Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hiding behind passive voice.

Did you see Edward Liddy's, letter to America? Edward is CEO of AIG. Right, that AIG. The company that's being called, "Arrogant, Incompetent, and Greedy." I read the letter in the Washington Post yesterday.

The letter, entitled, "Our Mission at AIG: Repairs and Repayment," reads reasonably well - with one glaring exception. Edward says in the first sentence of the third paragraph, "Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible."

Edward obviously has not read a revealing little book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, entitled, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts." In their instructive book Tavris and Aronson show us in the first pages how culprits - corporate and otherwise - use the passive voice to hide their responsibility or to hide the responsibilities of others.

For example, the book cites a statement by Henry Kissinger on the Viet Nam War, "Mistakes were quite possibly made by the administration in which I served." Oh yeh, Henry, quite possibly about 58,000 mistakes. Also, the book cites Cardinal Edward Egan of New York discussing child molestation, "If, in hindsight, we also discover that mistakes may have been made...I am deeply sorry." Let's not even go there.

Passive voice has its purposes. For instance, it helps people avoid confrontation. You may want to write, "The report was not completed on time" as opposed to "You did not complete the report on time." When you use the passive voice in that instance, the person who failed to complete the report will feel less threatened. Or, you may not want to name the doer of the action for fear of recrimination, ala, "The CEO was rumored to have been arrested at a previous job." You don't want to be named as the person who started that rumor.

Because we use business writing for action, I advise you to prefer the active voice - the subject does the action; the object receives the action. Prefer the active voice especially when you must admit your error. Although Edward Liddy clearly states that he wasn't at AIG when the troubles began (he says he has "answered the call" to lead AIG in September 2008), he needs to name the people who share responsibility for AIG's colossal blunders. We need names; we need culprits; we need to know that the mess was created by humans and was, in effect, avoidable, else we fear that we are all victims of chance.

And, while he's at it, Edward can stop calling these colossal errors in judgment, "missteps." They weren't missteps, they were colossal blunders. We don't need euphemism on top of passive construction. Edward is right, however, when he says that AIG's mistakes were "on a scale that few could have imagined possible." But, we need the mistakes to be made imaginable! For that we need to know who made them. We don't learn that when we read, "Mistakes were made."


  1. Ed,
    We absolutely don't want anyone to hide behind passive voice, but is Ed Liddy justified in using it since he wasn't the one responsible and the mistakes did happen before he arrived?

  2. I like Liddy (and I especially like his $1 salary), but I wanted him to name some names. He might even have said, "My predecessors failed you" or some such. The "missteps" also bothered me. And, I gag on these kinds of statements, "To prevent undue risk exposure in the meantime, AIG has made a set of retention payments to employees based on a compensation system that prior management put in place." But, hey, I'm from Altoona!