Back in May, I saw news reports about the head of CNN, Jeff Zucker: “CNN boss Zucker shocked by staffer's fearful question.”
Back when I worked for big companies, I had to be an audience member for many “all hands” meetings – either all hands at a local site or, as technology evolved, “all hands in the company” via video technology. There are times where co-workers and I would fantasize about what hard-hitting question we'd ask if we were completely honest and brave.
Well, some guy, James Curry (a producer) did exactly that at a CNN town hall meeting. Click the image below to view the video via the NY Post:
The question (the FIRST one posed by Anderson Cooper) was:
“I'd like to know how do we stop managers at all levels from from being afraid of you? It seems everyone is on pins and needles when you give guidance about a particular area.
The bottom line is managers seem to fear you and act very strange when you're around. How do we alleviate this seemingly rising culture at CNN?”
Well, that wasn't a “softball” question to start with. Yikes. There's nervous laughter (or just laughter) in the audience of CNN employees. I wonder if Cooper (or somebody) chose that question to start off with because there IS a real problem with the culture at CNN?
Zucker squirms uncomfortably in his chair and, instead of thanking the person for the question, the first words out of his mouth could be construed at vaguely threatening:
“Is James Curry here in Atlanta?”
Curry doesn't scream out to announce his presence (was Zucker going to bring him up on stage?). Cooper says that he's there and Zucker asks if they can get a shot of him on camera. Yikes. That's sort of intimidating and retaliatory. “We can't find him,” says a woman off camera.
The nervous “I'm thinking of what to say” laughter now comes from Zucker, who looks a bit blindsided and put on the spot.
“One of the things I always want to emphasize, more than anything, I don't want there to be anyone to feel like that. What I want is for people to push back on me.”
There already seems to be a disconnect. If Curry is correct in his assessment that there's a culture of fear, people likely are NOT going to speak up or push back. Something in Zucker's everyday actions might not be lining up with those words.
“What I like more than anything is for people to tell me I'm wrong and I think if people who actually do know me and have been through that with me will recognize that.”
It's the “you don't know me” defense — so, that's either Zucker's fault, as the leader. It's possible that Zucker is creating a culture of fear, or it's possible that he's stepped into an existing culture of fear and that people are reacting to him in a way that's based more on “old wounds” created by past leaders.
Zucker says something that seems humble, that he throws out a lot of ideas and “half of them are crazy and you should ignore.”
Zucker also sounds a bit reflective when he says that he needs to be more aware that when he, as a leader, says “I like something” that people are going to react and all rush to try to create more of that thing he likes in ten different shows. Maybe they jump and scurry like that because there's a culture of fear?
Zucker doesn't want people to be afraid to push back. So, I'd be curious to see how he reacts (what he says and his body language) when somebody does disagree, push back, or ignore one of his ideas. “Jeff, that's a crazy idea” — what response does that get?
He says, “At the end of the day, if I feel strongly about something, I'm going to say ‘let's do it.'” Ah, the power of top-down leadership. Maybe that's what creates the culture of fear. “But I want to encourage people to NOT feel like James does and not feel like just because I say something, you have to do it.” Hmmm. I guess you don't have to do it… unless Zucker DOES say you have to do it.
According to LinkedIn, James Curry DOES still work at CNN. At least he didn't get fired for his question.
As Zucker barks “go to the next question,” Anderson Cooper says “that was a really great answer” with a chuckle, as if he's pretending to be sycophant.
Do you see a “culture of fear” in your organization? Are people brave enough to call their leaders out on this, publicly or privately? What do you do to make sure the ACTIONS of leaders line up with what they say in terms of wanting people to speak up?
Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.
Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation: