Tag Archives: communication as performance

A Few Lessons From a Congress That Can’t Govern

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.

Most Americans continue to focus on the broken Presidency.  Even so, no one looking for a model of governmental efficiency would get much comfort from a good look at the American Congress. Its twin failures to produce effective public policy and work with the President offer cautionary truths about how not to communicate to produce effective action.

The impeachment process is an aberration, if a necessary one.  But the bipartisanship that characterized the Nixon impeachment is missing.  It’s also true that this President does not think of himself as a true partner with the Congress. That’s obvious now, but even in prior years he showed little interest in helping to shape legislation.

All these caveats don’t fully explain why the two deliberative bodies within the Capitol are examples that no country wants to emulate.  And there are a few more. There is some cooperation at the staff level, and examples of effective bi-partisan cooperation are occasionally on display, as with the passage of ­­­­ several jobs and tax bills in 2012 and 2015­­­­­­­­­­, and in recent bipartisan condemnation of the President’s withdrawal of support for the Kurds in Syria. But the oft-heard cliche is now true: Congress is a broken institution with public approval ratings to match.

While this branch of the federal establishment was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, where a head of government is chosen from the party that wins a plurality of seats, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that needs to be addressed: everything from immigration reform to timely allocations of funds for infrastructure improvements. We knew this institution was in deep trouble recently when in 2013 a sizable number of members were ready to risk a government default and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency: all for the purpose of pressing a dubious ideological point.

Members note that they no longer the case that they socialize after work or even share a meal while in session. 

What’s wrong?  What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored?  Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work in groups rather than as a whole.  Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips and members to work out in private and with their own caucuses what they will accept by way of a legislative agenda. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation.  The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason.  Indeed, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell moves so cautiously in his narrow partisan lane that it can be hard to tell if his image on a screen is a still photo or video.

This problem is compounded by a long tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms and spread over four buildings on the east side of the capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 100 members of the Senate worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America:  in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one floor. Support staffs who enable the isolation of members could be moved to lower floors. This would encourage more discussion across party lines and more functional coalition-building.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of the internet and 24-hour news there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than actually doing the work of governing.  The requirements to continually raise campaign funds and screen time are all-consuming.

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television.  The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.

Congress is simply the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.  So it offers some cautionary reminders to the rest of us working in complex bureaucracies. First, we can’t afford to isolate ourselves from others we expect to sign on to our initiatives. Leading  effectively still means using communication to build and sustain relations with those who have different views.  In addition, since its a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership from large bodies needs to be seen for the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.

The Paradox of Our Multiple Selves

        Auguste Renoir: The Conversation

 A person who is “the same with everyone” is perhaps not as well adapted to their social environment as we might think.

Anyone studying human communication will soon realize that there is a built in paradox that pits our assumptions about personal authenticity against convincing evidence that effective communication requires many selves.  There are those famous words from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. . .” 

And there’s this reliable contradiction: while we long for connection to individuals who will not say the wrong things in the wrong places, we also want reliable friends we can count on to be their predictable selves. If these two ideas aren’t at odds with each other, they are surely going in different directions, explaining why even those we know best can still disappoint.

Variations of what’s called “role theory” in sociology and “dramatistic ratios” in communication emphasize the consummate role-player.  Each posits that, over time, we become  performers able to manage how we present ourselves to others.  We have many faces: whatever a setting requires.

Imagine some of the roles that may exist for a young woman with her own family: mother, wife, daughter, granddaughter, friend to a prickly neighbor, friend to others who don’t like the prickly neighbor, employee, church committee chairperson, weekend campaigner for a social action movement, and so on.  Any of us who interact with “Meg” will know her by mostly what she says and does.  But we are also not likely to see her in all of her other roles, something of a blessing for her.  If she is reasonably well adjusted, she plays her parts well.  In essence she is a one-person repertory company, since each setting puts her in front of a different audience.  Meg may tell racy jokes over drinks with some friends. But she’s a different kind of person with her children, her parents and certainly those folks at  the church where she helps out.  A person who is “the same with everyone” is not as able to deal with their social environments as well as we might think.

The challenge for us is that, while we express enthusiasm for the idea of “personal authenticity,” the odds are great that we would be uncomfortable with individuals who struggle to meet the different normative expectations of different “audiences.”  Violations of these expectations in the forms of unusual behavior and ill-chosen words would probably be enough to make us want to put some distance between ourselves and Meg.

Think of all the one-off individualists we celebrate in the movies (characters created over the years by Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, James Cagney, Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew Mcconaughey, Dustin Hoffman, Lena Dunham or Vince Vaughn.)  Character actors often give us individuals who seem to have been cut from a different cloth.  But even though they attract us to screen narratives, their characters might well repel us as friends.  In the flesh, we love our adaptable companions.  Role-taking oils the social machinery that we would prefer to run smoothly.

People diagnosed on the autism spectrum are sometimes less able to read social cues. Many discover that by memorizing common social “scripts” they can still manage in what would otherwise be bewildering settings.  To be sure, many have compensating strengths, like better resistance to the kinds of distractions that plague many of us.  Even so, like those for whom the social impulse comes more easily, they can appreciate the value of  the daily shape-shifting that is part of making one’s way in the world.