It’s a lifelong dislike. (I wish I could blame this genetic hypothesis, but my love for coffee and dark chocolate says otherwise.) As a kid, I’d scowl at a pile of peas while my mom hovered, wagging her finger and saying, “There are kids starving in (name a country) who would love to eat those peas!”
I took her argument as out of context. How would my gobbling greens in Michigan assure full bellies elsewhere? And how would browbeating me change my perspective and behavior? To Mom, however, it was an opportunity to raise my awareness of hunger and waste—and, maybe a little bit, to get the last of the dishes in the dishwasher.
I needed to understand that “context” was much bigger than the plate in front of me. She needed to understand that the plate in front of me had enormous meaning.
So when video of MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen chiding employees for asking about their bonuses went viral this week, I found myself revisiting that battle of wills.
To be clear, the biggest share of blame rests on Owen—who, if you watch the video carefully, was obviously triggered by something that knocked her off a seemingly reasonable message of focus, teamwork and (ironically) empathy. Her subsequent apology, “I feel terrible that my rallying cry seemed insensitive,” didn’t help. It didn’t seem insensitive—it was insensitive. And arrogant, dismissive, tone-deaf, you name the poor trait. She needs to own her failure far better than she has.
But I don’t want to pile on Owen—there’s plenty of that happening. My counsel for communicators arises from a statement to CNN by a MillerKnoll spokesperson:
“Andi fiercely believes in this team and all we can accomplish together, and will not be dissuaded by a 90-second clip taken out of context and posted on social media.” (Emphasis added)
One wonders what context, even in the full 75-minute video, could possibly justify Owen’s rant. My guess is: none. As is usually the case, the "context" excuse falls flat.
“Out of context” is a flaccid get-out-of-hot-mic-jail card. It gets waved whenever a business leader or politician is caught saying something they wished they hadn’t. We need to use it sparingly, if at all.
It’s true that context is always bigger than what’s presented in a soundbite. But in an era when every word is captured and rebroadcast, whether we like it or not, context needs to be part of offense, not merely defense.
I find it hard to believe Owen, or at least her PR team, didn’t anticipate a question about employee bonuses. So I have to assume they agreed on a narrow context for her response—if everyone focuses on delivering, the bonuses will come. But by looking only at the business trees, they missed the forest of financial worries that employees bear for themselves and their families.
Is it important for leaders to remind workers of the bigger business context? Absolutely. But they can’t do so with a handwave at the plate right in front of their employees—and then use the handwave to justify their own failure.
The context is always bigger than you think—and also far smaller. We must consider both proactively if we’re to communicate effectively, authentically and with empathy.