Steve Harvey’s diva letter shows what happens when bosses burn out

Comedian Steve Harvey needs a vacation.

His recently-surfaced email memo to employees — outlining strict conduct rules in a hostile tone — has made waves by showing what happens when managers are pushed to the limit by demands on their time.

Harvey reportedly sent the letter employees at the beginning of Season 5 of “The Steve Harvey Show,” which is moving to Los Angeles soon, according to Robert Feder’s Chicago media blog. Today is the last day of the show’s production in Chicago, and the entire 80-person staff is being laid off.

Harvey isn’t taking any of the staff with him to Los Angeles, which has caused some resentment.

Variety reported that, “sources say the memo may have been leaked by a former staff member, who may not have been not invited to work on the new LA-based show.”

More importantly, whatever the source of the leak, the memo from Harvey is an instructive one for overworked managers everywhere. There are good and bad ways to communicate with employees, and the memo crossed the line to the negative side. While it’s clear that Harvey feels like he’s under a lot of pressure, his communication came off as hostile — even if the intent was good.

What was in the email

The language Harvey used says a lot about his emotional state at the time it was written.

“I have been taken advantage of by my lenient policy in the past. This ends now. NO MORE.”

Do not approach me while I’m in the makeup chair unless I ask to speak with you directly. Either knock or use the doorbell.

Do not wait in any hallway to speak to me. I hate being ambushed. Please make an appointment.

Nor does Harvey regret any of it. One of Harvey’s comments on the letter to ET was: “I just didn’t want to be in this prison anymore where I had to be in this little room, scared to go out and take a breath of fresh air without somebody approaching me, so I wrote the letter…I don’t apologize about the letter, but it’s kind of crazy…people who took this thing and ran, man. I appreciate you asking me.”

Hostile language doesn’t encourage teamwork

Notice any patterns in the language? It’s easy to recognize that it’s pretty hostile, with Harvey implying that his staff is out to get him when they seek him out. He repeats “ambushing” in the email, suggested he is feeling besieged, and the all-caps moments suggest he is angry.

Harvey also uses passive voice while saying he’s “been taken advantage of” — as if something was happening to him, not him putting the action  in motion. He puts forward a strong “me vs. them” mentality — where “them” means his own staff helping him look good on the show.

Harvey ends the email with, “Everyone, do not take offense to the new way of doing business. It is for the good of my personal life and enjoyment,” before thanking them, but at this point, it’s too late for cordiality— he’s already built up a strong hypothetical fortress to protect himself from his own employees.

Burnout in action

While many will read the memo as Harvey being a terrible leader, there’s another possibility: he’s a boss who’s about to burn out. Yes, Harvey, in addition to being a celebrity, is also in essence the CEO of his own brand — and he’s stretched very thin. In addition to the show, he has a lot of constraints on his time, like hosting the Miss Universe Pageant (where he mistakenly crowned Miss Colombia the winner in 2015). It’s easy to understand why he might be trying to get some quiet time for himself and rebalance.

But here’s where Harvey’s technique is a problem: the tone of this email doesn’t work in his favor. Instead of encouraging his staff to work hard and protect his time, Harvey pushes them away and dismisses them as annoyances.

Work martyrs in the office

Harvey’s behavior mirrors that of the classic work martyr, a personality quirk that is nearly inevitable for anyone who has a tendency to work hard and take on more commitments. In this mindset, the hard worker starts to believe he’s the only one giving it his all, disparaging others as less hard-working and consequential.

According to Ty Tucker, CEO of performance management platform REV, a work martyr is someone who “is typically concerned with the number of hours they’ve worked, not the outcomes they have created.”

Work martyrdom is complicated to spot, since it frequently manifests among high achievers who give over their time and identity to their jobs. It is frequently a sign of burnout, an idea of “look how much I give, and no one appreciates it.”

Even worse, the American culture of overwork encourages work martyrdom.

A study by GfK and Project Time Off found that 39% of workers surveyed reported that they want their manager to see them as a work martyr. Yet 86% reported thinking that “it is a bad thing to be seen as a work martyr by their family.”

Dee Elliott Consulting posted a document on this topic, which even includes a questionnaire developed “by Dr Nathan Anthony from The Insight Network, to see where you are on the office martyr scale.”

It also offers advice for leaders managing people like this— keeping track of how much work they do and getting together with them everyday (“first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon to make sure that you are confident that their workload is reasonable to their ability”). It adds that work martyrs frequently “oversell” what they bring to the table in job interviews, and that people assume they won’t turn down assignments, so they do in fact get “taken advantage of.”

The roles of speech and eye contact

Still, work martyrs, especially as bosses, have a long and storied history. Harvey’s demands for staff to stay away are similar to those made by other leaders in various fields.

In an article about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, The Washington Post reported that “many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.”

It’s similar at Vogue, according to lore.

In a 2006 article by The Guardian about the film “The Devil Wears Prada,” (the boss’ character is based on Anna Wintour) the publication reported, “one US Vogue intern was famously told never to make eye contact with Wintour or to initiate a conversation. One day the terrified girl witnessed the editor tripping up in the corridor but was too scared to offer help. She stepped over Wintour’s prone form and carried on walking.”

A manager’s actions and words set the tone for employees—whether he or she is a celebrity or not. But in this case, Steve Harvey’s words spoke much louder than his actions.

How to stop being a work martyr, as an employee or a leader

Work martyrdom usually has a very specific cause: workers start putting work before every other aspect of their lives, including family and friends. Work martyrs draw most of their identity from their jobs, and when they’re doing well at work, that’s all they need to keep going.

If you’re a leader, learn to spot work martyrdom in others and yourself: sending 3 am emails; frequently emphasizing the hours you’re putting in; implying that no one else is working harder than you; acting as if everyone else is just trying to take advantage of your time. All of this behavior puts the martyr’s needs above the goals of the company or the team— which is not only selfish and disrespectful to others, but slows down everyone’s progress. If other people feel less valued, they’re likely not to do good work. And the work martyr can never feel properly reciprocated for what they see as their outsize sacrifice.

Then, step back.

There’s an easy answer to ending work martyrdom and its language of hostility: Don’t give more of yourself to work than you’re getting back in either pay or fulfillment. Everyone, no matter how important, should have a life and relationships outside work. When you feel that no one could possibly reciprocate or match all the work you do, it’s time to step back and get some perspective.  Take a vacation, or even a walk outside. Just don’t take it out on everyone else.