Is It Real Or Is It Karaoke?

Listening to subordinates can prevent managerial mistakes.

Is It Real Or Is It Karaoke?Following the spectacular opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, we learned that Lin Miaoke, 9, the cute little girl who charmed the audience with her looks and her superb rendition of “Ode To The Motherland” was actually lip-syncing the song. It turns out that another little girl, Yang Peiyi, 7, was originally slated to sing it, but after watching her rehearse, a high-ranking politburo member decided she wasn’t pretty enough to represent China to the world. So he ordered that Lin Miaoke stand in and mouth the words of the song while a pre-recorded rendition by Yang Peiyi was played on the public address system.

Can anyone say Milli Vanilli?
And what a shame. All the wonderful creativity, planning and brilliant execution that the Chinese put into that tremendous event were besmirched by this silly little act of dishonesty. Of course, Chinese officials have defended it, saying they were simply making a casting decision. To them it was no different than swapping actors in a Broadway play. But that doesn’t change the fact that journalists and pundits around the world had a field day questioning the veracity of the entire spectacle. Regardless of whether you buy this official justification or not, the worldwide repercussions proved it to be an incredibly bad managerial decision.

Which brings me to my point.
Given the complexity of any political system, especially one as intricate as China’s, it’s probably safe to assume that anyone who reaches the level of “highranking politburo member” is probably a pretty smart person. So why did he make such a bad decision?

Maybe he lacked the insight to understand the repercussions such deception would exact in the western world. Or maybe he thought the scam would never be leaked to the press. Or maybe he just didn’t care. Who knows? Whatever the reason, China paid the price by having a memorable moment in an otherwise magnificent event tarnished.

So what would have happened if someone close to this fellow had questioned the wisdom of his decision? What if a colleague in the politburo or a trusted underling or the director of the pageant itself said, “Hey, guy, you might want to consider the ramifications of this before you do it”?

Would this high-ranking politburo member have listened? Would he have rewarded the person bringing it to his attention for their candor? Would anyone have ever dared to find out? The answer to all three questions is probably “no.”

But even when we are guided by lofty principles, we, as managers, often must make decisions that end up being wrong: what to buy, how to budget, who to hire, who to fire, where to market, what standards of quality to insist on, what products to develop, whether to expand or contract—the list goes on and on. And we all hope that we would never make a decision as dumb as turning the “Ode to the Motherland” into a karaoke demonstration. But even the best of us sometimes lack perspective, don’t see the bigger picture, rely on poor information or get so focused on what we think is right that we fail to see better options.

Our saving grace is that we work in a society where our colleagues and our subordinates can give us the feedback we need to help us avoid such mistakes.

But will they?
Have we built a culture where such candor is the norm? Do we encourage our subordinates and colleagues to tell us when they think we are wrong? Do we ask for their input before plowing ahead on major decisions? Do we make it clear that it’s everyone’s job to express their opinion if they think things are heading in the wrong direction?

If not, it’s probably a good idea to start, because none of us is perfect, and all of us are vulnerable to making dumb decisions, even ones that might be seen by billions of people on television. Can anyone say YouTube?

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Larry Johnson Meet the Author
Larry Johnson is president of Johnson Training Group and a 17-year veteran of the training and consulting business. He can be found on the Web at