Talking Baseball and Corporate “Cancel” Culture

Three strikes and you’re out.  Even those who have never picked up a baseball know this rule.  Yet the game of baseball actually is hard to explain.  The only way to really learn is to watch the game played with someone who knows it. 

That’s not true for a game like soccer where the rules can easily be explained to a child in less than 5 minutes. One ball, two nets, two teams, object is to kick the ball in the opposing team’s net more times than they kick it in yours in the time allotted, only the goalie can use their hands. Try that with baseball.

Yet despite its complexities, baseball became the American pastime and continues to capture the imagination of countless fans around the world.  This is due in large part because uniquely inherent to the game of baseball are enduring truths about the human condition. 

The three strike rule, the one rule practically everyone knows, is a perfect example.  Hitting a round ball with a round bat is hard, each player deserves more than one chance during their turn at the plate.  In fact hitting a baseball is so hard that even the best players who ever lived failed almost 70% of the time.  Part of the beauty of baseball is that it doesn’t expect perfection, an impossible standard, but rather demands players learn to tolerate failure.

Isn’t the same true for life?  It’s hard.  No one is perfect.  All of us are going to swing and miss, strike out, fail ourselves and our teammates.  Many times.  Yet no one wants to live a life where we are given just one strike.  Humans are wired for second chances because we understand life is challenging and that each of us is flawed.   

I’ve been thinking about baseball’s life lessons in the context of the approach much of corporate America takes to dealing with failure and mistakes these days.  Employees increasingly work in a one strike environment.  A “cancel” mentality permeates companies that demands the maximum penalty for every mistake.  New examples pop up almost every week in the press, not to mention the countless others that never get covered.

For the record, I am in no way suggesting that some actions do not merit severe consequences.  To extend our baseball metaphor, if you hit another player with a bat you’re going to get tossed from the game immediately.  And rightfully so.

Yet is seems to me that increasingly the culture of corporations holds employees to impossibly high standards.  One false move can end careers.  We seem to have forgotten that when humans spend a third of their lives working with others, often in high pressure environments, mistakes and misunderstandings are inevitable.  Perfection is an impossible standard.  Not every mistake or misstep is indicative of the true character of a person.  

When something happens the prevailing wisdom at many companies is to toss the employee aside, often following a rushed process that is heavily stacked against the accused, to prove they won’t tolerate imperfection. This approach may be good short term PR and reduce legal billable hours, but in the end any culture based on such a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition is bound to consume itself.

Baseball continues to draw in fans more than 150 years after the game was invented in part because humans haven’t changed all that much.  Yes, the world has changed dramatically in that time.  But the truth is we haven’t.  Perfection is no more attainable today than it was in the earliest days of the game.

It is essential to the success of any company that it establishes a fair, safe and tolerant culture that allows employees to thrive and produce great work.  However, no good will ultimately come from a company culture that demands perfection or polices itself based on misguided notions about what it is to be human.  One strike and you’re out is no way to play the game of life.

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