It’s safe to say most of us have seen it by now. Even if you missed the Academy Awards this year, you’ve likely watched the news, social media memes, or a video replay of the jaw-dropping Oscars moment when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss.
Some saw the moment as a return to chivalry worth celebrating; others found it to be an embarrassing display of needless chauvinism (Kareem Abdul Jabbar does an excellent job of explaining why in his recent Substack piece). Regardless of your opinion, you can probably agree that a quick jump to onstage violence was not the most well-thought-out or responsible tactic Smith could have used. The greatest power can often be found in the ability to carefully choose your response. And the best strategy is sometimes choosing what not to do.
Let’s take a look at three alternative strategic narratives that could have played out instead and observe how companies are using them to their advantage.
1. Be good
Every day, individuals are tempted with opportunities to take the quick and easy way out instead of reflecting on the repercussions of their decisions. Maybe we choose to drive instead of taking public transportation or react angrily when our dinner arrives late rather than considering staffing shortages and hardworking business owners. Will Smith chose an aggressive slap over a calm confrontation.
Companies, too, face such decisions on a broader scale. For decades, many chose quick profits over communities and the environments. A few years ago, in 2019, the pendulum began to turn when Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of the corporation from an entity positioned to generate returns for shareholders to an evolved mission devoted to serving all stakeholders—investors, employees, communities, suppliers, and customers.
No longer is business solely about extracting a profit at any cost. Today, companies are finding that “being good” increases their profits, attracts talent, and delights customers.
For example, Patagonia Inc., a certified B-corporation, introduced a program to reduce the amount of its clothing that ends up in landfills. Customers are encouraged to return used items so that the company can resell them. Wornwear, the new business unit, helps protect the earth, offers environmentally conscious consumers a new option, and is profitable for the organization.
2. Replace a resistant relationship with a supportive one
Over the past year, when I was writing the second edition of my 2011 book Outthink the Competition, I found myself removing overly violent words like “crush,” “pummel,” or “kill.” The lessons drawn from military strategy are still quite useful, but the world is trending toward a softer, community-centric approach.
In a world that is increasingly interconnected, it’s becoming less favorable to sever ties and isolate yourself at the top. Will Smith could have added to the humor, however misplaced, or turned it in a different direction by grabbing the mic or waiting until after the show to make a joke of his own. Perhaps he and Chris Rock could have worked on mutually valuable projects together in the future—an opportunity to turn an adversary into an ally.
Companies are finding that organizations they once considered competitors are turning into key collaborators. In a panel on ecosystems in media, Kalina Nikolova, VP of Operations and Strategy for Yahoo, Inc., said, “We have so many partners who are both competitors and partners, and that’s become completely normal.”
When you find yourself up against a competitor, find what future advantages might benefit both of you and work on the relationship to turn it in your favor.
3. Exchange the role of guest for that of host
As we learned later, Will Smith was understandably upset about Chris Rock’s comment because his wife suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. The condition will affect approximately 6.8 million people in the United States and 147 million worldwide at some point in their lives.
Will Smith could have used the opportunity to “exchange the role of guest for that of host” by educating the general public about the condition. Its cause is unknown, but as a supporter and educator, Smith might have brightened his public image and promoted some awareness and understanding, rather than reacting with violence.
In business competition, it can benefit you to take an unthreatening stance at first, and then incrementally use your position to build trust and influence. Many cloud software companies, such as Microsoft SharePoint or Dropbox, offer a free, entry-level version of their product to get customers comfortable using it, then charge for a premium version or for additional usage. Instead of coming right out and charging as competitors do, these companies ease their way into the customer’s awareness and trust.
The best strategic move can sometimes be the one you don’t make. By avoiding violence and choosing a tactfully planned response, Will Smith may have increased future opportunities, created an unlikely partnership, or educated the general public about a health condition. A hasty reaction often closes doors where a well-designed strategy can open them.
For other ideas to fill your strategic playbook, visit my 36 Stratagems Guide.