That’s not to say it’s ok—far from it. But what bothers me more than reports that the place was rough and tumble (do we really think women who work at that level of power aren’t accustomed to rough language, much less use it themselves?) is that the president reportedly brushed away the first complaints about it. In today’s Post, Peter Wallston and Anne Kornblut report on controversial statements about the White House culture made in author Ron Suskind’s new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, which debuts today. “According to another official,” they write, “the president initially discounted the complaints he heard that women, particularly on his economic team, were making. He saw the tough climate as just that — the intense atmosphere of a White House, fostered by competitive people at the top of their game.”
It’s easy, when you’re the person in charge, to make excuses for the grievances you hear. And sometimes, that’s warranted. All that whining about no bonuses this year? Tough luck—it’s a hard economy. The extended deadline your team wants on that critical project? Can’t happen—customers will bail.
But if the complaints you’re hearing are all about culture, they should immediately move to the top of the list. Nothing kills a culture, hammers team dynamics or deflates people in their jobs like a leader who doesn’t seem like he’s listening. It may be a knee-jerk reaction to deny the problem, but when it comes to whether everyone’s voice gets heard and respected, or how much equal access there is to the top, nothing could be a bigger mistake.
From what’s been reported—I have not read the Suskind book, nor do I know more than anyone else does about what former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn meant when she reportedly said “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace”—it seems the president has taken steps to correct the problems. He met with his senior female staffers at a dinner and listened to their concerns. He apparently was an exception to the original problem (Dunn reportedly preceded her statement above with “if it wasn’t for the president”), even if the environment was still his responsibility. And the complaints seem to have been focused, even by Suskind’s account, in the president’s first year.
But his reported initial reaction is worth thinking about for leaders. Discounting complaints about fairness, access and hostility in the workplace are just as bad as them happening in the first place. Especially if it sends the message that leaders aren’t listening.
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