What Kermit the Frog Teaches us about Emotional Intelligence

Steve Whitmire, the voice behind Kermit the Frog for the past 27 years was fired but it recently became public. “I have remained silent the last nine months in hopes that the Disney Company might reverse their course,” Whitmire wrote in a blog post. Whitmire said he felt betrayed, claiming that Disney (which acquired the Muppets in 2004 from the Jim Henson Company) “gave him no warning” before firing him, mostly due to his communication style, in an interview with The New York Times

“They were uncomfortable with the way I was giving detailed 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.”

As expected, the Disney executives had a different point of view. “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 had concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years, and he consistently failed to work on 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.”

Undeniably, it is hard to know the true story. Then again, after considering both sides of the story, there are major lessons to be learned especially those that relate to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to recognize emotions in both themselves and others, to understand the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform their behavior.

Here are two takeaways from this ugly situation:

Perception defines reality

The way we relate to people especially in our communication style has a strong impact on how they perceive us as individuals. The main sources of friction were Whitmire’s critical feedback, which is a consensus for both parties. Without seeing the notes and emails in question, it is hard to know if he was really loud-mouthed. Despite feeling fully justified by his words and actions, he obviously underestimated the emotional impact his criticism had on other people. If you find yourself in Whitmire’s shoes, it is important, you ask for help from an external perspective. Also, find an unbiased party that can help you see the big picture and correct your communication style when crucial.

Be clear and direct yet tactful

Concerning Whitmire’s employers, how effective were Disney and the Muppets Studio in clearly communicating their concerns, and the potential consequences? There are feedback sessions where a boss may sound vague and it is hard to learn anything from what he or she has said. It is critical to be clear and direct with regards to negative feedback. Let the individuals not only know what they have done wrong, but how they can improve on their mistakes and weaknesses. Nonetheless, if they remain adamant, make the consequences clear, thus there’s no surprise when you take a disciplinary action against them.

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