Anyone can occasionally be tone deaf. For others, it’s a chronic condition.

Bill Lumbergh - Office Space

A lot of arrogant bosses have had their true nature caught on video recently. I find it both entertaining, as well as educational.

Here’s a confession:  I really like an occasional dose of schadenfreude.  That’s the fun-to-say-out-loud word for taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. Please don’t take this the wrong way.  I only enjoy it when the person in question so clearly deserves it.  And lately there’s been a lot to like.

You may have already seen some of these real-life examples of arrogant bosses revealing their true nature on video. There was Vishal Garg, CEO of the mortgage lender, who admitted in a company zoom meeting that he was worried about firing many of his 7-billion-dollar company’s employees.  Not out of concern for them, but because “…the last time I did it, I cried; this time I hope to be stronger.” 

And just in case we mistake this for an unintentional slip of the tongue, here’s an excerpt from an email he wrote to his workforce after that previous mass termination: “You are TOO DAMN SLOW.  You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS … STOP IT RIGHT NOW, you are EMBARRASSING ME.” The caps were his.

Then there was the CEO of office furniture giant MillerKnoll, Andi Owen, who during a company-wide town hall meeting exhorted her employees to stop worrying about losing their annual bonuses.  In a clever turn of phrase, she exclaimed that they “…need to leave pity city” after saying, “Don’t ask what are we going to do if we don’t get a bonus? Get the damn 26 million!”

Again, let’s not excuse this as a misplaced attempt at motivation.  According to MarketWatch, Owen earned $4,984,838 herself the previous fiscal year, while the median annual salary in her company is just shy of $45,000.

The same week we learned there was a Pity City, it was revealed that celebrity realtor and Shark Tank actress, Barbara Corcoran, has her own quirky wellness ritual.  During a podcast interview, she trumpeted the joy she experiences by firing employees on Fridays.  “I would stop by someone’s desk on Wednesday and say, ‘Hey! Do you have some time on Friday?’ They’d say, Yes! What time’s good for you?” [I’d say] Great! See ya at 2:00!  I couldn’t wait to fire them.” End quote.

So, yeah!  It is fun to see overpaid and self-important “leaders” get called out for bullying and demeaning the very people their success depends upon. 

Not that it helps their employees; and a person with that large of an ego probably won’t be chastened by becoming a viral mean girl or douchebag for 15 minutes.  But maybe there’s a benefit to seeing these clowns perform for our enjoyment. 

Maybe it provides a moment of pause to look at our reflection in the mirror a little more carefully.  Yes?  Because although we may not be that awful to the people we work with, have there been times when … maybe … we were a bit tone deaf?

That’s another good term.  Tone Deaf:  To be ignorant of others’ feelings and perceptions when speaking to them.  This is not one of those signs that you’re a toxic boss.  It’s not even something to feel guilty about if you’ve inadvertently demonstrated it.  Tone deafness is a common feature of interpersonal communications which everyone is susceptible to.

For instance, we may have spent 5 minutes before starting the Monday morning team meeting talking about our epic vacation.  Or perhaps we shared the details of the big kitchen renovation we just completed at our house.  Although these are common topics of conversation with friends, they may not be appropriate to discuss with people whose paychecks we sign.

Here’s an example for all the golfers reading this.  It’s fun to recount that birdie we made on the Par 3 with the elevated green.  However, most people don’t have the ability to take 5 hours on Saturday away from their young kids and household chores. The same goes for morning yoga, spa days, and second-row tickets to Springsteen.

Cases of tone deafness can be more subtle. 

When we’re interacting with the people we work with, it’s important to understand they may have a different perspective of their role in the organization than we do.  If we’re giving them advice on how to resolve a problem, is it practical – or are we viewing the task from our own elevated position and telling them how we would handle it?

There’s a difference between how I, as the business owner, would speak to a customer or vendor and how my employee (within the limits of her job) would communicate.  Are we making the effort to put ourselves in their shoes – or do we just think that everyone wears HOKA’s?

It’s not my intent to be self-righteous or preachy.  Anyone can be occasionally tone deaf.  How do you think I came up with these examples?  I also don’t subscribe to the notion that leaders have to constantly watch what they say, or risk being labeled a bad boss.  I just think that it’s valuable to be mindful of how we’re communicating with the people we work with. 

There exists a lot of grey areas across the professional environment; and while openness and authenticity are proven methods for building trust, leaders have an added responsibility to pay attention to other’s perceptions.  The easiest and most effective way to practice that is to maintain awareness of our words.

Oh, and if you suddenly get the urge to send an email in ALL CAPS … go get an ice cream first.