Considering The Optics

The President fired the Director of the FBI yesterday. Even though such a thing had only happened once before (when the FBI Director was accused of using funds for personal stuff), it is well within the rights of the President to do so. In fact, the head of the FBI, like US Attorneys and White House staff, serve at the pleasure of the President (which always brings to mind this scene from The West Wing in which the staff pledges loyalty to the President using exactly that phrase).

No, I’m not (finally) wading into politics, but there is a tremendous business point to be taken from yesterday’s action. The FBI is investigating if and how the President’s campaign was (is?) tied to Russia. Firing the man who is heading an investigation into your campaign is bad optics, especially when you do so on the day when subpoenas go out. It’s also bad optics to give as a reason something for which you praised that same person a few months earlier.

Bad optics is a phrase typically used in politics which describes when politicians fret about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself. It has little to do with right and wrong and a lot to do with the perception of right or wrong. We’ve seen a few cases of this in business very recently:

  • United Airlines kicked doctor off a plane and he was beaten up when he refused to go. Were they within their rights to involuntarily bump a passenger? Yes. But the optics, both in front of other passengers and, since everyone has a camera, the rest of the world are horrible.
  • When public schools refuse to give a hot lunch to a child or give them a cheese sandwich instead of what the other kids have because the kid’s family can’t afford to pay, are they within their rights? Yes, but the optics…
  • When a business asks workers to train their (foreign) replacements, they’re helping their bottom line but killing their reputation because the optics are so bad.

One thing we all need to do as part of our decision-making process is to consider the optics. How will this appear, regardless of the right and wrong? It does little good to be in the right when you seem to be very wrong. You with me?

 

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