Simon Says......You're Through To The Next Round

Posted on 29th June, 2009

It’s Saturday night.


Ant and Dec have worked their cheeky Geordie magic and the scene is set for another emotional roller-coaster of a night.


It’s the X-Factor. Pompously and naively slated by some as sentimentalised “bread and circuses for our times”, the X-Factor and its ‘Idol’ and ‘Got Talent’ cousins - on both sides of the pond - are produced with such emotional intelligence that they are impossible to ignore.


Catharsis guaranteed, in any one season you can pretty much be sure that:


- we’ll laugh and feel simultaneously ashamed of ourselves as we watch the mental cases of the early rounds, and that we’ll do the same again when they’re all bussed in for the finale to grunt their way through some terrible number;


- we’ll tut and shake our heads at the “sheer arrogance” of the contestant who breathily says “ I deserve to win because I want this soooo much”;


- we’ll have mixed feelings about the person who is allowed to skip a round because they had laryngitis;


- we’ll cry our eyes out as we see the contestants leave the bright lights of the London studios to return to the dreary, grey towns they come from, turning keys in the front doors of the impossibly tiny houses that are filled with equally impossible amounts of unconditional, family love


But all eyes will be on one man.


The man who really has got the X-Factor.


What does Simon think?


This is his show, his baby. It revolves around him. Have you ever noticed how contestants only really care what Simon Cowell thinks about their performance? A ‘yes’ from the other judges is all well and good but if you don’t get one from the big man too, your entry into the next round is like a piece of unbuttered toast - it’ll sustain you but it won’t make you happy. And, more to the point, it will leave a niggly, uncomfortable dryness in the back of your throat that you just know will get you sooner or later.


So why is Cowell’s feedback so highly prized by contestant and viewer alike? What makes his ‘yes’ worth any number of ‘yeses’ from Louis, Paula, Cheryl and the rest?


Honesty. Because you know that if Cowell tells you that you are one of the best singers he has ever heard, he means it. He’s not saying it to make you feel better or to appear kind. Equally if he tells you that you should stick to the day job, he really believes that.


He’s not always right – but then no one is (and in this respect see my piece on Gordon’s Lessons in Leadership below). Rather, he is authentic.


So what? Well, there are some lessons for all of us here. Particularly for those who manage and lead people.


Just take a second to think back to school. Which teachers did you respect? And which didn’t you? Your first job: did you respect your manager? Ever since, which managers have you respected, and which haven’t you?


Now think about why. What is the common thread that links all those whom you have respected? Authenticity, honesty? It’s different isn’t it, from, say, liking those individuals? As with Cowell, there will have been times when their clear, honest approach will have resulted in the odd bruise to your ego. But when people are genuine, they are credible.


What’s so striking - indeed puzzling - about Cowell however is that his pedigree suggests that he shouldn’t be any good at all at giving honest feedback. For all the razzmatazz and showbiz accoutrements, Simon Cowell is a fully signed up member of the educated English middle classes. With his Sussex, Hertfordshire, Dover College background, he could quite easily be your lawyer, a banker, British Ambassador to somewhere or other, a director of a FTSE 100 company maybe.


And this is particularly interesting, because as a class the one thing that those people cannot typically do is deliver difficult messages: particularly those relating to performance in the workplace.


Now making such sweeping generalisations is – on one level – a mug’s game and we have to be very, very careful about stereotyping here. But there’s no doubt that Cowell is something of an exception for his ‘class’.


Consider how uncomfortable your average lawyer, banker, diplomat or FTSE 100 director is in delivering genuinely honest feedback to his or her team.


Very. But does it matter? Well, yes, I think it does.In my view, it goes to the heart of an insidious lack of confidence - at both an institutional and individual level – that has eaten away at some of our best businesses and organisations over the last decade or two. In turn, this leads to shilly-shallying, beating-about-the-bush, de facto tolerance of poor performance and - ultimately - decline.


The very fact that Cowell is commonly caricatured as a pantomime baddy is a telling - and fairly damning - reflection on mainstream management style. Effective performance management - which is really what we are talking about here - goes to the heart of any high-performing organisation. I do not know of a genuinely successful business or public sector body that does not take a Cowell-like line on performance management.


This is not – I want to be very clear – an attempt to urge the world to return to the bad old days of dictatorial, autocratic, “only tell ‘em when they’ve screwed up” feedback. On the contrary, and assuming that most organisations usually hire fairly competent, if imperfect, people, a “Cowell culture” of genuinely honest feedback is likely to result in more people hearing, more of the time, that they have performed well.


Isn’t it?

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Comments (3)

.... and what you don\\\'t quite say Nick, but James touches on is that everyone knows that whatever the others say it is Simon C\\\'s view that matters in the long run - he holds has the power to act and he does act, and everyone knows this. <br /><br />There may be a culture of sugar coating but there is also a sense of powerlessness in many quite senior managers. You may know someone\\\'s performance is crap but the reality is you are quite often looking at several hundred hours of effort to make a change after being very PC, doing the performance plans and reviews and then spending time (and money) with lawyers agreeing the comprise agreement. The unfortunate consequence is the sticking plaster and the blind eye.<br /><br />Perhaps we need to institute the role of \\\'Jester\\\' in the organisation - an appointee whose role is to ridicule and shame the senior managers and their compliant accolytes into seeing the world as it really is.
Nick, I see a lot of this in America as well. What constantly amazes me is that so many people still believe there\'s a choice. With all the information out there, authenticity is the only reasonable way to behave with employees. Without it, the % of employees who don\'t trust {fill in the blank - their managers, their CEO, the SEC} will continue to increase.
Really enjoy the crux of your latest entry--I think it's a cultural shortcoming and strength all at the same time, actually. Not being able to tell the truth without any sort of awkwardness also belies the great ability of a small, crowded nation that has had to treat neighbors civilly to maintain any sort of social order. <br /><br />Nonetheless in a work context, I think that one of the great advantages of being an American in London is the free pass to not have to preface criticism with 'This is perfect, and I agree with everything you're saying, but...' (because if it's perfect nothing's wrong, right? Wrong.) <br /><br />But this is why most London professionals find their New York colleagues obnoxious and uncouth while coveting their ability to say what's been simmering under their skin for long periods of time. The problem with this New York attitude is that it creates a culture of criticizing to criticize, keeping up with the Jones if you will, and finding fault in absolutely everything because it's weak to be in constant agreement. <br /><br />This perfection of sugarcoating everything and understanding how to criticize without condemning is also what likely makes the UK the PR capital of the world--nobody lithely dodges bullets quite like middle-class English.<br /><br />My response I realize makes exactly no sense, nonetheless it reflects what I feel to be a complicated subject.