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The psychology of the Oscars disaster

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Catastrophic failures aren’t usually caused by one or two big mess-ups but by a series of cascading errors.

So it was at this year’s Academy Awards, where a number of factors contributed to the wrong movie being announced as Best Picture.

The first factor was allowing the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which had tallied Oscars voting for 83 years, to manage the envelope process alone.

The second was allowing two of the firm’s partners to hand envelopes to presenters; experienced hands can be overconfident and complacent, the job feeling “like a lark.”

A third problem: Restricting knowledge of the winners accomplishes one goal—keeping the results secret—but limits access to the right information.

Fourth was giving each partner a full set of envelopes, creating redundancy. One partner gave the presenters a duplicate envelope from a previous award.

The wrong envelope fiasco then shifted to the presenters. When Warren Beatty pulled the card out and saw the name Emma Stone, he knew there was a problem, but he couldn’t process it and said nothing.

Enter a factor called “sensemaking.” Beatty stalled, then showed the card to presenter Fay Dunaway, who zoomed in on the title, demonstrating the “selective attention” that’s common in high-stress situations. She ignored Stone’s name and called out “La La Land.”

Finally, the accountants—the only two who realized their mistake—simply froze. More than a minute elapsed before one of them told a stage manager.

It’s a common reaction in a disaster. Denial and disbelief are hardwired into our nature.

Also hardwired: Hindsight is 20/20.

— Adapted from “How Disaster Science Explains the Oscars Mix-Up,” James Meigs, Slate.com.

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