In the movieGone With The Wind, Butterfly McQueen, as the character Prissy, assures Scarlet O’Hara that she has delivered many babies. Then when Scarlett goes to Prissy to help deliver Melanie’s baby, Prissy responded with “Lawzy, we got to have a doctor. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”
To describe employees who claim they can perform a task until the time comes to undertake it, my wife, Terri, has coined the phrase “The Prissy Syndrome.” We’ve all heard a version of it: “I don’t know nothing about journal entries;” “I don’t know nothing about driving a forklift;” “I don’t know nothing about engineered wood.” It’s maddening but it is what it is, in business but also in other aspects of life.
When I related to an acquaintance that I was invited to play in a golf tournament, he let me know that he wanted to be on my team and assured me that he would help the team with his drives. On the day of the tournament, we discovered that seldom could he hit the ball past the women’s tee and when he did it was a “banana” slice. The Prissy Syndrome: “I don’t know nothing about hitting drives.”
To determine someone’s capabilities, in business you can require specific references, ask probing questions and order aptitude testing. Even so, you still have to deal with Prissy. With friends and acquaintances it’s different but unless money – “don’t worry, I always pick winners” – or life-threatening circumstances – “I can sail through any storm” – it really doesn’t matter. You still love your friends and accept that occasionally they are going to overstate their capabilities.
After Scarlett delivers Melanie’s baby she sends Prissy to Belle Watling’s to fetch Rhett Butler. Not wanting to enter Belle’s somewhat shady establishment, Prissy stands outside and calls for Captain Butler. When Rhett comes to the window, she informs him that with Miss Scarlett’s help she has delivered Melanie’s baby. This scene demonstrates the second part of the Prissy Syndrome: when after being unable to perform a task, someone takes credit for the successful completion of it: “My drives are what won the trophy.”
Part two of the Prissy Syndrome disturbs me most. It’s hard to stomach when someone fails to take blame for his or her shortcomings and claims responsibility for success. Being willing to take responsibility, being accountable or to blame for something, is a characteristic that builds our trust in employees, associates, friends and relatives and theirs in us. Responsibility is a characteristic that is learned early in life.
When in high school I was visiting a friend who knocked over a drink on his mother’s new carpet. Knowing the consequences that would accrue if it was my mother and her new carpet, I waited for his mom to chastise him for his carelessness. Instead she responded by saying, “it’s O.K. I know you didn’t mean to spill it.” The truth is, it wasn’t O.K. Whether he intended to spill it or not, he was responsible for the accident. Without consequences for his action there was no reason for him to be cautious in the future. If I accidentally spill red wine on your white carpet, I am going to pay to have the carpet cleaned – it is my responsibility.
Our responsibility is to hold others accountable for their actions. It’s sometimes easier to “not rock the boat” but no one benefits from our “letting something go.”
Recently, during a dinner I hosted at a local restaurant, two people didn’t get served until 30-minutes after the rest of the party. To her credit, the waitress took responsibility for failing to submit the two orders. She could have blamed the kitchen or found some other excuse but she “manned up” and admitted her accountability. Before settling the check, I took her aside, chastised her for the late dinners but praised her for her willingness to be accountable for the mistake. She had made a costly mistake – the restaurant made her pay for the two dinners – but she had held herself responsible and I am willing to bet it won’t happen again.
If she had known that she was going to be held accountable, Prissy would have never exaggerated her “baby delivering” experience and Scarlett wouldn’t have been charged with delivering the baby. The Prissy Syndrome is circumvented when we insist that people take responsibility for their actions.
“Accept the consequences of your actions in order to become the agent of your mental, physical, spiritual and material success.” -Les Brown