The Statler and Waldorf Effect
Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie
13 April 2016
Remember the two grumpy old men from the Muppet Show? They are well known for their opinionated views and love of heckling anyone and anything. Although Fozzie Bear was their primary target, no character or act was safe from their caustic observations. In contrast to their jaded view of everyone else, they thought themselves hugely talented and funny. Despite their apparent disdain for the show, they kept coming back and paying top dollar for the best box seats every week.
Have you struck anyone like this in your organisational life? They are not hard to find; from corporate life to clubs and committees everywhere you can spot these people through a range of indicators. The purpose of this article is to discuss why they shouldn’t be tolerated and how best to deal with the Statlers and Waldorfs in your environment.
I became interested in this type of behaviour as part of my research into disruptive innovation. It’s not enough to simply ‘come up with’ an idea that has the potential to disrupt a market. To see that idea to fruition requires a complete organisational performance not unlike that of an orchestra. Leadership, structure and particularly culture must be attuned to the same performance. Statler and Waldorf are organisational performance killers.
Here’s a few reasons why they’re a problem.
- Negative Mindset. It is difficult to maintain a creative, positive culture when individuals such as these are part of your organisation. Their negativity is, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a killer of new ideas. In their mind, they are right and everyone else is wrong. They get extremely put out when challenged on their attitude or participation.
- This sort of person doesn’t care that they are causing friction in a team. It’s all about them (in their view) and no-one else’s feelings matter. They might feel that the disharmony is a necessary evil to put things in order and actively undermining leaders is seen, by them, as acceptable in these circumstances.
- Productivity Loss. While these people are sniping at others or criticising plans, they are not being productive themselves. People on the receiving end become defensive and this distracts them from peak performance. Management time is taken up trying to deal with the consequences of their behaviours.
- Distorted Turnover. There are two distinct turnover effects from having these people around. First, they tend to stay. In their own rare moments of self-reflection, they acknowledge to themselves that they are not actually as good as they tell others they are. They have probably been passed over for promotion or have unsuccessfully tried self-employment. They tend to know ‘the rules’ and tread a careful path which makes it tricky to performance manage them out. Second, they drive others out of the organisation. Usually, the people that you least want to lose i.e. creative, positive people who are high performers are the ones who will become frustrated with having to interact with them and seek opportunities elsewhere.
- One-Track Thinking. In order to keep the peace with these types, many will simply take the path of least resistance in terms of ideas and plans so as not to be on the receiving end of their commentary. This is the antithesis of a high performance culture and an absolute killer of innovation.
- In the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf were known to “break the fourth wall”. In acting terms, this refers to the imaginary, transparent wall through which the audience views a 3-sided stage. Breaking the fourth wall means to interact directly with the audience. In organisational terms, this means discussing the organisation with those outside it on matters that should have remained on stage. These people will often refer to ‘having been told something’ or ‘having sources’. The problem is that the information they have may be being traded for confidential organisational information.
The behaviours that are manifested can sometimes be quite subtle. Have you ever heard someone use any of these lines? “We tried that – it failed”, “That’s not what I’m hearing”, “What would you like me to stop doing to take that on?”. Have you struck the ‘man/woman of the people’ type who relates everything to their in-depth understanding of the customer or club member? Or the joker who, when confronted about a comment they’ve made says “I was just kidding”. It’s also important to realise that the behaviours described are not just the purview of older men.
If you wish to have a high performance, creative organisational culture, the Statlers and Waldorfs have to go. However, they are not particularly mobile in career terms and you definitely shouldn’t fall into the trap of giving them a good reference to get rid of them. Any behaviour that you walk past becomes acceptable so it’s vital that you generate some norms that everyone can use. These could include agreed phrases such as “That’s not the way we talk to people at XYZ”. Regular reviews, close supervision, coaching and development plans are essential however, this pathway takes time and there are few guarantees as they may just put their head down for a while. If possible, putting them in sole responsibility roles makes it easier to assess their performance and isolates them somewhat from other members of the team. Not hiring them in the first place is the best move but sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got. But whatever you do, don’t let them have the box seat!