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The “Genius Pass” & Other Toxic BS

I always loved the show Arrested Development. In fact, after the last US election I vowed to only comment on US politics on Facebook using gifs from the show, to avoid contributing to the vitriolic, overwhelming, and (in my opinion) futile, political debates going on in my feed (as a Canadian I’m truly just yelling into the void about this stuff). Turns out this Jason Bateman gif works for more recent events too.

giphy

This week, a NYT interview with part of the Arrested Development cast ahead of the show’s reboot took a turn for the awful when the reporter asked about whether sexual harassment accusations cast member Jeffrey Tambor has faced on his other show, Transparent, would impact his continued work on Arrested Development.

Short version: the male cast members who were present for the interview, Bateman chief among them, took the opportunity to vouch for Tambor and largely dismiss volatile interactions Tambor had initiated with Arrested Development cast member and veteran actress Jessica Walter.

At points, Bateman interrupted Walter to reframe the incidents as normal on-set conflict, or compare them to family in-fighting. That was despite Walter’s comment that she had never been yelled at like Tambor yelled at her in 60 years on sets. At one point she cries, in clear distress. It was ugly, but you can read the whole transcript here if you are so inclined.

The subsequent outcry on social media resulted in a quick and fairly thorough apology from Bateman and other male cast members, but it left a lot of people (including me) wondering how he and his cast-mates could have been so profoundly tone-deaf and dismissive, given all that’s happened in the entertainment industry, and the world at large, over the last year.

And yet, as Linda Holmes asks in her excellent article on this incident, why this story? That is, why does this particular tale feel so awful when we’ve read about so many other more egregious and shocking accusations of abuse and harassment?

Holmes argues that it offers a particularly complete and unfiltered example of what she calls the “genius pass”, and what many of us in HR or leadership may refer to as the problem of brilliant jerks.

“This spoke to me as an example of the genius pass that so many people in creative fields receive, where your process — your “atypical behavior,” which in this case includes admitting that you yelled at three people until one cried, one said they were afraid of you and one said it was like no other yelling she’d experienced in a 60-year career — is simply what it takes for you to do your art.”

Of course, the genius pass is not exclusively handed to those in creative roles. Brilliant jerks arise in any environment that tolerates them, most often the result of over-estimating the short-term cost of firing them, and under-estimating the accrued, indirect costs their presence has on culture, morale, productivity, turn-over, and potential law suits.

In my opinion, Holmes’ article is also a reminder that many don’t see the connection between brilliant jerks (which most of us will have encountered as some point in our careers) and our current focus on workplace sexual harassment. To be clear, some brilliant jerks may engage in sexual harassment, but the connection I’m pointing to is one that is slightly less obvious.

Culture is…

Your organization’s culture is (sadly) not what you say it is on your Careers page. You can’t ‘design it” from blank canvas. Culture is the result of all the everyday behaviors that you reward, encourage, tolerate, and ignore.

Excusing brilliant jerks as being “difficult, but worth it”, or engaging in willful blindness about their existence in your workplace, is a slippery slope. It sends a strong signal to employees that people in your organization will not be held accountable for their actions. If you’re asking people to report incidents of sexual harassment at the same time as someone’s being given a genius pass while doling out incivility and disrespectful behaviour, don’t be surprised if your employees are skeptical. An organization that tolerates abuse until it crosses a threshold into the realm of sexual harassment is not one that is going to engender trust among your workforce.

The increased focus on sexual harassment in organizations is necessary and deserved, but treating this conduct as if it’s an isolated occurrence, rather than the outcome of a culture in which various abuses of power are ignored and permitted to persist, is a mindset unsuited for the world we now live in. Evolving beyond this simplistic and reductionist view is critical to effectively address not only behavior which neatly fits into our definition of “sexual harassment” but also abusive and destructive behavior that does not, but contributes to a toxic environment in which harassment can thrive. Holmes writes:

“The accusations of sexual harassment at Transparent are profoundly grave, and the story from Walter is different. But the idea that a bright line that separates sexual harassment from other verbal abuse is a line that separates a firing offense from just a normal part of getting your work done is absurd.”

On Hearing and Not Hearing Complaints

Finally, the NYT interview provides a disturbing but informative window into the reaction that targets of abuse can face when voicing concerns. In the interview, you can hear the way in which Bateman and other cast members reframe Walter’s own experience of being yelled at, and in doing so repeatedly undermine its significance. Bateman says, multiple times: “Not to belittle it…” and even “”Not to say that, you know, you had it coming…”

In this instance, all parties present for the interview agreed that the incident had occurred, and still Walter witnesses her own experience being reshaped into something different, unimportant, maybe even deserved, in real time (and in front of a reporter!).

It reminded me of Sara Ahmed’s research on complaint, and her observation that complaints are almost always heard as negative and destructive, even if they are offered in hopes of improving a shared culture, so that “to locate a problem is to become the location of a problem”.

Investigating and addressing harassment complaints is the absolute minimum required of workplaces (legally and ethically). However, if we re-victimize and alienate complainants as we do that, there is no victory. You can’t create a workplace inhospitable to harassment and abuse by meeting the basic threshold established by the law.  It takes a clearer and more expansive view of the behaviour you want to cultivate, and the willingness to see what you’re currently tolerating that stands at odds with that vision.

Recommended Reading

The respect of personhood vs the respect of authority – Jason Kottke, Kottke.org

Kottke writes about how we confuse what people mean by “respect”:

“people mistakenly conflate two distinct definitions of “respect” when relating to and communicating with others.

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person” and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.”

GDPR – Is it over?

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Not sure of source of this genius GDPR meme (not my creation)

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

 

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  1. Crisis of confidence – hrmannz.com

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