CEO’s Letter: “Cruise Control” and Leadership

By Elliot H. Clark

Happy New Year to all our readers! As we welcome 2021, I will spare you the retrospective on 2020. Suffice to say it was a miserable year. We thank our readers for your engagement with our content, and we hope we were able to provide you with information that helped you deal with the numerous crises that challenged human resources.

At the end of 2020, one story exploded across national headlines that was a fitting end to the year. It involved Hollywood, the pandemic, and audio files that make for delightful fodder for both news and entertainment media. Tom Cruise, the star of countless Hollywood hits, had a screaming, ranting fit at the production crew of “Mission Impossible 7” -yes, that’s a “7” -and the world could not stop talking about it.

Within days, the audio went viral on social media and was played on every major news and entertainment network. As the producer of “Mission Impossible 7,” Cruise was outraged that his production crew, which is comprised of hundreds of people per day of shooting and thousands in total, was not following the COVID-19 safety protocols as required by management. Most of the news about the ranting and raving and the endless speculation about the cause of it overlooked one salient feature. The fact is that Tom Cruise -whether you like him or not -was absolutely right.

First, let’s try to “de-Hollywood” the issue. This project could generate over half a billion dollars of revenue worldwide -maybe more than a billion if it is well received. It costs hundreds of millions in cost of goods sold (production) and employs thousands of people globally. It is a big business. In any other business, the stakes would be equally high for maintaining workplace safety. As an investor and an executive responsible for managing production, Tom Cruise should have been concerned about worker defiance of clear workplace safety guidelines. Many other companies are coping with the challenges of ongoing operations and many more will confront the implementation and enforcement of safety protocols as they return to the office. In short, the pandemic has and will affect everyone.

The problem with the case of Tom Cruise and why this is so interesting for an HR publication is that his message was right, but the mode and modulation of his delivery of that message were completely wrong.

Many studies of behavioral science in the workplace have shown that yelling, threatening, and bullying behavior has, at best, short-term benefits. In fact, some studies show that you can threaten workers into higher productivity. This is virtually guaranteed, but it only lasts about 90 days. These studies are older; today, bullying may get you less. Ergo, it is never enough to just have the right message; you have to make sure that message is heard, respected, and abided.

Within a week of this story breaking on December 15, 2020, there were follow-up stories about resignations and unrest on the set. These are highly skilled professionals and many of them have considerable financial means. They earn enough income to leave and have the savings to wait for their next gig even in a down economy. The leadership of “Mission Impossible 7” should have considered that before having that kind of destructive meeting.

I’m sure that virtually everyone reading this column is aware of this story, so I am not trying to inform here. I am also pretty sure that most HR people agree with me about the need to modulate messages. In fact, Hollywood often portrays HR people in comical ways as muted, humorless, repressed, and uptight, but in truth, HR leaders understand that everyone is watching all the time.

So, my real purpose in highlighting this incident is because it’s a very public case study on leadership and communication. This example can be shared with all levels of management to ensure that the workforce, even when being disciplined or chastised, is treated with respect. The story also demonstrates the negative fallout that arises when they are not, and how it can derail culture and management’s agenda. There are no do-overs and often, the damage is permanent.

As for Tom Cruise, in the wake of his public meltdown on set, rebuilding the relationships with his production staff may be his new mission impossible.

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