Ugly Baby Syndrome and How it Ruins Yours Social Change Efforts

Ever hear someone share an idea that they thought was pure brilliance during a meeting at your nonprofit or social change organization?

You know the look. Every part of their face smiles and  their eyes light up. It almost happens in slow motion. Their face begins to glow. And just when you were going to give up on the entire meeting altogether you believe that this person has the answer and this thing you faintly recall as hope resurfaces (Hope? Is that you…it’s been so long)…and you wait for the answer…

And then there is a moment of silence to make sure you heard it correctly (and not going crazy) then, just as quickly that flutter of hope ignited, it is quenched by a fiery rage. You spend the next two moments fiddling with your pen to keep yourself from physically harming the person…right in the face.


Because the idea was just…that…terrible.

And you know you can’t even address the million and one reasons why it is a terrible idea because it is Friday afternoon and you spent the last of your energy keeping yourself from catching an assault charge at work.

We have all been there at one time or another. Of course, I exaggerate (at least a little, I hope). But we all know that person who spits out “out of the box” ideas for a “creative solution” (buzz words that often cover lazy thinking). What we don’t know is how this person has no awareness that their idea is complete garbage. How? How could this be possible? How can someone be so out of touch that they don’t know what terrible ideas look like or sound like; and then be proud of  them? Well, it is a condition. This condition is called, the Ugly Baby Syndrome.

Ugly Baby Question for Social Change NJUgly Baby Syndrome

Ugly Baby Syndrome is an analogy I use to explain this painfully awkward experience of overlooking blind-spots to our own ideas or approach to social change. Individuals in social justice movements go through this without realizing how it holds leaders, and in turn our movements, back from realizing greater social change. I liken it to a mother (or dad, okay PC Police…happy?) who is so enthralled by their own baby (aka that idea or particular way of doing things), that  they assume they would be selected and win those Baby Gap Modeling Contests.

So what happens? They don’t get selected (the great proposal doesn’t get approved). The parent becomes CRUSH when they eventually learn that it just didn’t work out and they stop going to GAP forever (I wonder if that is the reason GAP is closing stores and plummeting? They are just pissing off so many moms across the country that they never buy anything from there again…hmmm…its a working theory).

You already know I’m joking, but some might be reading this post and smirk. They are thinking about those 1 or 2 individuals (often managers or directors) who treat their ideas like it was their literal baby. Any form of challenge to them is essentially telling them in real life that their kid is literally ugly! And the following behavior ensues:

  • They get defensive
  • They dismiss any real challenge to assumptions
  • They become shut down future communications
  • They get passive aggressive
  • Threaten your future success or promotions

And the list can go on and on…but here is the hard part and the the real point of this post…I’m here to tell you that, believe it or not, you too, can suffer from UBS…and you probably do, just like everyone else.

So that got awkward.

Sorry. But let me explain.

The trap of Ugly Baby Syndrome is that everyone is that mom who thinks their kid can win the Baby Gap competition; hence the saying, “that baby has a face only a mother could love”. Everyone has blind-spots with their own creation. When the project is “your baby”, you don’t see things the same way as an outsider would, like those managers and directors. This is where self-awareness, courage, and the utter complete loyalty to objective reasoning really saves you. It is up to you to challenge your own assumptions and blind-spots and ask the most difficult question of all:

Is My Baby Ugly?

No, but seriously. Don’t get me wrong, your idea might be cute, but is it cute enough to risk allocating already dwindling resources? I’m not asking if you are sure, I’m asking can someone besides you, who doesn’t know you or your baby, follow the same logic and come to your same conclusion?

If not, it might just be another Baby Gap model reject. At best, it is worth going the extra mile to dig up the information to better make your case and persuade others for more buy-in. Here are some other ways that can help you, or your manager, vet ideas or approaches.

Ways to Uncover Blind Spots for Greater Social Change Solutions

  1. Do you know anyone who has been through this challenge before? Have you asked them how they got through it?
  2. What are some of the top thought leaders saying on the topic? What do they mention? If nothing, how what are some other organizations doing?
  3. Is there someone on your team that has a better handle on the issue (eg. Website design) that you might want to partner in finding solutions? If they have experience, what type of experience do they have? Is it a hobby to this person willing to learn the things you don’t have the time to learn to ensure you are in the right direction?
  4. If this is a major project with a lot of investment? is it worth hiring a consultant for a one time meeting to get a second opinion? What would be the things to avoid or be mindful of? Should you outsource it altogether?

One more thing that makes this harder is that as social change agents, we might be more emotionally attached to our work and way of doing things more than the average person just by the nature of what we do. We aren’t selling just random consumer based products like widgets for a living (no disrespect to widget makers). For whatever reason, this makes it that much harder to deal with it. And with the limited resources we have, we can’t afford NOT to uncover blind spots and take honest feedback and adapt our strategies and ideas accordingly.


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