The value of humiliation
When interviewed about the secret to American Idol’s success, Simon Cowell replied, “It’s all about the humiliation.” He is of course referring to the early audition trainwrecks they invite in to sing for the judges, knowing full well they will be laughed at. We used to get Paula Abdul mitigating the pain for these delusional “singers” with her sympathetic comments, but the high audience ratings show that the humiliation formula worked. It also changed the career path for many of those who received it.
I received a healthy dose of humiliation in my K-12 years. I was always an active talker when the teacher asked for participation in class, yet sometimes I didn’t exactly know when to stop. I often got punished for exercising my social skills when I was supposed to be quiet.
Back in the 70’s, teachers came up with all kinds of creative and effective punishments to get me to stop expressing myself. Like drawing a chalk circle 3 inches above my nose and forcing me to stand on my tip toes to put my nose in it. I could feel my classmates’ laughter at my back as I trembled to hold a 10-minute pose. Thank you, Mrs. Atkinson.
While gathered around the science teacher / football coach’s desk to ask questions, I couldn’t resist entertaining my friends with a few jokes. The teacher stood up, reached over his desk and pulled me up and over by the nose (why was it always my nose?) He said “Goad, you are disrupting the learning process. Go sit down!” He pinched my nose so hard I had purple bruises on both sides for the next 3 days. Imagine the lawsuit if that happened these days. Thank you, Mr. Dougherty.
Our assistant principal had a large wooden paddle with holes drilled in it mounted on his wall like a trophy, with a plaque that said “The Board of Education.” He only had to use it once on the first day of school. A loud WHACK could be heard echoing down the hallway, warning us all that we could be next. The threat was enough to keep most of us in line. Again, it wasn’t so much about the pain, but the humiliation. And humiliation worked.
It worked in grade school punishment and it works today in reality show entertainment. But how well does humiliation work in business with grown adults? It will definitely get you short term results… if that’s all you want. I am amazed at how some executives gather all their staff into a large room and pick one person to humiliate in front of the others. It is absolutely motivating and absolutely destructive at the same time.
I realize that sometimes you may have to go Simon Cowell on someone to call out the facts and get them to change their behavior, but where’s the counter-balancing effect of Paula telling you that you still have potential? Doesn’t anyone want a long-term working relationship anymore?
Adults do not appreciate being treated like grade school kids. Think about it… balancing your criticism with positives is a show of leadership strength, not weakness. The business world needs a little more Paula. Don’t you think?