Here’s the background. It starts with two tragedies in Chicago earlier this year:
- First, a 13-year-old named Adam Toledo was shot and killed by Chicago police.
- Then, a 7-year-old girl named Jaslyn Adams was killed while sitting in a Chicago McDonald’s drive-through.
The day after the shooting that took Adams’s life, Mayor Lori Lightfoot visited McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. She spoke with CEO Chris Kempczinski, and then Kempczinski texted Mayor Lightfoot.
Activists eventually used a Freedom of Information Act request to learn what he said to her. In what turned out to be the most important part, Kempczinski’s texts read like this:
“p.s. tragic shootings in last week, both at our restaurant yesterday and with Adam Toldeo. With both, the parents failed those kids which I know is something you can’t say. Even harder to fix.”
I’ve highlighted the five key words: “the parents failed those kids.”
Protests ensued, blasting Kempczinski for blaming the parents. In an open letter, some McDonald’s workers and community groups called Kempczinski’s message: “ignorant, racist and unacceptable.”
The mayor’s spokesperson commented: “Victim shaming has no place in this conversation.”
Rank-and-file workers were upset, too. As one McDonald’s employee told Chicago’s WBEZ:
“He doesn’t know the circumstances of these parents. [He’s] putting the blame on parents for the violence in the streets. He can’t relate because he is wealthy, and we are not, and he doesn’t understand our struggle.”
After the backlash, Kempczinski wrote to all McDonald’s corporate employees in the U.S. this week explain the genesis of his text to Lightfood, and maybe to apologize — although he never actually used that word.
I’ve had the chance to review what he wrote, and if I can summarize, it really comes down to a simple proposition: a violation of all of the most basic rules of how emotionally intelligent people think through important conversations.
Let’s break it all down, using Kempczinski’s “quasi-mea-culpa” as a guide:
Rule #1: Imagine yourself in your audience’s position.
Emotionally intelligent people realize that almost nobody else sees the world from exactly their perspective.
Sometimes that’s fine, but other times — say, for example, when you’re the $10 million-a-year CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations — it’s up to you to make the extra effort.
Kempczinski admits right upfront that he didn’t do that here:
“I was thinking through my lens as a parent and reacted viscerally. But I have not walked in the shoes of Adam’s or Jaslyn’s family and so many others who are facing a very different reality.”
I’d take that a step further: He wasn’t just not thinking about the parents–obviously that was crucial–but he also wasn’t thinking about how his words would be perceived by the mayor, and McDonald’s employees, and the city writ large.
A little bit of empathy goes a long way, but apparently a lack of empathy can go even further.
Rule #2: Stop and think before you act.
There might be some times when acting quickly, without thinking, is better than deliberative action.
But those times are the exception to the rule. And, texting to the mayor of the third-largest U.S. city (knowing, as the CEO of McDonald’s certainly should, that there is no expectation of privacy in that kind of communication), is definitely not an exception to that rule.
Kempczinski knows it was a mistake not to take the time to think through what he was saying.
“Not taking the time to think about this from their viewpoint was wrong,” he wrote, “and lacked the empathy and compassion I feel for these families.”
Lesson learned — albeit one I’ll bet he wishes he’d learned earlier.
Rule #3: Show strategic kindness.
Kindness and empathy are side-products of emotional intelligence, not the goals. Instead, emotional intelligence is about being aware of emotions and leveraging them to make it more likely that you can achieve your goals.
That said, kindness can be a goal in and of itself–and demonstrating kindness can lead people to be more receptive to what you have to say.
With that backdrop, it was very unkind, just days after the horrific shooting deaths of a 13-year-old and a 7-year-old, to suggest that the parents were to blame.
This would be true even if Kempczinski somehow thought he could back up his claim. (I’m not saying I think he could; I’m just surmising that he probably thought he could, if he thought to say it.)
Regardless, human decency practically begs that you hold your fire in that situation. Much better to remain silent, than to play armchair detective in a way that says those who likely grieve the most should shoulder the burden.
Live and learn
There is an irony in writing about this situation in that I feel compelled to try to write with emotional intelligence: to pause, to put myself in the shoes of others, to write with kindness where I can.
And there’s a temptation to express sympathy for Kempczinski: Who among us hasn’t said something he or she later regretted, and even cringed to read?
The difference is that Kempczinski isn’t just writing for himself; he’s writing as the CEO of one of the world’s most iconic companies, who was paid more than $10 million last year (a low year, in fact, due to Covid), and who has much more responsibility than most of us have.
I don’t know if he’s sincere in describing the lessons he’s learned, or if he truly wants to craft better messages, or if he cares a whit about leading with emotional intelligence.
Even if Kempczinski apparently hasn’t read it, I think you’ll find it useful. And maybe reading it will make it just a little bet less likely you’ll have to write a “quasi-mea-cupla” someday like he did, too.