It just became public that Steve Whitmire, the voice behind the beloved character Kermit the Frog for the last 27 years, was fired late last year. He was only the second person to voice Kermit, following the death of Muppets founder (and original voice) Jim Henson.
"I have remained silent the last nine months in hopes that the Disney company might reverse their course," wrote Whitmire in a recent blog post.
In an interview with The New York Times, Whitmire says he feels betrayed, insisting that Disney (which acquired the Muppets in 2004 from the Jim Henson Company) "gave him no warning" before telling him he would be replaced, mostly due to his communication style.
"They were uncomfortable with the way I had handled giving notes to one of the top creative executives on the [Muppets] series," Whitmire told the Times. "Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals," he said. "It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don't feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that."
But Disney executives told a different story.
"The role of Kermit the Frog is an iconic one that is beloved by fans and we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of that character very seriously," said Debbie McClellan, head of the Muppets Studio (a division of Disney), who also spoke to the Times. "We raised concerns about Steve's repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years, and he consistently failed to address the feedback. The decision to part ways was a difficult one which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support."
Jim Henson's daughter Lisa Henson, who is currently president of the Jim Henson Company, added that Whitmire "played brinkmanship very aggressively in contract negotiations." Brian Henson, the company's chairman and son of the late founder, also spoke of Whitmire's combative communication style, saying "he'd send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing, and attacking the director."
Of course, there's no way to know what really happened. In cases like these, there is often plenty of blame to pass around to both parties. But after considering both sides of the story, there are major lessons to be learned--and they have to do with emotional intelligence.
What We All Can Learn
Emotional intelligence is a person's ability to identify emotions (in both themselves and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior. Simply put, it's the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.
Employer or employee, here are a few takeaways from this sad situation.
1. Perception is reality.
Both sides agree that one of the main sources of friction was Whitmire's critical feedback. Of course, without seeing the notes or emails in question, it's impossible to know if Whitmire was being truly belligerent.
He obviously felt fully justified in his words and actions. Nonetheless, could it be that he underestimated the emotional impact his criticism had on others?
Although most of us experience the same range of emotions, the words and actions that trigger those emotions differ for us as individuals. We can quickly become blind to the way our communication style is perceived by others.
To combat this, it's helpful to seek perspective from an outside source, especially when you're involved in an emotional situation at work. Finding a mentor or unbiased party can help you see the big picture and adjust your communication when necessary.
2. It's possible to be clear and direct while also being kind and tactful.
Regarding Whitmire's employers, the question arises: How effective were Disney and the Muppets Studio in clearly communicating their concerns, as well as the potential consequences?
At one time or another, we've all experienced feedback sessions where our employer is so ambiguous, or the intended message so clouded, it's impossible to take anything of value away.
That's why it's imperative that company leaders avoid sending mixed messages.
By all means, sincere and specific praise should be the foundation upon which you build your communication. But you also need to be clear and direct when it comes to negative feedback. Tell people not only what they've done wrong, but how they can improve. When sharing your concerns, give them the chance to respond. Be open to the possibility you've missed something, or even that you somehow contributed to a damaging situation.
And if they refuse to change, make the consequences clear--so there's no surprise when you follow through.
Done right, this could help prevent statements like this one from Whitmire:
"This is my life's work. The only thing I've done my whole adult life, and it's just been taken away from me. I just couldn't understand why we couldn't resolve this."
I guess it truly isn't easy being green.