Tom Cruise's Covid rant was the right idea expressed completely the wrong way

The Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise made headlines this week for allegedly berating “Mission: Impossible 7” crew members for breaking Covid-19 protocols. The audio, leaked to The Sun,a British newspaper, captured a man identified as Cruise shouting at members of the crew, “If I see you do it again, you’re f—ing gone. And if anyone in this crew does it, that’s it.” It’s unclear what Covid-19 rules the crew members broke.

It’s imperative that leaders handle problems one-on-one, in a calm and understanding manner. The rant heard around the world is actually a cautionary tale.

The filming of “Mission: Impossible 7” was halted due to Covid-19 in February, but it has since resumed shooting in Europe following appeals from Cruise. In his outburst, he also yelled about his role in getting the film industry running again. “I’m on the phone with every f—ing studio at night, insurance companies, producers!”

The message underlying the now-infamous rant is understandable, even laudable: People need to rigorously follow Covid-19 restrictions in order to keep others safe and allow work to continue to the extent possible. And the stress underlying it is understandable, too: Heightened anxiety about keeping people safe and employed as the film industry attempts to reopen is a recipe for stress on set.

But as sound as this message may be — especially as collective responsibility is important in ensuring Covid-19 precautions are adhered to — it was undercut by Cruise delivering it via an explosive tirade about the alleged misbehavior of certain workers. Shame and public humiliation aren’t acceptable ways to treat fellow human beings, which is part of why this incident is all over the media. They are also ineffective. Expletives and general cruelty from a person in a position of power generally don’t inspire positive change.

Had Cruise managed his own stress and instead tapped into the collective compassion of the group to talk candidly about how to protect one another, he might well have accomplished more. As would we all.

One survey conducted by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the Harvard Medical School found that 55 percent of respondents reported increased stress levels due to Covid-19 — and that was back in May. Fast forward to the final month of 2020, and it’s safe to assume that many people are functioning in a compromised emotional state.

Stress affects people physically, emotionally and cognitively. It can change the way we relate to one another. Chronic irritability and angry outbursts are common symptoms of stress in adults, and can result in poor communication and fractured relationships. It can also cause lack of focus and poor executive function. When people exist in a state of stress, they don’t necessarily make the best decisions, something that’s particularly crucial as we try to establish communal standards on Covid-19 and constructively address those who violate the rules.

Similarly, research shows toxic work environments that include harassment, ostracism, incivility and bullying are associated with low productivity and high rates of burnout. In fact, people generally shut down when treated cruelly rather than change their ways. And when people are treated poorly on the job, they are more likely to ruminate about their negative experiences, which can trigger insomnia and other symptoms of stress or depression. In other words, unhappy workplaces yield unhappy people, and it’s up to leaders to change the culture of the environment.

While public humiliation drives resentment and anger, effective leaders inspire positive change by empowering those around them to work toward common objectives. To achieve this, leaders must hone their communication skills, since communicating in a positive way helps co-workers feel like they’re part of a team environment and are more likely to adapt their behavior to meet team needs. While this is always true, setting a positive tone is particularly important during times of increased stress and anxiety.

Soft skills including empathy, compassion, forgiveness and assertive communication are essential. Assertive communication includes active listening when others speak, and talking in a clear and concise way. This removes any confusion or mixed messages. When leaders communicate in an assertive but also empathic way, they show their team that each individual matters to the functioning of the whole unit. And when people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to work toward common goals.

The film industry isn’t the only business tentatively opening its doors and slowly bringing people back to the workplace, and it’s important to exercise patience and empathy as people re-enter society at large. People have different tolerances for risk, and face competing values over economic versus physical health. It’s reasonable to expect high stress and anxiety as people continue to navigate this difficult time.

What are some specific things we can do to ease these tensions, then? Beyond expressing empathy and patience, showing gratitude is a good place to start.

Clear and consistent positive messaging promotes unity and collaboration within the group. Praise works. Be sure to focus on what’s going well and how efforts to keep the whole organization safe and healthy make a difference. Sure, people are paid to do their jobs and meeting expectations should be the norm in the workplace, but a little gratitude during times of stress goes a long way toward helping employees feel appreciated.

Fast forward to the final month of 2020, and it’s safe to assume that many people are functioning in a compromised emotional state.

Beyond that, remember that people are going to make errors right now, from Tom Cruise on down. Short tempers, anxiety and cognitive fog all contribute to mistakes and poor communication. It’s reasonable to expect that there will be difficult days and the need for corrections. It’s imperative that leaders handle problems one-on-one, in a calm and understanding manner.

The rant heard around the world is actually a cautionary tale. We humans are under stress and dealing with financial, emotional and personal fallout from this pandemic. When confronting issues related to Covid-19 protocols, screaming and belittling aren’t likely to result in change, but listening to one another and problem-solving together just might.