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Running scared when failure occurs

6 min read


I spend many, many hours watching the NBA playoffs each spring. The first round is, in many ways, my favorite: up to four games per day, and intense excellence from so many players and teams.

The playoffs bring out heightened tensions and passions. Trash talk can turn into physical play, which can turn into blatant on-court assaults that injure players, like with J.R. Smith’s inexcusable hit on Jae Crowder.

Notably, when that happens, there are consequences (usually). Smith was ejected and later suspended for two games, being lucky to not miss more time. That may be of little consolation to the Boston Celtics, but Smith’s unacceptable violence has received some measure of punishment that will diminish his team’s capabilities.

Contrast that with Tuesday night, when the Houston Rockets were busy clinching a series win against the Dallas Mavericks. The series featured dozens of fouls each game, numerous flagrant and technical fouls, and a physical style of play. That happens; the officials were generally pretty good at keeping order. The game, or rather the conversation around the game, also featured a now-infamous tweet by the official Rockets account that depicted, well, emoji “violence”:

OK. That’s petty and silly. If a player said something similar, that would be criticized by the league and the media. But it’s not the violence we described earlier. It’s not the sanctioned violence of this past weekend’s Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout, and it’s assuredly not the real, yearslong and under-reported domestic violence that Mayweather and many boxing fans and journalist seem to think is not a problem.

But it was enough to cost the tweeting employee his job. Chad Shanks was a four-year employee of the team , and with no word (publicly) that he was a problem employee and that this horse-pistol-emoji tweet was some sort of “last straw” situation.

Two things that have bothered me:

Mistakes happen. Will you have a response other than, “You’re fired”? Mistakes of judgment are inevitable when communicating publicly, particularly on the “say not think” publicity-seeking platform of Twitter. (Disclosure: I love Twitter, but I regretfully don’t follow the only rule: “Don’t tweet.”) Furthermore, some mistakes bring days or months of negative consequences. This was not that: The Rockets’ account apologized that night after the Mavericks’ account noted the insult disapprovingly, and there was no further outcry for reparation. Surely, the Rockets are not firing someone every time they experience a failure while performing their job? Surely, the next time a pro sports team encounters a social media crisis, there will be a plan beyond “eliminate the person who pressed ‘post’ and then carry on”?

Do you have the right perspective to apply the proper remedy? Let’s talk about perspective. Firing someone for a dumb, not malicious tweet. Firing that person without much of any review when his job is to do the very type of action that he was fired for. Firing someone for a “violent” tweet when we could spend tens of thousands of words documenting the unpunished crimes and other awful actions famous people take, deliberately and with malice, that have real-life effects and cause actual harm. Similarly, pick any news story about corruption, violence or scandal and realize how horrible it is when people are harmed, often irrevocably, and yet know that justice won’t be served any time soon.

This situation has literally nothing in common with those scenarios.

This, instead, and I cannot restate enough, is about PR people for a anthropomorphized collection of rockets firing a guy because he might have sent too-mean cartoony symbols to a bunch of PR people for an anthropomorphized collection of mavericks.

Did Chad Shanks fail? Sure. Did the Houston Rockets give him any expectation ahead of time that such a tweet would be failure, and a fireable one at that? Maybe, but if tweets like this and this were praised, the culture and expectations were clear: Be edgy, push the envelope, and be especially bold when the Rockets are winning. Well, that’s what he did last Tuesday.

Sometimes, you have to fire people. But even in those circumstances, it’s up to the leaders and the organization as a whole to learn. It’s up to them to —before and after firing — ask these difficult questions: “What is our responsibility for what happened? How can we react to these failings to minimize the chance of a repeat while still giving our employees training, opportunity and trust?”

Finding the answers isn’t easy. As Georgia-Pacific CEO Jim Hannan said:

“We all suffer setbacks and failures, but the key is not to overreact. The real value of failure is the time spent examining the causes and addressing the problems that factored into it, and then doing what is necessary not to repeat it. Sometimes the hardest part can be accepting it and moving on.”

Maybe the presence of Shanks really was the cause of the problem, and getting rid of him was the solution. But if so, what does the Houston organization plan to do differently? Can’t fire your way out of a problem. And, if Shanks indeed was the problem, is Dan Le Batard a fool for hiring him almost immediately? Or is he someone who realizes that a talented person who made a mistake is available, probably willing to work hard to redeem himself, and therefore the only fool would be someone not looking to seize the market advantage. (That is, of course, assuming there’s any advantage in anthropomorphized tweeting.)

If you must fire, fire people because they’ve violated the law, the rules of your company or the mores and standards of decent culture and society. Fire people, possibly, who don’t want to try to improve after proper efforts have been made on all sides.

Don’t fire people for a mistake that you helped cause. Don’t run away from the problem you helped create.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues, but not the NBA playoffs, @SBLeaders.