by Steve Adubato, PhD
Last weekend, NY Jets football coach Rex Ryan made a very controversial decision to put quarterback Mark Sanchez into a pre-season game in the 4th quarter playing behind an offensive line of second team players (at best) that wasn’t able to protect Sanchez, who got crushed by 312 pound NY Giants defensive lineman Marvin Austin. Sanchez laid on the ground, his right shoulder injured. Not surprisingly, after the game, Rex Ryan faced an onslaught of challenging questions from reporters who wanted to know why he would make such a move in a pre-season game that counted for absolutely nothing.
Clearly, it was a legitimate question, since Sanchez’s right shoulder is the one he uses to throw. But when asked about his decision to put in Sanchez, Ryan’s communication became highly defensive; “We’re here to win. We’re trying to compete. Injuries are part of the game… I would not have put Mark in there if it wasn't important.” Ryan’s response that it was “important” to put Sanchez in the game only produced more questions since, again, pre-season games don’t count in the regular season standings.
Ryan became visibly angry in response to a follow-up question on who would now be the Jets’ starting quarterback given Sanchez’s confusing injury status. “I don't have to answer a question…We will make the decision on a starting quarterback when we think it's the appropriate time. Not when you, not when this person or this person or this person [decides it’s time].” (Ryan was pointing at various reporters.) Then, things got more heated when Ryan responded to a reporter who asked; “How can you say…” Ryan interrupted saying; “I can say anything I want. That’s the beauty of the country.” Then , the Jets coach did something that no coach, CEO or any professional should do—he turned his back to reporters and said; “I’ll stand backwards and answer the question. I’ll do it sideways.”
So there you have it—a particularly unimpressive communication performance, which has nothing to do with football and everything to do with a leader under pressure who became defensive. Consider the following tips and tools in the effort to avoid engaging in defensive communication when the heat is on:
--No matter how perturbed you are at a question, never personally attack the questioner. Don’t question his credentials, his legitimacy, or his right to ask the question, as it makes you look weak as a leader. You can question his facts if you think they are wrong, but he DOES have a right to ask the question.
--Never turn your back to your audience, even if you are trying to be funny. Leave the humor to the professional comedians. Make direct eye contact with your questioner without attempting to stare him down or intimidate him. Your body language speaks volumes when you are responding to tough questions.
--When you say, “I don’t have to answer a question”, as Rex Ryan did, that may be true legally, but from a practical point of view, as a leader, you DO in fact have to answer what most reasonable people consider to be a reasonable question about a decision you’ve made. Remember, no one forced you to be in a leadership position. You chose to take on this responsibility, which includes answering challenging questions.
--Finally, your answers must be credible to the average person and in Rex Ryan’s case, it was simply not credible to say a pre-season game was important to win. Your answers must come across as reasonable as opposed to something you’ve conjured up to try to take the heat off, which in the case of Rex Ryan only turned up the heat even more.