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Nobody keeps statistics on the stupid things people say and do. But if they did, the chart would look like a tech stock on steroids.

Not the kinds of flubs you find out about in an academic case study one year after it happened.

I’m talking about pure “rip the bandage off, what were they thinking, why didn't anybody stop them” acts of red-faced embarrassment.

Marketing software company HubSpot asks in their blog: “Done a wellness check on your CEO?”

Behavioral economists have been warning us for years that people don’t act in their own best interest.

How else can you explain Elon Musk telling his biggest advertisers to, uh, go have sex with themselves at a NY Times conference? Or HBO’s chief ordering his staff to devise fake Twitter accounts to attack TV critics? Or a tech conference CEO creating fake women speakers when the real ones dropped out?

People can bring a company down faster than any competitor can.


The environment is riper than ever for calamitous unforced errors:

Loose Lips Sink Ships
Loose Tweets Sink Fleets

1) LONG HOURS, LESS SLEEP: According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study, CEOs work a punishing average of 62.5 hours a week. Gallup found that on average, salaried workers are toiling five more hours per week than full-time hourly workers (49 vs 44). The Sleep Institute says more than one-third of adults sleep less than the needed seven hours per night.


2) LESS PEOPLE: About 28% of Americans were laid off in the past two years. 400,000 people were laid off in the tech industry alone during that period. Which leads to…


3) FEAR: Because of those layoffs, people would very much like to keep their jobs. So the last thing they’re going to do is tell the CEO “Your idea sucks.”

4) WEAK GUARDRAILS: Smaller head count means not enough bandwidth, cohesiveness, and cultural diversity to stop mistakes and bad ideas from getting through.


5) E-MAIL/MOBILE PHONES: Documents, screenshots and videos can be easily posted online and forwarded outside a company.


6) POLARIZING POLITICS: According to The Eurasia Group, the world’s number one risk in 2024 is “The United States vs. itself.” With special interest groups and partisan media on outrage hyperdrive, stepping on a landmine is easier than ever before.

7) DESIRE TO BE FUNNY: If you plan to do something where part of the end strategy is to say, "we were only joking," scrap it immediately.


8) COOLER HEADS DON’T PREVAIL: If a CEO is upset or emotional, nothing stands between them and the X app on their mobile phone, day or night.


To curb saying and doing stupid things requires patience, or what time management expert Oliver Burkeman calls "the least sexy-sounding superpower you can possibly imagine.” Unfortunately, technology has given us too much instant gratification, weakening our ability to wait. We even have trouble waiting in line to board an airplane or ordering a hamburger at McDonald's. 


It is practically in our DNA to get ourselves into trouble. Our brains are wired to primarily focus on solving our most immediate obstacles without giving the consequences equal priority. It is as simple as repeatedly hitting the snooze button in the morning and missing our eight o’clock meeting. Or boasting about our diet, but as soon as we pass a pizzeria, we are at the counter paying for a hot pepperoni slice. 

To keep us all in line (as well as our colleagues, who absolutely can ruin it for everybody too), it is best to follow my Three Laws of Shutting Up:

1) If you don't know the answer, shut up. 

There is no risk saying nothing. The risk is in getting caught.

2) If you do know the answer and there is no good reason to give it, shut up.

Is saying it now worth the consequences?

3) If you think giving any answer is better than no answer, shut up.

This is not the SAT exam. You don’t have to fill in the blanks hoping you’ll get any of them right.


Shutting up gives you the appearance of patience, even if you don't have much of it.


Anybody who has trouble shutting up should put themselves into the post-apocalyptic scenario of the 2018 hit film, "A Quiet Place." You learn the rules very quickly: if you make even the slightest noise, invading aliens with a super acute sense of hearing will swoop in and turn you into toast. The movie's tagline: "If they hear you, they will hunt you."

If you follow these Three Laws and share them with your friends and colleagues, there should be far less public apologies and damaged reputations. Silence is golden.


Every business employee from top to bottom should have a stake in stopping colleagues from saying and doing stupid things. 

In 2017, when the city of London opted not to renew his company's license, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a memo: “The truth is there is a high cost to a bad reputation."

According to a 2012 World Economic Forum study, on average, more than 25% of a company's market value is directly attributable to its reputation. 





With those kinds of costly stakes, you would think the standard corporate strategy would be taking a more preventative approach against mishaps escaping out into the open.

It’s actually quite the opposite. The playbook has always been purely reactive: panic, hire an expensive crisis management firm, apologize profusely, issue endless by-the-book statements, take a big financial hit, and mop up the mess for the next six months.

That’s like accepting inevitable defeat as the normal price of doing business. What kind of playbook is that?

A forward-thinking management team incorporates guardrails, including around themselves, to prevent lighting their own cauldron of boiling water and stepping into it.

Here is the new playbook so you can create an dam around the stupid things people say or do (including yourself) to prevent them from getting out.


​More than 25% of a company's market value is directly attributable to its reputation.


Appoint what I call the Crisis Prevention Officer (CPO). Their job description is simple: build and uphold a strong impartial checks and balances system. Think of them as your engine temperature warning light.

Recruited from outside the company, a CPO integrates into the approval process for press releases, images, social media posts, statements, and marketing campaigns. They have the “license” to reasonably question, suggest changes in, and object to words, images, ideas and actions that may provoke angry blowback from customers, the public, and critics. Ideally, they should come armed with better solutions.

Because a CPO should be able to tell anybody from the CEO on down “That idea will get us in trouble and here is why” without fear of retaliation, their salary is paid in advance and they report solely to the board.

The ideal CPO should be able to present their views calmly and rationally because they will impact ideas that people feel passionate about and may not recognize as flawed or even dangerous.

By any calculation, it costs far less money to hire a CPO than endure a full-blown PR crisis, which can run up into millions of dollars, impacting reputation, revenue, clients, staff, investors, and recovery, while leaving a permanent online legacy.

The CEO always has the final word. It’s up to them whether they want to follow the CPO’s judgment or not. However, it won’t take long to find out if the advice saved their skins.     

decision buddies

Buddy systems have prevented losses and accidents on school field trips and swimming lessons since the Stone Age. Now it’s time to implement one for business.

Every professional should have a Decision Buddy, a straight-shooting trustworthy sounding board who can talk you out of potentially embarrassing situations on a reciprocal basis.

That questionable sentence you’re wondering about in the company layoffs memo? The buzzy marketing stunt that may possibly tick off an activist group? The sarcastic shot you want to take at your biggest competitor on Instagram?

Run it by them first.

A Decision Buddy is not paid to say “yes” to every brilliant thing you do. They encourage you when things look good, maybe even refine your thoughts, and stop you from heading off a cliff.

A Decision Buddy's responsibility is a lot like staying sober while your friend drinks: you look out for their safety and they will reciprocate looking out for yours.

The best Decision Buddies have five characteristics:


  • Works In the same or an adjacent industry, but not necessarily the same company.

  • Objective and forthcoming to say what they think and why.

  • Not clouded by their relationship to see things for what they really are.

  • Respected so they won’t receive backlash.

  • Has your best interests at heart, even if it may be hard for you to hear.


Creatives have long had Decision Buddies in their circles.


According to The New Yorker, after director Steven Soderbergh gave candid editing advice to screenwriter Scott Frank when he was directing his first film, the two of them didn’t speak for a while. When Frank got stuck working on his second film, he bit the bullet and called Soderbergh for help. Frank subsequently returned the favor: after seeing a rough cut of Soderbergh’s “Contagion” film, he persuaded the director to shave 45 minutes off the film to make the narrative work.


“The fact that he was right, coupled with the fact that he got to be tough on me, was probably a necessary and helpful step in our reconnecting,” Soderbergh told the magazine.

This relationship underscores why executives should have Decision Buddies too. 


Scare tactics give CEOs and their team nightmares about horrible consequences to keep them up at night.

Bloomberg News reported viral TikTok videos shaming companies for the clunky way they conducted their layoffs  prompted panicked CEOs to hire HR consultants for overhauling and improving their termination scripts and protocols.

Visuals are very important for maximum scare tactic impact. If you print out at least 25-30 articles about Balenciaga’s child marketing scandal, Bud Light’s bungling of Pride Month (which Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary said he would lecture about at business schools), and Adidas’ long-delayed parting of ways with Kanye West after his anti-Semitic rants, and pile them up at an executive meeting, you can make your point clearly:

Don’t think it can’t happen to you.


Underscore it by reading them the opening line to Axios' embarrassing article about fintech start-up Carta:

“Every now and then, a company or leader makes a communications blunder so ghastly that you can't look away.”

There is not an executive alive who would want to be the subject of that kind of damaging attention.

Every time a self-inflicted crisis blows up in the press, share it widely. Trust me – you won’t run out.

One of the quickest CEO implosions in recent memory was Paddy Cosgrave of the global tech industry event Web Summit. His anti-Israel tirade on Twitter shortly after the Hamas invasion of October 7, 2023 forced Google, Intel, Meta, Siemens and others to pull their sponsorships and attendance, leaving the conference in shambles.

Cosgrave’s subsequent resignation letter is a particularly potent document to frame on the wall: “Unfortunately, my personal comments have become a distraction from the event, and our team, our sponsors, our start-ups and the people who attend. I sincerely apologize again for any hurt I have caused.”

batten down the hatches

Imposing certain rules and making some practical assumptions are like plugging the leaks in a corporate dam.



As Mr. Cosgrave discovered, the easiest way for somebody to let off some frustration or anger is to pick up their mobile phone and tweet something they will regret almost instantly. To avoid that, the username and password for a CEO’s X account should be handed over to the head of communications – and the password changed.

LinkedIn accounts should be treated the same way. Since many more executives are familiar with this platform than tweeting, this outlet needs to be tightly controlled as well.

No bigger cautionary tale for LinkedIn than AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes, who sparked widespread outrage after he posted a photo of himself shirtless in a conference room receiving a massage.




It is fairly common for internal memos to be discreetly forwarded by employees to friends and reporters, especially if they have a bone to pick. Reporters love receiving information that was not meant for outside eyes, especially if it reveals corporate plans, embarrassing confessions and setbacks, and abrupt personnel moves.

Either share important announcements in person or buy software which prevents emails from being forwarded. 



While conducting mass layoffs over Zoom has become more common, many employees are taping them on their mobile phones and posting on TikTok. 

“The trend is part of a movement driven by Generation Z and millennials to share every aspect of their lives on social media,” said a recent NY Times article. 

Nothing wrong with that. However, if the execution is botched or comes across as unnecessarily mean or unjustified, that video can backfire as a “how not to” example and hamper future recruiting for top talent. 

Cloudflare was a public punching bag after it let two unknown people terminate employee Brittany Pietsch for an out-of-nowhere “performance review." Pietsch taped her confrontation with these two deer-in-the-headlights who couldn’t provide any information on her performance while she defended her record from the short time she was there.

So make absolutely sure that whoever is doing the job handles every aspect correctly, humanely, and sympathetically. They should pretend that thousands of people are watching.

I dream of a better world where all the stupid things people say and do are kept in the privacy of their own homes and offices. One where there'd be less CEOs apologizing on social media because there would be less to apologize about. A world where investors can sleep through the night knowing they won't wake up to find one of their investments imploded from something stupid they did.

Is it possible? Yes. As long as we are honest with ourselves that we are our own worst enemies, and need to shut up more often. And if we can't, somebody needs to stop us.

"Men are not prisoners of fate,
but prisoners of their own minds."


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