Thoughts: Death by A Thousand Cuts

At our recent Toastmasters Leadership Institute, also known simply as officer training, we discussed some of the reasons people leave Toastmasters.  Although the numbers vary from survey to survey, about 70 percent leave because they don’t feel their needs are being met or the club is indifferent to their needs.  About 10 to 20 percent find a different way to learn public speaking. Others leave because they have personal issues with other members, some move away, and some pass away.

I think there’s one reason that is often ignored.  I call it the death by a thousand cuts.

(Please do not confuse my concept of death by a thousand cuts with the historical Chinese execution method involving bodily mutilation (eww!)  My view of the thousand cuts is much different, and much more subtle.  It also applies to every area of life, not just Toastmasters.)

Suppose you’re on an island populated by dinosaurs, and these tiny little dinosaurs about 8 inches tall are nipping at you, again, again and again.  Each bite is tiny, but there are lots of little bites adding up.  Pretty soon the pain and the bleeding are going to take you down.

Admittedly that scenario is not very realistic; besides being a scene from a movie, Compsognathus is extinct. On a more practical note, imagine if you were shuffling through papers at work, and got a paper cut and started bleeding.  You could put a bandage on it, and continue working.  Then you get another paper cut, and another, and another.  Pretty soon you’re going to walk away from that stack of papers and do something else, right?

I recently decided to try the Pit Bull look after participating in the St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser to shave heads in solidarity with child victims of cancer. To start the process of becoming bald, an electric trimmer will get your hair fairly short, but at some point you need to get a razor to “Bic it” down to real baldness.  On my first attempt, I managed to cut my scalp in at least a half dozen places, with blood everywhere.  Men can attest that a twin (or more!) blade razor cut is moderately painful and it’s very difficult to stanch the bleeding from such a fine wound.  Overall, my shaved head looked awful, and was pretty painful.  Even with only a few cuts, I knew that what I was doing was not working and I tried something else.

The same can happen in Toastmasters, only with less bleeding.  Eventually, a member can metaphorically get cut enough that he or she realizes something isn’t working, walks away and does something else.  A member dies by a thousand cuts, or, in practice, many fewer.

The cuts can be pretty subtle.  An overly critical evaluation by a poor evaluator can be a cut.  Having an idea snubbed by the leadership can be another.  Offering to help, and then having your help dismissed is yet another.  Trying to celebrate a success, and then having the club leadership take your win back, now there’s a big cut.  I’m sure you can think of others…not being able to get a speaking slot; having others show up late to a meeting you’re leading; not being recognized for your educational awards; being ignored during a speech; being excluded from an internal club (or division or district) clique; the list goes on and on and on.  Those little cuts add up, and pretty soon, that member looks for greener pastures elsewhere.

Toastmaster leaders are taught about Moments of Truth, those tiny little points in time when the impression your club makes is critical.  We’re taught how to find and recruit new members.  We’re taught that we’re all about the member’s needs.  For all this, we’re not taught what NOT to do.  For all the success training, if you’re still doing failure-oriented things, then you’re still going to fail with your members.  If you’re still doing things that metaphorically cut your members, you will still fail.  No amount of positive influence can negate an ongoing thousand cuts.

Naturally, we’re not telepaths and can’t read the minds of our members.  We can’t know all the subtle inferences each member makes that lead to a minor insult and a cut.  We definitely can’t tell what buttons each member has that we can accidentally push out of ignorance.  We can’t see the club through their eyes, or view the club experience through the lens of their life history.  At best we can watch and see who’s bleeding, that is, who is not participating, avoiding interactions, being frustrated, or simply not attending anymore.  Some careful and attentive bandaging might be necessary before you can find out where the cuts are coming from.

If you’re a Toastmaster leader, you need to look out for those little cuts inflicted on your members, especially the obvious and common ones listed above.  Train your members well as evaluators and functionaries.  Give feedback, both public and private where necessary.  Be alert and do whatever is necessary to make sure these cuts don’t happen in the first place.

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I am a deep thinker, an avid reader, and seeker of manhood.