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Tone-Deaf CEOs: When Corporate Leaders Fail to Read the Room

Recently there’s been a spate of CEOs getting called out for being tone-deaf toward their employees. You can read about who they are and what they said in Allison Morrow’s piece for CNN, "These CEOs offer a master class in how to not read the room" but please keep in mind, this kind of tone-deaf leadership isn’t simply a nasty side effect of COVID, it’s always been there. It’s the people they lead who have changed!


Tone-Deaf CEOs: When Corporate Leaders Fail to Read the Room
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Morrow speculates, “With workers “quiet quitting,” unionizing, and just generally, like, advocating for their own well-being and refusing exploitative demands that executives got away with more easily in the past, is it possible we’ve broken the C-suite’s brains? Has their relative wealth and physical isolation during the pandemic sapped them of their normal-person empathy?


Interesting questions to be sure, but let’s get real here, it wasn’t the pandemic that sapped these CEOs of “normal person empathy” – empathy was never high on the list of valued leadership traits until recently, so it’s questionable as to whether they had any to begin with or simply locked it away.


“Especially in a crisis, people look to leadership for answers. Their actions and words matter. When a leader’s words are on point, we are open to the message or patient to hear more. On the flip side, we jump to the conclusion that the leader is disconnected and clueless. Especially when the message is indifferent, insensitive, or self-serving,” writes Connie Wedel in The Anatomy of Tone-Deaf Leadership for The People Development Magazine.


Conversely, and of greater importance, “Gifted leaders understand the contextual nature of influential communication. They grasp and synthesize the circumstances around a particular setting. Smart leaders astutely adjust their messaging to fit the context of any situation.”

Way back in 2016 – pre-pandemic BTW––LinkedIn published "Are You A Tone-Deaf-Leader?", by Stephen Graves, Owner of Coaching by Cornerstone, in which he points out that “In leadership, tone deafness is like a virus—you can get it through no fault of your own, but it’s your response to it that determines how bad it gets.”


Graves suggests that tone-deafness is a result of confidence gone wild…to the point where this type of leader will embrace their own voice at the expense of all others, and offers up these three tips for improving or avoiding tone-deafness altogether:

  1. Recognize your weaknesses. Lean into your limitations. We have a bent toward valuing strength and ability so most of us don’t like doing things we know we’re not great at. But that’s how we improve. Acknowledging your weaknesses is also very attractive to others, particularly those who have a high view of authenticity.

  2. Be relentless about finding the best ideas. Just find them. Learn to be agnostic on the source. Sure, leadership will often be the source of the good ideas. But not always.

  3. Don’t just listen; engage. Make feedback conversations a dialogue. These dialogues display greater empathy for the speaker and ensure a greater depth of thought and understanding.

And EMBRACE EMPATHY!!! It’s how humans connect on a more meaningful level.

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