The View from the Cheap Seats Can Ruin Everything

“Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats AJ?

In the 1995 film, The American President, Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd facing a tough challenger for re-election.  His Chief of Staff and long-time campaign manager, AJ, played by Martin Sheen, advises the President to take on the dirty political fight.

The President, Douglas, gets angry.  He shouts, “Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats AJ?”

I love this line because the same dynamic plays out in organizations and individuals every single day.  In my work as a consultant, I routinely hear people criticize the boss.  “She didn’t give us all the information.”  “He doesn’t have any time for our department.” “He’s too critical.”  The list goes on.

The cheap seats are the safest spot to offer a critique.  The cheap seats aren’t in the show; they’re after the show.  The people in the cheap seats have the benefit of after the fact knowledge.  When you’re in the cheap seats, you don’t have to understand the full context, nor is there any risk of taking action that would put you under the microscope.

Taking the lead in any scenario or with any idea sets you up for critique.  It’s the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately now, what were once usually whispered backstage critiques take front stage via social media.  The kerfuffle over Dr. Amy Cuddy’s work is a great example of cheap seat commentary going viral.

Professor Cuddy, the social psychologist who introduced the world to the benefits of Power Posing via her viral Ted Talk, has been savaged by other researchers who could not replicate the results of Cuddy’s 2010 study.  Cuddy’s study revealed when people adopted power poses – think Wonder Woman standing confident – they report a stronger feeling of power and act accordingly.  In short, posing like you’re confident, gives you confidence.  Participants in Cuddy’s study also saw an increase in testosterone, while cortisol levels, associated with stress, declined.

After Cuddy’s work became famous, and she was garnering big speaking fees, a group of academics began questioning her research.  Subsequent studies, did not replicate the change in hormone levels.  Participants reported changes in feelings, but there was no corresponding physiological change.

In the New York Times piece, “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy,” one of Cuddy’s biggest critics, Andrew Gelman was asked if he would ever consider meeting with Cuddy to discuss his critiques.  The Times reporter writes, “Gelman seemed put off by the idea of trying to persuade her, in person saying, “I don’t like interpersonal conflict.”

Cheap seat commentary is rarely direct.  I find it interesting that Cuddy’s detractors are largely male academics attacking a study about feelings.  Cuddy’s techniques have been used by many women, including me, to increase confidence and hold our own in high-stakes situations.  I don’t know if my hormones change; I do know a 1-minute power pose in the ladies room improves my performance exponentially.

Some of the critique against Cuddy was part of a movement among psychologists to re-examine prior work. Statistics-minded critics pointed out, standard ways of setting up experiments and analyzing the results had flaws. Like any discipline, new knowledge brings better systems.

Often times though, cheap seat commentary is not about improvement. People offer it under the guise of improvement. But if it’s public, after the fact, and proffered by someone who is not your trusted campaign manager, it’s more likely a pot shot.

We all sit in the cheap seats from time to time.  Sometimes the best thing you can do from there is stand up and clap.