful reply. We use our words – inappropriate or not – as a shield against standing naked and mute in front others.
If we are nervous or unsure about an outcome, we want to steer discussion away from that which we fear the most. Which means that we put ourselves on a collision course with the dread outcome. (No matter how many times you say to yourself, “Don’t stare at that thing on his nose, don’t stare at that thing on his nose”, there is no force on Earth that can make you tear your eyes away from that thing on his nose…) Research has shown that soccer players instinctively stare directly at the spot they are most trying to avoid on penalty kicks – and they ultimately end up kicking where they are looking.
Daniel Wegner, in Science journal, wrote in 2009, “Knowing the worst that can happen is essential for control. But sometimes this sensitivity backfires, becoming part of a perverse psychological process that makes the worst appear.”
It is never a bad idea to work through adverse scenarios, and figure out how to avoid them – and how to recover; hence our prep with Erin before her meeting with Engineering Services. That said, sometimes identifying the disaster only trains our mind to seek it out – a Baadher-Meinhof phenomenon for bad meetings. If you tell someone at the start of a meeting not to look for the image of the white bear in your slide deck (regardless if there is one there or not, or even if you brought a deck at all), their attention will become pre-occupied with the quest.
Our brains force us to think about things that we do not want to –a remnant of a survival mechanism from our hunting and gathering days, perhaps. Normally, we are able to monitor these thoughts, and manage them – but when we are under stress, that filtration is interfered with. Wegner calls this a “counter-intentional error” – a “blunder so outrageous we think about it in advance, and resolve not to let that happen.”
He cites experiments where subjects are asked not to think about a target word: “while under pressure to respond quickly in a word association task, they become inclined to offer precisely that forbidden word.” He advises people devote time to suppressing these thoughts.
Many experts agree – speaking without thinking is an indication of a lack of inner peace, to be solved by mindfulness and meditation. There are plenty of self-hypnosis tools available (some of which might not actually be a scam), to help us engage our brains before our mouths. David Samuel, the “Entrepreneur Monk”, sees this more as a matter of selfishness – an inability to understand the impact of what we say on others. The implication is that we speak to relieve our own anxiety in situations, and that the perception that this is simply a self-control problem is false – it is an empathy problem.
In my experience, it is a hybrid – a lack of understanding the impact of what we say (sometimes a lack of understanding of what we are in fact saying), let loose by a lack of control.
’I Had to Tell Them Something’
We were redesigning some internal business processes for a large financial services firm, which would likely result in a huge restructuring. There was no chance of layoffs – or even significantly changed responsibilities – but there were programs that would be reassigned or discontinued, and working relationships would definitely be different. We sat down with Kevin, one of the one of the client’s project managers to design a small “strike team” to ensure that we properly balanced the needs of the business, its internal customers, and its consumers, when creating position descriptions and reporting lines.
We asked Kevin to provide us with three or four people, with different areas of responsibility, to serve as our advisory team. We tried to educate Kevin on why “smaller is better”, and told we would provide him with some talking points and criteria on how to select the right mix, so he could discuss it in staff meetings. Less than an hour later, he was back with a list of 29 people he had told could serve on the committee– all from one department!
He said, “They are all very concerned and want to participate.”
We understood the concern, we told him, but it would be impossible to actually accomplish anything with so many people – wait a second. We told you we would give you bullet points and criteria to discuss – how did this happen?
“One of the managers caught me in the hallway and asked if she could have her people on the list. And another person wanted his department on the list. I didn’t know what to say, so I said ‘Yes.’”
“But we discussed that we were being thoughtful and conservative – and would present a plan at the next staff meeting…”
“Robert,” he said, eyes rolling, “I had to tell them something.”
Calling Mr. Lovejoy!
Kevin felt like he had to tell them “something” because he had not taken the time to understand the plan, and the risk of not knowing something in the moment seemed much greater than the mess to be cleaned up later. In his case, much like someone who overshares oddly personal details, he blabbed the first thing that came to mind to relieve his own anxiety and make sure that his colleagues would like him.
In most cases, it is simply a matter of balancing immediate and delayed consequences. Giving up Mr. Lovejoy means an immediate “high” that stems from eliminating the stress of not knowing what to say, or alleviating guilt about making others unhappy; the delayed consequences – weekly committee meetings of 29 people trying to make a decision stretched out over month, having loan sharks owning part of your magnum opus – are impossible to imagine in that moment.
When we feel insecure, we try to convince ourselves, and others, that we are in control. So when Kevin was unsure how to address his colleagues’ demands, he took control by giving them what they wanted; when Erin was faced with a sensitive discussion with senior leaders, she took control by barfing out the alternative that granted her the most perceived power.
Preventing ‘Lovejoy Moments’
The most obvious – if not necessarily the easiest – way to prevent a Lovejoy Moment is to clarify expectations. This does not mean quickly rattling off a list of instructions, as Chili Palmer does, and hoping for the best; nor does it mean asking something useless such as, “Do you understand?” or “Have I made myself clear?” The best plan is to ask open-ended, essay questions, and test for understanding.
“Kevin, what will you say if someone asks if they can add more people to the team?”
“Erin, how will you describe our short- and long-term expansion plans?”
If there is any risk attached to the discussion or presentation – and, really, when is there not risk involved – take some time to map out so-called “disaster scenarios”. Ask “what can go wrong if we say this? Don’t say that?”, and really understand the impacts of the conversation going pear-shaped. If all parties appreciate the effect of giving up Mr, Lovejoy, then they will likely put some effort into holding on to him. (You may think there is no time to prepare; think of the amount of time you will waste if the wrong plan goes into effect.)
Then, bring these notes to the discussion. Write down the “wrong” answers– not as a lure (“Don’t look at that thing on his nose, don’t look at that thing on his nose…”), but as a reminder of negative impacts. Document why it is a wrong answer – for two reasons. First, if others want to force the issue, you have some clear answers already prepared. Secondly, it will serve as a timely prompt of the delayed consequences of bad answers. In other words, paint a picture of the regret you will feel from cleaning up any mess.
If possible, in groups, speak last. Others may bring up better ideas, or may give up their own Mr. Lovejoys, before joy you have a chance.
Listen carefully to the conversation, and to the question being asked. Clarify if necessary. It is not possible to say the wrong thing if you let others speak; and if you focus on understanding where others are coming from, you can find ways that meet their needs, without sacrificing your own.
Slow down. Slow down your thinking, slow down your speaking, slow down your response time. Silence is never as long as it feels when we are the ones about to speak next. Good negotiators know this – and the Book of Proverbs is full of, well, proverbs, on the virtue of judicious silence. A pause in the conversation does not mean the meeting is off-track; frequently, it provides an opportunity for everyone to think.
When a question is asked, it is not a race to provide the quickest answer, it is an opportunity to provide the best answer. And sometimes that takes time. If you have the best answer prepared already, great; otherwise, think before you speak. Maintain eye contact, but breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly, count to six, and then think of an answer. Consider the consequences of a wrong answer. If you can’t provide a great answer, own that. “That is a great question, we had not considered it, let me get back to you [soon, this afternoon, when pigs fly]” is an appropriate answer in most circumstances.
Lastly, remember, relax control. There is no way to control for every possible outcome, so let it go. When Harry Zinn tried to take control of his secret project, has adversaries didn’t even know there was such a thing; but the tighter he grasped it, the more fell through the cracks, and next thing we know, he’s saying, yeah, maybe they can have a piece of Mr. Lovejoy.