Before a massive crowd last March, Tony Robbins, an internationally known motivational speaker, painted many in the #MeToo movement as victims seeking significance through their accusations.
In minimizing #MeToo, Robbins refused to look at the role he and other men have played in creating the conditions for the movement in the first place. And he gave us a painful reminder of the difficult road ahead for those who had hoped the movement would lead to positive change.
Video of the incident—which took place during a packed Tony Robbins event in San Jose, Calif.—emerged over the weekend. Audience member Nanine McCool challenged the self-help guru for his praise of casino owner Steve Wynn, who was forced out of Wynn Enterprises after being accused of decades of sexual misconduct. When McCool accused Robbins of doing a disservice to the #MeToo movement, Robbins said that the accusers were misusing their anger and harming men in the process.
The most chilling part of Robbins’s response, however, occurred when he recounted a recent conversation with someone he described as a famous and powerful man who had interviewed two men and an attractive woman for a position. Even though the woman was the more qualified candidate, Robbins reported that the man hired one of the males, because to “have her around” was too big of a risk. Robbins added that a dozen men have told him similar stories, but never explained the risk involved.
Robbins’ use of these anecdotes as a critique of the #MeToo movement is a sad abdication of his own power and authority. Instead of lecturing McCool, herself a victim of sexual abuse, why didn’t Robbins take these men to task for employment decisions that actually blame women for being a physical distraction in the workplace? Why did he not point out that these employers were perpetuating their own privilege, and seemingly excusing their own lack of self-control at the expense of women’s careers?
At the conclusion of his interaction with McCool, Robbins turned to his cheering audience and said, “I’m not gonna be inauthentic and say I’m sorry about something I’m not sorry about.” It was only after the video clip of Robbins’s remarks went viral that he tried to stem the intense criticism with an apology.
The apology is irrelevant to the damage done. Robbins gave voice to the emerging #MeToo backlash. Under his theory, #MeToo is an excuse for men to say they can’t mentor or hire an attractive woman. Rather than setting sensible boundaries and creating a safe and respectful work environment, it is easier to dismiss the heartbreaking stories of countless women and provide excuses that only perpetuate the status quo.
Instead of offering an apology to protect his reputation, it may be more instructive for Robbins to look at years of research that has preceded the #MeToo revelations. For example, studies of perceptions of sexual intent have found that men are more likely to view behaviors that can also be identified as platonic—such as maintaining eye contact, having dinner, or expressing a compliment—as conveying sexual intent. These findings have been linked to issues such as sexual assault and sexual harassment, and offer an important launching point for strategies that can help people in the workplace address miscues and misperceptions.
Robbins now claims that he is dedicated to becoming a part of the solution and helping to educate others about the #MeToo movement. If so, Robbins should use his considerable privilege to persuade his powerful and wealthy clients to invest time and resources to make real workplace changes, instead of developing strategies to avoid being called out for behaving badly.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams and Ladder Down: Success Strategies for Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing and Promoting You.