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After Comments on Obesity, the Internet Came for This CEO. His Response Is a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

Jonathan Neman, CEO of salad chain Sweetgreen, recently apologized for comments he posted on LinkedIn last week, when he suggested addressing obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are the best way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My goal was to start a conversation around the systemic healthcare issues in the country,” writes Neman. “Words matter and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors.”

Critics claimed Neman’s original comments minimized the effect vaccinations and other safety measures had on fighting the pandemic, while also discriminating against the obese and overweight.

“78% of hospitalizations due to COVID are Obese and Overweight people,” wrote Neman, in his original post. “Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to?”

Neman’s post initially received significant support, including hundreds of “likes” on LinkedIn. However, after a growing number of critical comments, Neman deleted the original post.

According to reports, Neman apologized to staff via email and a company townhall. He then followed those actions with a new post on LinkedIn.

Viewed through the lens of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage emotions to reach a goal, Neman certainly missed the mark in his original post. 

But he also did some things right–and provided a great case study in how emotional intelligence works in the real world.

Let’s break down a few of these lessons to see what every business leader can learn from them.

He started the conversation.

While Neman admits he should have communicated his message in a more thoughtful way, he believes the conversation is an important one.

“It could have been said much more eloquently, but the intent was real,” Neman told staff in the townhall (as reported by Vice, who obtained a recording). “You all know that this is a core part of our mission, and something we truly believe in. And we believe that food is part of that solution.”

“Sweetgreen alone is not going to solve this. Salads alone are not going to solve this.”

Takeaway: So-called “negative” emotions such as anger, frustration, or fear can prove harmful if unchecked. But we can also use them to motivate ourselves (or even others) to take action.

Of course, Neman may have benefited from having a respected friend, colleague, or member of his comms team review his message and offer feedback.

But if the original goal was to start the conversation, Neman achieved it.

He listened.

While Neman stood by the core of his message, his critics’ complaints came through loud and clear.

“Words matter and the words I chose were insensitive and oversimplified a very complex issue that is impacted by larger socioeconomic factors,” wrote Neman.

Takeaway: Listening to, processing, and benefiting from criticism is an extremely difficult skill to master. 

But remember that perception matters. When you get the chance to see yourself through the eyes of others, use that view to refine, clarify, and improve your message.

Doing so will only make you better–and give your message a greater chance of reaching more people.

He learned.

According to Vice, Neman said the public ordeal has proved to be “a painful, painful lesson,” “a huge learning moment,” and “a moment of humility and vulnerability.”

At a time when many business leaders attempt to minimize mistakes, brush them under the rug, or shift the blame to others, Neman’s comments are a breath of fresh air.

His follow-up message on LinkedIn strikes a similar tone.

“My commitment is to continue to listen to our team members and communities as I continue to learn forward and be a positive force on the food system.”

Takeaway: Humility doesn’t mean that you lack self-confidence or that you never stand up for your own opinions or principles. Rather, it involves recognizing that you don’t know everything–and being willing to learn from others.

Because high emotional intelligence doesn’t mean you’re perfect. But it’s how you handle those mistakes that will determine how emotionally intelligent you truly are. 

So, remember: When emotions run high, don’t push them away. Instead, take time to think through them. Strive to understand them.

Then, start the conversation. Listen. And learn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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