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Social Engineering in Newsrooms with Hamilton and Burr

Using dueling/singing historical personalities to reframe communication challenges at work


Me, with hands full of Post-Its, facilitating this session at SRCCON. (Credit: Keila Vizcarra)

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two of the most successful guys operating during the dawn of American politics, faced a problem very similar to the ones we have in newsrooms today. They wanted to get things done at a breakneck pace, but the politics of dealing with other people slowed them down.

Journalists have a similar issue. When you work in news, it can feel like working with other people is as much—or more—work as the journalism itself.

People might interrupt you in meetings or quietly kill your idea without telling you why. You might get overstepped or step on someone else’s toes. Time spent dealing with all of that is time you don’t spend on your actual job.

And you definitely don’t want to kill your colleagues in a duel in New Jersey, which (spoiler) is what Burr did to Hamilton after they spent their entire careers fighting with each other.

Do not throw away your shot! Here are some suggestions on how to deal with social challenges in newsrooms.

You’re a journalist and a social engineer As the lead producer at ProPublica, it’s my job to manage our publishing schedule, get our work onto the internet and help oversee our larger editorial projects. I keep the debris away from our publishing workflow so everyone can work as efficiently as possible. I think a lot about the social stuff that can get in the way.

At SRCCON 2017, I led a session about addressing some of these interpersonal challenges by using the dueling personalities of Hamilton and Burr. (Hint: This post will be more fun if you’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack.)

While the two were very similar in some ways, they were also very different. Hamilton was hot-headed, impulsive, unapologetic and relentless. Burr was calculating, opportunistic and cautious. He would wait for it, watching for the right moment to pounce on what he wanted. Hamilton refused to wait for anything, pushing until whatever was in his way collapsed.

Somewhere in the overlap of these two men is a sensible solution (or solutions) to some of the things that might be slowing down your work.

SRCCON attendees gamely brainstorming and sorting ideas during the session. (Credit: Hannah Birch)

SRCCON 2017: The Room Where It Happened

We addressed a dozen problems during the workshop, talking through solutions and then categorizing those based on whether they were more like Hamilton, more like Burr or somewhere in between. (We called this the Peggy group, after Peggy Schuyler, a little-seen but somehow much-beloved character from the show.) Here are some of the takeaways. You can also see a full list of the problems and solutions we discussed.

There are many approaches to problems and you should calibrate your response based on the situation. Using the Hamilton-vs.-Burr exercise can help you find the two extremes of how to respond to a problem or challenge. Occasionally you might even use one of those approaches. But most often, you’d probably be better off finding a middle ground—the Peggy approach—and going with that. One of the big points we agreed on was that Hamilton and Burr, while successful, were both so concerned with their own advancement that they were terrible to work with. You could try your hand at being the lone genius, but I don’t recommend it.

Journalism is a team sport; the best work comes from collaboration.

Some jobs might attract people who are more Hamilton or more Burr. Scopes of focus vary a lot based on how a person fits into the organization. Newsrooms have people primarily concerned with the one big story or project they’re working on, right alongside people focused on orchestrating all those stories together over the course of one (or many) years. For example, editors might see some benefit in being Burr-ish—playing the long game all the time and understanding the system so well they can game it when they need to. Reporters might be more Hamiltonian, focused on one thing and maneuvering for the success of that against competing interests. So bear this in mind when you’re thinking about how to deal with someone.

Across the board, focusing on the problem and not the person can help you. Hamilton and Burr ran into trouble when they launched personal attacks on people they disagreed with rather than focusing on the ideas they didn’t like. Personal attacks can lead to grudges, which won’t help you at all. Some of Hamilton’s most contentious relationships came about because he vilified his opponents instead of just disagreeing with their ideas.

What approach you use also depends on you. An interesting point that came out of our discussion was that it would be easier for men to go full Hamilton or full Burr and get away with it (at least for a while) than it would be for women. Showing some of Hamilton’s and Burr’s strongest traits—assertiveness, ambition, self-confidence, aggression—is more likely to backfire for women than for men. In fact, verbally intimidating people, acting assertively and engaging in self promotion, all things Hamilton and Burr did well, is more likely to undermine a woman’s influence than bolster it. Understanding such biases around certain types of behavior can help you know what to avoid based on your specific situation.

Just discussing these issues can help. Whether you’re using a Hamilton-vs.-Burr approach or sorting newsrooms into Hogwarts Houses (Gerald Rich, Christine Zhang, Jeremy Bowers and Casey Miller led that awesome conversation at NICAR), adding silly context around serious problems can help you talk about tough stuff with your colleagues. Hopefully reframing the problems in your mind and realizing you have choices in how to respond also helps you be your most productive, happy self—so you can make like the Schuyler sisters and work.

animated GIF of Peggy on stage in Hamilton

Our Full List of Problems & Solutions

During the session, we brainstormed possible approaches to a list of problems. Then we sorted those approaches into categories based on whether they were more Hamilton, more Burr or in between (Peggy). There were many times where the approach that seemed most reasonable was actually a combination of approaches or a more nuanced version of one of them. These have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Problem: People Interrupt You

Hamilton Responses

In meetings:
  • Interrupt back.
  • Resent the person forever, quietly.
  • Get super angry. Get revenge.
  • Interrupt back, ask if you can finish your thought.
In general:
  • Suggest a walk and talk.
  • Use body language (look hurried).
  • Put on headphones.

Burr Responses

In meetings:
  • Find an ally in the meeting who can help speak out when you get interrupted.
  • Pull person aside later and tell them you don’t like being interrupted.
In general:
  • Work elsewhere with a laptop.
  • Use headphones as a signal that you’re busy
  • Use a do not disturb sign/flag system
  • Set up a weekly check-in
  • Suggest putting something on a calendar
  • Physically move to somewhere unexpected

Peggy Responses:

In general: - Block out unavailable time on a calendar.

Problem: You Need Something from Someone on Deadline

Hamilton Responses:

  • Be clear about the situation.

Peggy Responses:

  • Thank them after it’s done.

(No one wrote down Burr responses)

Problem: You Overstepped Someone

Hamilton Responses:

  • Reassure the person—I forget how difficult your job is and how well you do it!

Burr Responses:

  • Plead ignorance: “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”
  • “I was just trying to help you out.”
  • Find better ways to collaborate instead of overstepping
  • Figure out the source of the overstepping

Peggy Responses:

  • Figure out why you feel overstepped. Is it a symptom of something else?

Problem: Someone Overstepped You

Hamilton Responses:

  • Communicate with the person that’s overstepping you
  • Tell the person what they did and why they were wrong

Burr Responses:

  • None

Peggy Responses:

  • Have a larger conversation with everyone about what’s working, what’s not working in the larger process
  • Reflect: Are you getting your job done?

Problem: You’re Caught Between Two Managers

Hamilton Responses:

  • Refuse to keep working until resolved.
  • Make a list of expectations with your managers and evaluate together at regular intervals.
  • Acknowledge that you aren’t the problem.
  • Tell your primary manager.
  • Call a meeting for all three.
  • Force a more objective conversation.
  • Grab the other manager.

Burr Responses:

  • Ask for organizational clarity, in writing.
  • Ask them to communicate with each other.
  • Invite another manager to the conversation.
  • Suggest the two managers talk.
  • Restate the problem and attribute and explain other manager’s point of view.

Peggy Responses:

  • Keep a transparent backlog of things so people can always see what’s on your list

Problem: People Are Asking You for Something You Know Isn’t Going to Happen

Hamilton Responses:

  • Refer them to the decision maker

Burr Responses:

  • None

Peggy Responses:

  • Try to explain the situation/context (not defensively)

Problem: Someone Pitches Something Really Terrible

Hamilton Responses:

  • Be persistent in asking.
  • Be honest. Tell them it’s a bad idea. (But tactfully, depending on personality type.)
  • Kill it or push person to pivot early on.
  • Say it sucks.

Burr Responses:

  • Kill it and don’t explain why.
  • Be open that it might not be a terrible idea forever.
  • Modify it into a useable idea

Peggy Responses:

  • Encourage them to try again.

  • Give kind, constructive criticism.

  • Have concrete requirements/goals and talk about how it does/does not achieve that.

  • Be open to being wrong, willing to be convinced otherwise. "Here’s why this hasn’t worked in the past, but…”

  • Be kind first.

  • Get the person to talk about why this idea, who is the audience, > explain larger picture

Problem: You Have to Say No to an Idea That’s Good but That You Don’t Have Time For

Hamilton Responses:

  • (For person who pitched idea) Do it anyway.
  • Upfront communication.

Burr Responses:

  • Refer the project to another person.
  • Compliment the idea, then negotiate.
  • Find a way to redirect the idea for something else
  • Try to put in some part of the idea (or put it on timeline)

Peggy Responses:

  • What’s a smaller step or an easier step toward the goal?

Problem: Someone Takes Credit for Your Work/Ideas

Hamilton Responses:

  • Publicly call out/confront.
  • Inspire culture of acknowledgment/congratulations.
  • Document your ideas in public.
  • Be proactive about communicating your contributions.
  • Write a memo to the boss.
  • “I originally pitched that idea.”

Burr Responses:

  • Confront the idea thief privately.
  • Put the focus on the work, not the ideas.

Peggy Responses:

  • Acknowledge work and ideas and make clear team effort.
  • Have an ally who can set the record straight.
  • Advocate for others to a superior.
  • Do nothing.
  • Privately communicate.
  • Lead by example: attribute ideas to other people.
  • Find allies in meetings.

Problem: You’re Trying to Get Stakeholders to Keep Their Eyes on the Big Picture

Hamilton Responses:

  • Focus time on big picture regularly

Burr Responses:

  • None

Peggy Responses:

  • Tell the big picture story and put it in context.
  • Send status reports on progress toward big goals

Problem: Someone’s Avoiding You

Hamilton Responses:

  • Go solo.
  • Call them out: “Could you not?”
  • Public confrontation.
  • Confronting the avoider.

Burr Responses:

  • Wait it out.
  • Build alliances.

Peggy Responses:

  • Self reflection.
  • Ask coworkers for intervention/strategy.

Problem: Several People Are Asking You for Things at the Same Time

Hamilton Responses:

  • Make workload public (Calendar or Slack).
  • Tell them you have other things in front.

Burr Responses:

  • Ask the person when they need it—concrete deadline. And break project down? What parts are priorities?
  • Ask questions to help prioritize deadlines.
  • Prioritize the motivation behind requests.
  • Negotiate priorities.

Peggy Responses:

  • “Is this blocking you or can you work on something else in the meantime?”
  • Ask if somebody can help.
  • Ask a manager to shield you.

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