Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

Escalate or Defuse – Don’t Be A Skutch

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Generally, when we think about the idea of a defusing a situation there’s a picture of two sets of people engaged in a conflict that needs a resolution or something catastrophic could happen. We’ve seen this play out time and again on the big screen – someone robs the bank, takes some hostages and subsequently triggers a series of events where a hostage negotiator is brought in to defuse the situation. But of course, in parallel, there’s a hard charging law enforcement leader that simply wants to stop negotiating and start taking action. If only it were so black and white.

There’s a fine line between being clear, specific, declarative, honest and being inflammatory or intentionally abrasive. What we often mistake for a certain nastyness, is in fact simply being direct and objective. Let’s not mix these two concepts up. Being direct, consise and clear are hallmarks of succesful communication techniques. But, choosing to be “skutch”, as my aunt would say, is bad form. For those not 100% up to date with East Coast / Long Island slang, a “skutch” is defined as “someone who intentionally behaves in an irritating or annoying manner.” Yeah, I was a skutch on occasion…when I was 11.

What I’ve come to appreciate are leaders, friends and team-members who actively look to be direct and honest, even when it’s about critical feedback, but avoid seeking to escalate situations. Doing this well requires a strong level of emotional intelligence. You have to be capable of understanding what might exacerbate a situation unnecessarily. It requires reading people and the situation. It’s a soft skill, that when not executed well, cuts like a sharp knife.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been very clear about what his organization does with its brilliant jerks: It gets rid of them. As he has said in the past about them: “Some companies tolerate them. For us, the cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

I love that passage from an Inc. story about the famed Netflix culture that refuses to accept jerks, regardless of how brilliant they are. While this language isn’t in the Netflix culture manifesto, I think it’s safe to say, Hastings would accept the idea that those who seek to instigate and escalate, instead of defuse are not welcome.

I’d encourage your to think about that line between defuse and escalate – look at your team-members, look at your leaders, look at your friends. Who’s escalating? Who’s defusing? If you can defuse, but still be clear and direct, you’ll almost always be more effective than using language, that while clear – simply seeks escalate the situation.