Ellen DeGeneres is called the queen of nice. Her bright blue eyes light up the stage and her impish smile lets us know when to laugh. The theme of her daytime TV show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, is “be kind.” She is also enormously generous too. But in February 2020 word came out that The Ellen Show is a toxic workplace. It is the secret that people had talked about for a while. But on August 18, 2020, three of her top producers left the show, and Warner Media started an investigation. Warner Media is not investigating Ellen. However, according to an investigative BuzzFeed article, there is a long history of Ellen being unkind, cold, and mean. How did the queen of nice become unkind, cold, and mean?
Ellen is not the only one accused of creating a toxic workplace. Major General Dawn Dunlop is the highest-ranking Air Force female fighter-pilot. The Air Force fired her because she created a toxic workplace. She was director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Special Access Programs.
As reported in Stars & Stripes, “In isolation, each of these instances may be viewed as Maj. Gen. Dunlop having an occasional bad day, having infrequent difficulties communicating her intent with her staff, or reacting badly in a time-stressed situation,” the IG investigators wrote. “However, cumulatively, and given the totality of the facts and circumstances, the preponderance of evidence supports Maj. Gen. Dunlop engaged in a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward her staff … in a way that was pervasive, personal, public, and disproportional.”
Both female and male leaders are liable to create a toxic workplace
Ubisoft, the maker of Assassin’s Creed, recently lost a number of its top staff in Toronto. The creative director and head of human resources left. Present and past employees accused leaders of harassment, abuse, assault, and sexual harassment. News reports make it sound like a boy’s club with hazing and harassment, parties, and drinking. Until now nothing was done about it.
Placido Domingo, one of the greatest operatic tenors, was accused of sexual harassment. An investigation found credible evidence of abuse. At first, he apologized if he had offended anyone. Now he denies that he abused his power and is trying to clear his name. He resigned from the leadership of the Los Angeles Opera, which he started, and was fired from the Washington National Opera.
Back in the 1970s, amazing young James Levine became the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Even then there was talk of James Levine sexually harassing young men. Only in the time of #MeToo were the complaints heard. After 40 years on the podium, he lost his job.
Neither of these men, with so much power over people’s musical careers, realize the consequences of that power. They offered rare opportunities to young and vulnerable artists who could not say “No” without jeopardizing their careers.
Workplace abuse is common. Estimates range from 30% to 60% of workers have been the target of bullying or harassment or witnessed it.
Dr. Judith Blando found that 75% of workers were affected by bullying or harassment. Employee turnover alone is estimated to cost the US economy $223billion per year. One worker in five leaves their job because the workplace is toxic. Most developed countries, Israel, Japan, England, the US, and others, have active academic research programs to discover the causes, consequences, and cures for the toxic workplace.
What is going on that these powerfully creative, talented, and hard-working leaders create a toxic workplace that is hell for others?
With an eye to the effects of power unrestrained, we can easily see what happens to both workers and leaders.
One of my patients started as a salesman and has now taken over the company. He said that he noticed that he is irritated with people, that it feels like they intrude on him, and he ignores them. Often he feels angry at people over nothing. He wanted to know what happened to him that he cannot continue being good friends with the people who only a short time ago were his best buds.
When I was about fifty, having arrived at an age of respect, and power, and influence in my profession, I started driving aggressively. I felt that I could go first and not have to wait for others, and that speed laws didn’t apply to me. There were a couple of police officers who disagreed with me about that and gave me speeding tickets. I’d never been an aggressive driver before and have not been since I understood what was happening with my internal sense of power.
“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” Edmund Burke
Power comes from the ability to provide or withhold information, praise, attention, rewards, access, privileges, and so on. The ability to do that comes from your position in the hierarchy in the organization. It often comes in the guise of controlling employees’ behavior, rewarding accomplishment, and punishing failure. In other words, power comes with the territory. For the extraordinarily creative and talented person, the power comes from knowing more and seeing more than anyone else.
What does power do to the person who has it? Research by Dacher Keltner and others describes the effects of power on people, as well as the effects of being made powerless. As I discovered, it can make you aggressive. It also starts to shape your relationships with others. You become hyper-focused on goals and you forget the people who help you reach those goals. People are only important to the extent and as long as they are helping you do something. In a mental state that is like information overload, you end up having snap judgment and being cold.
And what is so harmful is thoughtless social behaviors. Your snap judgment and quick responses result in cutting or mean remarks, jokes that aren’t funny, racist or classist remarks, all the way to being sexually inappropriate. And to make matters worse, you lose your ability to read social cues that tell you that while you thought your joke was hilarious, others didn’t. You think you are sexually appealing when you are not, and don’t read the cues that people don’t appreciate your flirting. What seems to you like something that was done consensually was not consensual. The target of your affection is like the artists at the opera who cannot say “No.”
What happens to the person in a less powerful position?
Self-esteem plummets and you feel anxious and depressed. Insomnia sets in and work productivity deteriorates. You make mistakes and feel overwhelmed. You begin to focus on threats and punishment instead of your job tasks.
To avoid punishment, you also focus on the goals of the powerful person, even to the extent of becoming sycophantic. Your thought processing becomes conscious, effortful, and constrained. Your reasoning is deliberative and your thinking is complex. All of that takes enormous energy and makes you very slow at work. You feel exhausted. And your social behavior becomes uptight. You are not able to participate socially or to have fun. People come for mental health care with Generalized Anxiety, Major Depression, and PTSD as a result of a toxic workplace.
How can you deal with leaders who create a toxic workplace?
There are usually two things that happen to the toxic boss. Often nothing happens. And sometimes they get fired. Major General Dunlop was fired. But there are other fighter pilots and other officers capable of taking her position. A lot of unique, talented, and creative people have leadership problems. Organizations often don’t have a good remedy. How do you fire Ellen? If you do, you no longer have an Ellen Show. The financial losses are catastrophic.
These cases often become a legal quagmire. Employees file law suites and you end up paying off large sums. You have protracted negotiations with the leader and get lots of bad publicity.
There is another way.
The corporation can take responsibility. It can offer to pay for the medical and mental health care of people affected. There are mental health providers who specialize in treating injured workers. If there is no adversarial legal action, the employees can keep in touch with their colleagues at work and not suffer the added injury of losing their work community. And then the company can welcome them back to work.
Often the company responds by shuffling executives around. But that doesn’t change much. The company needs a change in workplace culture and an engaged workforce. The company can mandate Civil Workplace training and enforce that standard of conduct. The Bullying Workplace Institute has a variety of resources for a company that needs to change.
Dr. Carol Dwek researched “Growth Mindset“ for the classroom. However, it is also applicable to the workplace. With a “fixed mindset,” people believe that they are intelligent or unintelligent, worthwhile or not worthwhile. In a toxic work environment, people adopt negative self-perceptions as fixed traits.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” says Carol Dweck. This can become the culture of the company. There are many resources available online including the NeuroLeadership Institute.
Intensive Psychotherapy for the leader
It has been my experience that high-level people prefer to enter psychotherapy to restore their humanity, to bring balance back into their lives, and to be the empathic, joyful, and creative people they once were instead of losing their job and status. With the focused work of Intensive Psychotherapy, leaders may be ready to return to the workplace within weeks.
Reconciliation between the injured workers and the leader is possible once they are both made whole by their therapy. This process is based on the concepts of Peace & Reconciliation used in Northern Ireland, and Restorative Justice that is used in penal systems around the world. Reconciliation restores the humanity of both those who were injured and the person who harmed them. It is a powerful process that creates the base for a healthy workplace.
The power difference between workers and leadership, often supported by an enormous difference in pay, can be dangerous for both. Leaders who are abusive are often unaware of or justify their behavior. Usually, everyone, the workers, the company, and the leaders, lose. When the leaders are not only powerful but creative and talented, the losses can be catastrophic. There is another way. This is a human circumstance. We can deal with it in a human way through healing and reconciliation making everyone whole. The company can be stronger and a much better place to work.