6 Lessons You Can Learn From Ellen’s Apology

Pictured: Ellen in what I like to call her “Sorry Suit”

Toxic workplaces: we’ve all worked somewhere that seemed to drain our happiness, but when the place is a nationally televised talk show featuring a personality with a message of “Be kind,” it hits different.

For those who weren’t aware of the workplace toxicity reports on Ellen, here’s a quick refresher:

One current employee and 10 former staffers claimed they endured a culture of racism, fear and intimidation. They blamed senior managers on the show for allowing the behavior.

The allegations in the Buzzfeed report included former employees saying they were fired for taking time off for medical leave or bereavement. — Source: Today.com

36 former employees of the show reported “handsy” behavior, asking for sexual favors, and groping by multiple producers and higher-ups at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” — Source: Insider.com

This coupled with comedian Kevin T. Porter’s viral tweet thread requesting stories about Ellen being mean, it seemed as though the world was piling on Ellen DeGeneres, and rightfully so. It’s one thing to run a toxic workplace environment, it’s quite another to run a toxic workplace environment while asking your audience to be kind, which is why the stories got so much traction and #cancelellen was trending.

Here are six (plus one) lessons I learned while watching Ellen apologize.

Lesson 1: When confronted with reports of a toxic work environment, address it immediately

When Ellen returned today, she was expected to address the elephant in the room, and she did, but the Buzzfeed report was released in July, it’s now two months later. Imagine your workplace’s environment being so negative that employees reported it to your local news organization, then you disappear into your office for two months before addressing it publicly. Whether you’re the culprit of the mistreatment of others or not, it’s your job to address criticisms and complaints as though you’re the perpetrator. You set the tone. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, other people are counting on you to say admit that, and assure them with your words and actions that you’re actively pursuing a solution. I live by the quote, “This wasn’t my fault, but it’s my responsibility now,” and if you’re a leader, you should too. It gives you power, shows you’re willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility, and gives people the courage to come to you if something is stopping them from doing their jobs to their best of their abilities. During her statement, Ellen admitted to fumbling the responsibility that comes with her power — a step in the right direction.

Lesson 2: Be open to vulnerability

“Being known as ‘The Be Kind Lady’ is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice out there: if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with ‘The Be Kind Lady.’” — Ellen DeGeneres

In a position of power, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously in order to maintain an air of confidence and control. If you make a mistake and you’re looking for forgiveness from your team, your customers, or your community, it is incredibly helpful to show your human side. We all make mistakes, and admitting that is a huge step in winning back the trust of others. By admitting that she’s not always kind, that she gets sad, mad, anxious, frustrated, and impatient, and that she’s a work in progress, Ellen delivers the message that at least she has some self-awareness — a fantastic starting point.

Lesson 3: Use humor without minimizing the situation

To open her monologue, Ellen broke the ice with a little bit of humor:

“How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was great!”

Then, when accepting responsibility, she did it again:

“This is the Ellen DeGeneres show, I am Ellen DeGeneres. My name is there. My name is there. My name is… on underwear.”

Some may assert that this is minimizing some of these serious allegations, but the humor is well-placed, and is mostly targeted toward herself. Though not all apologies and course corrections need a dose of humor, be sure to use it to point out your own flaws, mistakes, and vulnerabilities, but also be sure to use it as a springboard or stepping stone toward making changes.

Lesson 4: Offer gratitude openly

Though I wish she would’ve spent more time showing gratitude toward her employees, Ellen at least made mention of the people who allow her to do what she does best: make people laugh. As a leader, we need to do this every day and as much as possible, hence the italics for emphasis. We cannot reach our full potential without the contributions of others, and to help them reach their potential, be vocal about pointing out the positive impacts they have on your day, whether in public, or 1-on-1.

Lesson 5: Communicate a vision

When offering regret, admitting to mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, be sure to communicate that you’re committed to your original why. If you are mistreating employees, putting profits over people, and allowing hate in your workplace, you’ve lost your vision. When you ask yourself why your organization exists, the answer is always to serve people, and those people especially include your employees.

Lesson 6: Commit to change

“I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all the people that we help every day.” — Ellen DeGeneres

From this quote, for example, Ellen and her employees will know if she is actually committed to her vision because if they don’t feel going to work is an escape. If they don’t laugh while they’re at work, then it’s much harder to bring those things to their viewers. If your vision at your organization is to help your community, that should be the first thing on your mind when an employee is falling short of your expectations. If your actions don’t match your words, then your apology means nothing and you’ve learned nothing. We all make mistakes, but the only way to regain trust and show that you’ve grown is to act on your words.

Bonus Lesson: Follow up

I would love to see Ellen deliver a follow-up monologue stating all of the ways the working conditions have improved. Transparency is key here. If you want to mean what you say, push yourself to give updates on all of the changes you’ve made and ask for honest feedback. When people come to you with ideas, even if it seems like they’re attacking or complaining, keep in mind that they’re doing it because they want you to be better, which makes them better too. Be open to asking for help if you need it and you feel you aren’t keeping your word. Ellen’s latest stand-up special is called Relatable, and one of the most relatable things she, and you, can do as a leader is to be a vulnerable and flawed human being who needs reminders to “be kind.”

We could all use that reminder nowadays.

What If COVID-19 Isn’t A Bad Thing?

Source: Discoversociety.org

That title makes me sound like someone going into a downward spiral to madness. Don’t worry, I won’t be formulating some diabolical scheme to replace the flu vaccine with vials of COVID, but I do think this is a question we have to ask ourselves.

Sure, the effects of the virus are less than desirable, and this has shown us we have a lot of growing to do in terms of virology, our political and economic systems, and, you know, being better humans. But in calling this virus as simply “bad,” or “negative,” or a “disaster,” we limit our potential to grow beyond it. ” I’m not a lunatic — I swear — I’m not going to label this pandemic as “good” either. You see, this unexpected worldwide disruption that threw a sense of stasis into chaos is neither good nor bad. The virus doesn’t pick and choose who to infect, who to kill, and what side to take in a political debate, but our need to answer the definitive question of “good vs. bad” has skewed how we view it, feel about it, and deal with it. It also impacts people’s perceptions of other people. Somehow, a “common enemy” has created more of an “us vs. them” dynamic than the “we’re in this together” narrative nearly every marketing campaign adopted at the beginning of it all.

Nice try, Southwest Airlines — looks like we aren’t free to move around the country.

Binary thinking destroys nuance, and when dealing with a never-before-seen health crisis, nuance is needed in order for us to generate creative solutions more than ever. One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes sums it up pretty succinctly:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Our brain absorbs so much data every day, we categorize it subconsciously based upon our conditioning, so when we decide that something is either good or bad, right or wrong, or Republican or Democrat, our brains search for the details that support our position, and we act on that information. This severely limits possibilities, so that if someone is arguing on behalf of a conflicting opinion, it becomes nearly impossible to see logic in their perspective. At the same time, they have no idea how you can be so daft.

What’s the solution?

When you hear yourself shove an obstacle, another person, or some opinion into the good or bad categories, stop yourself. Instead, for example, say COVID-19 is an opportunity. If you have the time, make a list of as many ways your situation can be an opportunity, and benefit from an expanded, nuanced perspective that wasn’t even a possibility moments before. Good and bad create a limited perception of the problem, but by labeling it as an opportunity, it opens our minds up to waaaaay more possibilities.

For example, COVID-19 has opened up opportunities to:

  1. Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable
  2. Practice adapting to sudden adversity
  3. Lean into new technologies that have the power to connect people from across the globe
  4. Develop more of a sense of meaning in people’s work
  5. Work remotely, reducing commuting time that can add unnecessary stressors to people’s days
  6. Educate people on disseminating the truth of online content
  7. Start new conversations about new problems that need addressed
  8. Empathize with and be kind to others — we’re all going through this
  9. Adapt new leadership strategies that emphasize the creativity of the people around you
  10. Discover new mediums for producing content

See what I mean? This list could keep going and going and…

Except we’re so focused on outcomes, being right, and forcing abstract events into categories, that most of us aren’t even discussing how many opportunities exist right in front of our eyes. We’re just choosing not to see them.

Without adversity, there can be no growth, but if we spend all of our time cementing our own opinions with reasons why the current crisis is bad, we miss out. Take some time and ask yourself, “How is my situation an opportunity to be kind, to connect with people unlike me, to be open to new ideas, to address this obstacle differently, and to try something new?” This changes what you see, how you feel, what you do, and what you get. Like those early marketing campaigns said, “We’re all in this together.” It’s time to act like it.

Question The System, Solve The Symptoms

The world is desperate for a coronavirus cure — we want life to get back to normal, but I can’t help but feel like we haven’t exhausted all options.

Has no one tried leeches?

If you think that sounds absurd, you’re right: leeches would only alleviate the symptoms of COVID, and not address the cause.

Many of the solutions to problems that our government, medical professionals, and workplace leadership propose involve treating symptoms of problems, rather than addressing the causes. This is just as effective as using leeches to cure, well, anything.

Addressing symptoms creates short-term results, and it can serve as a stopgap to solving the actual cause of the problem, but it won’t actually solve the problem.

When I was in college, I smashed the transmission of my Saturn driving over a curb on a night of bad decisions, causing a massive fluid leak. Instead of paying for a whole new transmission, I decided to pay a mechanic to weld it back together, which stopped the leak, but a few months later, the transmission completely blew and I had to get a new car altogether. Because I wasted my resources on a short-term fix, I ended up paying more in the long run.

Now, I don’t know what “getting to the core” of our world’s health crisis is, but I do know the long-term solution to most societal problems is to overhaul our education system. Did that solution come out of left field? Maybe in terms of this post, but our current education system as it stands is hampering our human potential. We can ban guns, offer universal basic income, and elect different representatives all we want, but these are addressing the symptoms of an even greater problem.

Why?

Our education system is designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution, a time when humans took on the role of robots in factories to complete specialized tasks, so schools taught students how to be compliant and fit into those roles. Now, we’re entering the automation revolution, where actual robots are taking those jobs and creating a more efficient production process. In the short-term, this may seem like a bad thing: “THEY’RE TAKING OUR JOBS!” But in the long-term, this can be an amazing development in human history because it frees up millions of people from doing repetitive, simple tasks that numbs their brains, allowing them the chance to engage the natural human inclination to do creative work. But if schools keep producing compliant humans, the only solution humans will see is, “WE NEED TO GET OUR JOBS BACK!” This outcome is nothing more than addressing a symptom created by the obsoleteness of our education system.

Humans aren’t meant to work in factories. We operate at our best when we’re working together to find novel ways to solve problems, but today’s education is a one-size-fits-all system that emphasizes output over creativity, and the importance of the individual over the group.

If you work in a factory, and an employee has a creative idea to make work more fun, the manager is bound to shoot that idea down because it means a shift in roles, and perhaps short-term losses. In fact, that employee may be viewed as a troublemaker. Our society questions the innovative individual, rather than the system that stifles their potential.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that works against us in a 21st century economy.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that demeans anyone who dare question that system.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that steers people away from doing jobs that are mentally and spiritually engaging to jobs that are mentally and spiritually draining.

And this isn’t even an issue in this year’s presidential election.

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Me when I came to the above realization

Billions of people around the world don’t think they’re talented, intelligent, or creative, not because they aren’t, but because they’ve been shoved into a system that tells them they’re not.

The world is changing so rapidly that, if there isn’t a fundamental revolution in how we educate ourselves over the next decade, problems like climate change, equality, and pandemics will make today’s problems seem like child’s play. This isn’t meant to be foreboding and apocalyptic, it’s meant to be a call to action.

Education reform begins with learning how human beings think and behave, then leaning into our natural inclinations and creativity to address the problem with an actual solution: teach students how to think, howto work together, and how to engage their creativity. Once we do that, there’s no limit to our potential.

Until then, we’re stuck in a system that emphasized job titles, individualism, and output as metrics for success, while we argue over which symptoms to solve by throwing stupid amounts of money at them… we might as well be using leeches.