5 Ways to Combat Sexual Harassment at Nonprofits

The moment has come for nonprofits to reckon with the sexual harassment that until all too recently has been swept under the carpet. In recent weeks, allegations of repulsive behavior have rippled through nonprofits, just as in government, tech, business, and elsewhere.

The American Red Cross made the dreadful misstep of unloading a senior executive accused of multiple harassment incidents by sending him on his way to Save the Children with a glowing recommendation. And the Humane Society of the United States saw seven board members step down over the organization’s handling of allegations of misconduct by the chief executive, who resigned a few hours after the board voted to keep him on the job. Arts and culture organizations and colleges and universities have also seen top leaders toppled by allegations of misconduct.

More revelations are almost certainly coming. Only the most naïve would believe that nonprofits exist in a rarified and exemplary world, immune from abusive behaviors. After all, the balance of power in the nonprofit workplace often leads to abuses of all kinds. And tolerance of sexual misconduct is exacerbated by the reality that men hold most of the positions of authority in the nonprofit world, with women in supportive and de facto more vulnerable roles.

That’s why executive directors and boards must establish far more effective approaches if they plan to deliver on the promise of zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies. What can boards and CEOs do to ensure that their actions prevent this abuse, and—when it happens—how can they respond in a way that will also leave their organizations stronger? Here are some key steps to take immediately.

Give boards a new mandate: Be stewards of the culture.

We’ve seen over the decades a widening of roles for nonprofit boards. Fiduciary responsibilities have taken overwhelming prominence, and, while this includes mitigation of risk factors (like lawsuits), boards focus on being the guardians of tangible assets.

Creating a strategic partnership with management has become as important. Two decades ago many boards became influenced by Harvard scholar Richard Chait’s advice to go beyond questions of strategy, staying high above the weeds. They begin asking larger "why" questions that are often not directly related to the present but offer insights on challenges and opportunities.

Although I believe strongly that all three roles are essential, I now advocate for a fourth.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced many smart, high-functioning boards assuming the role of cultural steward. They realize boards must ultimately be responsible for maintaining a performance-driven, talent-focused, and innovative culture so that the organization does not get swallowed up by disruptions that cause their donor or membership bases to flee, and they do not allow a mission to become obsolete.

They also understand that an obsessive focus on culture prevents aberrant behaviors. And while the CEO must be responsible for carrying out the processes required to wrangle a culture into alignment, an increasing number of boards hold themselves ultimately accountable for this.

To be clear: The board as cultural steward is not merely about risk management (though this becomes an advantageous benefit). It’s about creating a healthy and productive environment that stops or stems sexual harassment as well as providing a plethora of other payoffs when boards take on the mantle. Look deeply into many of the organizations where sexual harassment runs rampant, and you will find elements of a toxic culture.

Stop giving rainmakers a pass.

Many nonprofits have key individuals who play an essential role in their organization’s success.

At times, but certainly not always, this is the CEO. As The Washington Post and The New York Times reported recently, the board influence—and charisma—of the Humane Society’s CEO, Wayne Pacelle, is merely one case in point. He was a rainmaker, a dealmaker extraordinaire in creating mergers, affiliations, and corporate partnerships. His deal-making prowess may have endeared him so profoundly to his board that they may not have been able to accept allegations of his aberrant behaviors. They stopped the investigation on him midstream.

Rainmakers have inordinate talent and influence to generate revenue, or they are seen as essential to the mission. In their own ways, they are exceptional, groundbreaking, and often charismatic. But out of fear of alienating these rainmakers, nonprofits too often seem blind to the ways they give them free passes. Rainmakers can be exempt from accountability to the formal rules, policies, and codes of conduct required of everyone else. It remains an unspoken dynamic.

Take the dramatic example from the corporate world, where the term originated. Citibank’s former CEO, John Reed, made a daring move to rein in a dozen errant rainmakers, despite their power to bring hundred-million-dollar deals to the bank. The problem: Their behavior was abusive to anyone who worked with them. Reed gave them a stern warning and offered executive coaching. When their behavior did not change, he gave them a second warning. The rainmakers assumed that their value to the bank guaranteed their immunity, since nothing consequential had ever happened when they broke code-of-conduct rules.

As he had promised, Reed fired them all. The power of this action showed the lengths he was willing to go to in enforcing civil behavior and change the informal, get-out-of-jail-free passes that one element of the culture had allowed. Are your rainmakers models of the behavior you expect from everyone? If not, take strong action.

Rethink the role of HR.

Nonprofit leadership must question the process by which those who are aggrieved seek safety and recourse, since the HR function in far too many cases can no longer provide it. A regressive drift over the past two decades has taken too many HR departments back to the days of transactional "personnel" function. We seem to have forgotten that when "human resources" became the function’s new name, it also embraced a deep commitment to represent the needs of employees, balancing an advocacy role while finally becoming a key part of the leadership team.

Victims coming forward have voiced how HR aggravated their sense of victimization when they did not feel believed or no action was taken. A study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that "75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation."

The #MeToo moment has illuminated how HR is broken in too many nonprofits. Far from advocating for employees, HR leaders and their staff are increasingly ignoring, refusing to act, or inadequately addressing sexual harassment complaints. And this has led women in particular to stop trusting a department that ostensibly was established to protect them. Alternatives exist and are being adopted.

The first step to finding the best-fit solution is to acknowledge whether HR’s processes, reporting structure, and level of power are adequate to deal with this lightning-rod issue.

If not, consider truly independent and trustworthy resources outside the organization.

Question how much power you’re giving to external counsel.

Undeniably, sexual harassment is a legal-risk issue for any organization, with profound potential implications. But sending in the lawyers to investigate complaints or to conduct audits does not lead to a robust long-term organizational solution.

My respect for colleagues in the legal profession runs deep. But when their work steps over the line to conduct organizational assessments, requiring the mapping of power, influence, communications, and culture, the lens through which they look at these "soft" causes of bad behavior can be a limited one.

Organization development professionals engender deep trust in staff members and can quickly assess culture and culpability. They engage in far more solution-driven conversations with all parties to identify not only problem people but also problem processes and dynamics. When these professionals have dual-reporting accountability to the CEO and the board, while still maintaining a close relationship with HR, their insights can reshape troubled dynamics.

Find the levers that place pressure on men to speak out about the uncivil behaviors of other men.

When better codes of cultural conduct become part of everyday behavior, the men’s club will no longer protect the abuser. Time is up for leaving the burden solely on women to protect their female colleagues. Men must call out other men. If they know of egregious behaviors and do not act, there must be painful consequences.

With these fresh approaches to responsibility and transparency in the culture, nonprofit organizations can become not only irreproachable in the public eye, but also better and more empowering places to work. Let’s make 2018 the year to advance workplace equity, fairness, and safety.

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on February 13, 2018.

Don’t Learn from Your Mistakes—“Apologize” Instead!

2017 has been a banner year for mean man apologies, and we still have one more quarter to go. A fertile source of recent apologies stems from Silicon Valley’s self-reckoning of sexual harassment, kicked off by ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler’s now-legendary February blog post. As noted in my prior post, the company failed to address Fowler’s case of harassment, fueled by a persistently sexist company culture. Two public apologies, of the five examined in more detail below, were issued in reaction to the subsequent call by women in tech and women entrepreneurs to bring harassers to justice and name the sexism for what it is.

To be clear, not everyone is apologizing. As the latest manifestation of white male privilege in the Valley, ex-Google employee James Damore, fired for his now infamous memo detailing in part how women are biologically less fit for tech work, subsequently told the Wall Street Journal that his memo wasn’t problematic, the consequences were.  But the tech world is not the only one in which mean men are being forced to answer for their behavior. In Hollywood, in the US House race, and in a Brooklyn courtroom, some mean men are being held to account.

Others expect a public statement to make it all better. Even when they occur, there is something disturbing about these “apologies.” It isn’t merely these individuals’ refusal to take responsibility, which we have seen again and again in mean men across industries (but most prominently in tech). No, it is even more so our willingness to allow a few well-chosen, PR-motivated, and artfully-framed phrases to erase the bad behavior and in some cases, crimes.

We have entered the era of the postmodern apology. When powerful men screw up, they perform what is at best a meaningless, socially enforced ritual and at worst a calculated ploy to regain the exercise of power at others’ expense. Whereas genuine apologies seek to repair the damage done to victims, the damage-control apology so popular today belies a complete lack of empathy and serves only to aggrandize the mean man.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the apologies themselves to clue us in to the magnitude of their egregious behaviors. Here are but five examples.

Chris Sacca: The Glamourpology

This remarkable piece of rhetoric serves as this series’ longest apology, clocking in at a whopping 2500+ words with an addendum bringing the total up to nearly 3000. Just look at the sentence that introduces his original apology post: “The words that follow are my heartfelt process for reconciliation and growing the work I have been doing for years to bring about permanent change in our industry and our lives.” Oh, wait, you’re giving us a list of accomplishments? You’d think he’s been awarded a Nobel and is warming up to his acceptance speech… The actual apology waters down harassment into nothing more than “[making] some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged.” But what’s truly shocking is just how much time Sacca spends discussing all his contributions to women since his days of youthful bro-ing about—at least two-thirds of the “apology.” Thanks so much for all you’ve done, Chris!

Dave McClure: The Creepology

Most notable about McClure’s post is the repeated use of “inappropriate behavior” to stand in for harassment as well as the de-personalization of the women he’s victimized. As pointed out by founder Cheryl Yeoh, whom he cornered in an empty apartment when the two were in an investor-investee relationship, such language minimizes and covers up what really happened. McClure is not quite as masterful as Sacco at self-aggrandizement nor does he claim that he’s really changed. His tack is to admit his “imperfections” openly and appeal to people’s sympathy, like Radiohead’s “Creep” does so well.

Greg Gianforte: The Stratepology

Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte’s apology was most notable for its timing. Let’s go over the order of events. The Honorable Congressman Gianforte:

  1. Body slams Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs upon being asked a question about healthcare.
  2. Has his office release a statement that alleges provocateur liberal reporter Ben Jacobs started trouble and that Gianforte stood up to him.
  3. Rides conservative media coverage of him as a hero willing to stand up to “snowflake” Millennial liberals all the way to victory in the US House of Representatives.
  4. Apologizes without naming his wrongdoing directly during his acceptance speech, to overwhelming applause from a room of devoted supporters.

Michael Einfeld: The Abomination

Nothing comes quite close to the emetic nature of Michael Einfeld’s apology for a violently misogynistic email about his female assistant. In his cellphone text apology to her, he manages to use a gay slur and joke about Holocaust extermination camps both extensively and in disturbing detail. What distinguishes this apology from the others on this list is its intended private nature. It was not prepared by a team of publicists and strategists, but instead dashed off by a guy who thought this series of texts would smooth things over. Is this a good indication of what other mean-man apologies would sound like without PR intervention?

Martin Shkreli: The Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Happen

The smirk on disgraced former pharma CEO Shkreli’s face during trial is emblematic of this mean man’s refusal to admit he’s done any wrong. He indicated with his winks and frowns to the press that the whole trial was a joke, and called it a “witch hunt.” Even as evidence of his ruthlessness piled up in court—including violent threats to employees and their families— Shkreli played it cool, as though the whole thing was a Soviet show trial, a mere formality orchestrated by his enemies.

As Shkreli bends reality around him with his jester performance, he creates a parallel universe where none of what he’s done has anything to do with his forthcoming sentence. It’s us who should be apologizing to him.


For all the mean men yet to issue hollow and insincere apologies in 2017, I’ve put together a handy guide to help:

The Official 2017 Mean Man Apology Guide:

  1. Use Vague Language: Be imprecise when naming the behaviors that you are sorry for. Or just keep your mouth shut and ignore everything.
  2. Diffuse Responsibility: Whether it’s society, ignorance, bro-culture, being an asshole who can’t spell, or being the victim of a witch hunt, make sure you have something to blame. But be careful to not start blaming someone. You’ll just have to repeat the cycle all over again.
  3. Change Focus/Flatter Yourself: In some cases, it becomes necessary to shift focus away from the wrongdoing and toward one’s accomplishments or sudden enlightenment. One powerful way to change focus is to deny wrongdoing entirely. Yes, you, too can create a Jobsian “reality distortion field.” Be just like Steve!
  4. Watch the Timing: Apologize only when beneficial for one’s public image. If at all possible, avoid apologizing entirely, but if you must, use time to your advantage. Do not consider whether timing will ameliorate the hurt caused to the victim. That’s not the point of your apology in the first place.

Women Are Leading the Takedown of Silicon Valley’s Mean Men

It’s not just summer ratcheting up the heat in Silicon Valley, where more power players are in the hot seat as dozens of women allege persistent sexual harassment. Their testimonies are further exposing a toxic culture in start-ups—and particularly tech—wherein untouchable men are allowed to touch women without their consent.

In a June 22 interview with The Information, entrepreneurs Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu revealed VC Justin Caldbeck’s persistent harassment and use of financial leverage to exert sexual pressure on female entrepreneurs. Another twenty-some women spoke to The New York Times the following week, naming VCs Dave McClure and Chris Sacca in addition to Caldbeck as notorious harassers. Finally, in a personal blog post, tech founder Cheryl Yeoh demolished McClure’s public blog apology, which conflated harassment with “inappropriate behavior.” In an all-too-familiar refrain, he minimized—and attempted to normalize—the severity of a predatory pattern. 

A sign that the scandal rocking the Valley has entered mainstream consciousness is that six of the women entrepreneurs at its center have met with NBC’s Megyn Kelly for in-depth interviews. They credited their confidence to come forward to Susan Fowler’s February 2017 blog post recounting her harrowing year at Uber.

In her post, Fowler methodically chronicles the Kafkaesque futility of using the company’s official channels to report the abuse. In one interaction after another, she is threatened with poor work performance reviews and assured that if any other complaints are lodged against the perpetrator—her manager, who propositioned her on her first day—swift action would be taken. But no action is ever taken against the harasser, despite the smoldering pile of allegations that seemed to get extinguished by the time they were being processed at Uber’s HR offices.

Her post has resonated with women across the tech and start-up community, encouraging more to come forward despite potential retaliation. But what, or who, is responsible for this scourge in the first place?

There is plenty of blame to go around. As I examine in my forthcoming book, Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, the media, investors, and Wall Street analysts have had a long love affair with abusive entrepreneurs and CEOs so long as they deliver results, even if those results are not sustainable. Given our culture’s willingness to look past glaring flaws in our political leaders from Jefferson to Trump, it is not surprising we’re just as enamored with men we perceive as responsible for our country’s (alleged) prosperity.

When Susan Fowler knocked over that first domino, she set off a series of events that have taken on a life of their own. Her dispassionate account of a “very strange year at Uber” both validated other women in tech—60% of whom have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace—and contributed to Travis Kalanick’s eventual ousting, which sent its own reassuring signals to women in tech and female entrepreneurs. Although some still excuse or minimize the problem, and others quietly grumble behind closed doors about the “witch hunt” thinning their ranks, 2017 has seen a step in the right direction.

A la Fowler, the women coming forwardpresent in-depth accounts of the sexual harassment they have experienced. Some are naming names and some are corroborating stories with screenshots of particularly egregious instances of mean men overstepping their bounds. Providing specific details assures that no perpetrator can hide behind vague language and euphemism to disguise predatory behavior as a simple misunderstanding. “The devil is in the details,” Cheryl Yeoh blogs. “It’s far too easy to gloss over the details and lump everything together as inappropriate.” To escape what she calls “the black box of inappropriateness,” she outlines an action plan for the development of precise language to better identify and document levels of toxic behavior as well as a rigorous training program on implementing proactive HR policies. In fact, in addition to outing mean men and demanding they take responsibility for predatory behavior, women across the tech and start-up sectors are demanding a future where such abuses would be the exception rather than the rule.

We do see some movement. Amid the flurry of recent accusations, founders Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure resigned from their positions of CEO of Binary Capital and general partner at 500 respectively. These changes certainly signal a recognition that predatory behavior hurts the bottom line not the least through bad publicity. But are they a sign of a more inclusive vision for the future?

It is likely that these new accounts and the reckonings they bring about will help other women to come forward. The truth telling in turn means more mean men are forced to grapple with the harm they have caused to people and to their companies, bettering our chances of reimagining Silicon Valley as a place where creativity and innovation are not marred by abuse, skewed gender dynamics, and unchecked power.

The self-reckoning forced on Silicon Valley by these new testimonies is a good in and of itself for the sake of women and their well-being. Importantly, it may also be the catalyst toward a more stringent standard of behavior from the bro entrepreneurial culture. Women in tech and start-ups have sparked a national conversation on the expectations we have of our business and tech leaders. But it is up to Silicon Valley power players to take a more proactive approach to codifying expected behaviors and what will be unambiguously unacceptable from this point on. 

How to Cope With a Mean Boss

With my upcoming book, Mean Men, I hope to be part of a shift away from our current climate of mean in leadership culture. Meanness as a strategy for success is finally starting to come into question in the mainstream media. Even Forbes weighed in last week, noting that the extraordinary careers of people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs happen in spite of their bullying personalities, not because their behavior and the culture of intimidation they create is a tactical advantage. But as much as things might be changing in our cultural discourse, mean men still run amok in the real world. And while there’s hope that more and more employees will be able to leave when the men in charge get mean, that’s not always a possibility. So what can folks who find themselves stuck between a mean man and a hard place do to preserve their sanity? Are there ways to, at the very least, blunt the impact of these characters?

Psychologists have been developing specific strategies that help others buffer and deflect the full-on abuse that mean men display when left unchecked. These strategies will not transform aggressively controlling behavior, but they will put boundaries around it.

A near-universal trait of mean men is that they are deeply manipulative. They distort reality, making those around them question themselves and their perceptions: it’s a mean man’s world, and we’re all just living in it. But while we can depend on them to deflect blame, criticize others’ work, and grab the credit that others deserve, we can also be proactive in minimizing the effects of their emotional attacks.

Andrea Kimble,* a senior manager under the infamous Dov Charney who I interviewed for my upcoming book, survived by physically avoiding her unpredictable boss and minimizing one-on-one communication whenever she could. She strategically planned her workspace and her workday so as to always have allies around her when she thought Dov might appear. She even had colleagues give her a heads-up if they knew Dov was on his way to see her so that he couldn’t have the upper hand of catching her off guard.

If you’re not able to physically separate yourself from your boss, detaching emotionally can be a good technique for getting some internal distance. Viewing your situation from a fresh perspective so you can see your circumstances objectively puts you in a better position to consider options than getting overwhelmed by how you feel. The emotional part of your brain requires balance with its rational part so it can cool down, calm down, and strategize.

To practice, take a moment to assess your feelings when you’re agitated but are not in a situation where an immediate response is required—for example, when you’ve received an upsetting e-mail from your boss but are not in the room with him. Take an inventory of the situation by going through the following questions:

  1. What’s happening right now? Write down what you see, hear, and feel.
  2. What are the facts? Assess your personal (and organizational) needs in the moment, and quickly summarize how you are being treated as a result of trying to get those needs met. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you need to get it done?
  3. What is he doing? Identify how he is acting and what you think may be sparking his toxic behavior. Don’t try to psychoanalyze him; the best you can do is find the “triggers” that set this behavior off.
  4. What am I doing? Determine as best you can your role in the situation. List how you are reacting (behaviorally and emotionally) and how you have reacted to this same or similar behavior in the past. This is usually the toughest question of the five to answer.
  5. What are my options? Write down some concrete actions you might take to help the immediate problem. As easy as it may be to find rational answers, it can be just as difficult to act on them.

When a situation causes us emotional pain, our natural reaction is to blame the obvious offender and not do a gut check to see what we may be doing to contribute to our own pain. Looking more rationally at our own role in—and vulnerabilities to—the situation can give us points of leverage for reducing the impact of mean behavior. These kinds of coping mechanisms are not a long-term fix, but they can certainly help you hold on to your sanity and values until you can seek greener pastures. I’ll be exploring additional strategies for dealing with mean in the blog posts to come, so stay tuned if you need some support.

*name has been changed

This post originally ran on my blog on July 20, 2015.

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be critical tool in exposing the dark sides of men in power. But great power comes with great responsibility—and in the case of mean men, all too often the media either misuses its power or does too little with it. As we’ve seen with the clickbait circus that has been the Trump campaign, the media can create a monster as easily as it combats them. Conversely, stories that strive to be catalysts for positive change often vanish in the ether after the initial attention-grab. The pace of the modern media landscape is such that, when all is said and done, it’s rare that the impact will linger long enough to reveal the extent of a mean man’s abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson, for example, did serious damage to Steve Jobs’s reputation by revealing what a terrible person he was, but Isaacson’s book came out after Jobs had passed. And while plenty of other writers and former colleagues had chronicled and spoken out over the years about Jobs’s personal flaws, the mainstream business press seldom drew on those reports in a way that would have given the public a more balanced portrayal of Jobs as a leader. In 2009, for example, Fortune named him CEO of the decade. Beyond briefly noting that he was a “tyrannical perfectionist,” the fawning article had nothing specific to say about his treatment of people. The stock-option backdating scandal was mentioned only in passing, quoting Jobs as saying that it was “completely out of character for Apple.” Overall, the CEO of the decade emerged from the article as a towering hero.

Of course, some business leaders do receive negative press for their bad behavior. Gossip-driven online publications such as Gawker, the Drudge Report, and, to an extent, Business Insider act like an extra set of eyes on the streets, at high-society gatherings, and in boardrooms—and no one is exempt from their critical gaze. But still, even the most serious of offenses are relegated to click-bait status. In addition, reports of abusive or offensive behavior are often accompanied shortly thereafter by lavish praise and the rationalization that being a monster simply comes with the territory of being a genius.

Case in point: Harvey Weinstein. His assault on a reporter and his threats to the chair of the DNC were such high-profile outbursts that they were impossible to ignore, but articles recounting these instances tended to be positive overall. In one New York magazine profile, David Carr wrote: “All the legendary bad behavior cannot obscure an objective fact: Harvey Weinstein is a cultural good.” For all the “titans” he threw around in reference to Weinstein, Carr might as well have written cultural god.

Larry Ellison is another leader whose bad behavior has been widely noted by the business press only to be swiftly excused. As one reporter wrote about Ellison: “By all accounts, he is a bad listener and a big talker, whose brash, take-no-prisoners approach tends to alienate employees and customers alike. Yet, in the past 35 years, the jet-flying, sailboat-racing renegade has built Oracle into one of the most important tech firms on the planet, with annual revenues of $27 billion.”

In other words, so what if a guy would make the worst friend and golfing partner on earth and you would never let your daughter date him—he’s got great toys!

So why does the media tend to overlook or excuse lousy or abusive behavior?

Like so many of the board directors and investors who surround mean men, business reporters tend to focus on a leader’s short-term results rather than their character. Tech reporters in particular tend to be interested in innovation and what’s new, regardless of how nasty the creator behind it is. Rarely is thought given to whether a leader’s style will drive sustainable results.

Personality traits of business leaders only get attention to the degree that they feed into a bigger narrative—one that includes jets, sailboats, and multiple zeroes after the dollar sign. Many business reporters overlook the fact that leadership style and organizational culture can be central indicators of a company’s health and chances of success. For instance, the toxic culture that Mark Pincus created at Zynga started to get attention only when the company began to struggle, even though his behavior had been well known amongst his cohort for years. His board even saw fit to reinstate him recently.

Business reporters—like many of us raised to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world—may buy into the assumption that good leaders need to be brutes in order to get results. Sure, when the going gets tough, the tough need to get going, but just because business is competitive and the stakes are high, does this mean sharp elbows are always necessary? Is doing whatever it takes to survive—including driving straight over others to get to the top—always an asset?

So much of what we read or see on television leads us to believe that the answer to the questions above is yes.

Granted, some reporters do attempt to present balanced portrayals of mean geniuses, and it isn’t always easy to get sources to open up about abusive behavior. But if you watched the first season of House of Cards, you know it takes nerves and perseverance to get the full scoop. Digging up damaging information about a leader’s personal style and behavior can quickly place a journalist’s press pass at risk.

The fact that an entrepreneur is a bullying egomaniac may seem like a side note to some, or fodder for an over-the-top tale meant for the big screen à la The Wolf of Wall Street. But if those who have access to the inner chambers of the mean men who are in charge of our nation’s wealth and culture are not acting as watchdogs, how is the American public being protected from those who would shred it to pieces?


This post originally ran on my blog on May, 11 2015.

Don’t Let Trump Finish First

Donald Trump continues to perplex the national media and the collective whole of reasonable Americans with his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. In the wake of his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist groups and violence at his rallies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere, it begs a few questions: Is this really what leadership looks like to some Americans? What’s going on here? Is this the backlash of a middle class who feel genuinely disenfranchised? The recent and alarming rise of xenophobia and frantic nationalism left by the vacuum of leadership from the Republican establishment seems only to be growing. Are we willing to face the consequences of allowing “mean” to define leadership and success in both the private and public sectors? Do we clearly understand the vision and goals of the man who’s bullying his way through our political system in his quest to become our commander in chief? Sadly, the underlying irony may lie in the fact that even his most fervent followers could not explain how we will “Make America great again” in a cohesive, singular vision with realistic and reasonable goals. The reason Trump is eliciting a response is both deeper and more subtle.

The Monster We Know

In the tumultuous 1960s, Hannah Arendt caused national outrage by suggesting that some of the greatest evil the world had ever known boiled down to a Nazi war criminal’s inability to think for himself. Over fifty years later, we are in another time of political and economic upheaval, searching for original thinkers, visionaries, heroes to show us the way. With America preparing to hire its next CEO, we are telegraphing daily to the world our collective values surrounding leadership, power, and the price of success. At the very least, no one would disagree that Donald Trump represents “the ugly American” in its illogical extreme, that boorish, gun-toting, face-punching, self-entitled, narcissistic loudmouth. Is this really who we want to be on the world stage?

We are at a pivotal crossroads: If we blindly follow in the footsteps of mean, that culture will come to define us, crippling our creativity, warping the next generation, and producing demagogues instead of leaders. When these leaders stoke the fears and underlying prejudices of an already angry electorate, the consequences become very real.

Bringing Civility Back

All’s not lost. Accountability, authenticity, relationships, true empathy, and the power of social capital can move us toward a better and brighter future. We as a nation can be both strong and compassionate, both to our fellow Americans as well as our fellow world citizens. Just because the outrageous behavior of characters like Trump takes up all the air in the room, we mustn’t accept his ways as the norm, or believe there is no further “air” to breathe. By owning our actions, clearly communicating alternative scenarios, and cultivating honest, authentic interactions, we begin to reject the cult of personality that rewards poor behavior.

They don’t make the news as often, but they’re there, the nice guys who finish far from last. What does authentic leadership look and feel like in action? Perhaps it’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who publicly demanded a gender-equal cabinet simply “because it’s 2015.” Or Mauricio Macri, the wealthy businessman-turned-president of Argentina who plans to decrease inflation, debt, and the international isolation that has stunted the country for decades. Can we shift our popular and workplace culture to celebrate the true leaders among us? How do we want to define leadership for the generations to follow? What does being an American success really mean?

Regardless of political leanings, we all share the responsibility to own this personal change. It starts now, and it starts with us.

Mark Driscoll: The Teflon Mean Man

Mark Driscoll has been back in the news this month after announcing that he will be launching a new megachurch in Phoenix. Perhaps he’s hoping his new hometown is far enough south of his old stomping grounds in Seattle that people won’t care as much about the trail of wreckage he left there. I originally wrote about Driscoll last summer, but with the unstoppable egomaniac back in the limelight, I thought his misdeeds were worth revisiting. Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”

His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.

Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.

His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.

Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.

Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.

As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.

After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.

Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.

He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.

Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.

Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.

Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.

But his downfall didn’t last. Much like Donald Trump—who has famously claimed that he could shoot a person on the street and not lose voters—there seems to be nothing that can keep Driscoll out of the spotlight for good.

The folksy announcement video about his latest venture is drenched in faux humility about starting a new chapter of his life and “healin’ up” in Phoenix. The legendary bravado is MIA, but for how long? He’s already received very public support from Pastor Robert Morris of Gateway Church, the fourth-largest church in the country, along with a handful of other A-list evangelical names. Time will tell whether Driscoll will actually change any of his ways, but looking at the history, it seems about as likely as Trump naming Megyn Kelly his VP.

The heart of the problem with mean men like Driscoll is that they don’t truly feel they were wrong in the first place. The only thing they did “wrong” was get caught or called out by their peers. Driscoll can tone down his rhetoric and talk about healing and forgiveness all he wants; rest assured, it’s not about contrition—it’s about getting back on top.

Who’s Allowed to Be Mean? A History

To combat our workplaceepidemic of meanness, we need to confront not only the mean men (and women) themselves but also the surrounding culture that enables them. We often rationalize that anger and meanness are a fixed “mentality,” and, even worse, we let it slide in those who have the privilege of power. Disgraced former congressman Michael Grimm—who was packed off to prison last month—is an excellent example of a man at the top who was allowed to be angry and abusive simply because that’s “just who he is.”  Meanness and rage are what he’s known for, his trademark, and he felt theyought to be respected as such.

Anger itself can become a cheap substitute for character. A mean man like Grimm could think: “If I’m known for being the angry guy, I can just react according to expectations without having to figure out how I really feel, andmy behavior will be excused because, well, that’s who I am.” This happens to be  consistent with psychopathy. Even the subclinical psychopath can be fully stymied when emotions arise. He has little to no capacity to understand how he is feeling, let alone why, so it’s easier to just let the free-emotion fire hose loose and act out.

Looking at the history of workplace culture in the United States tells us something about how we got here. The trajectory  has led us to a place where some are allowed to express their anger, while for others—notably any woman in power—it remains taboo.

1930s: Industrial psychologist Elton Mayo began his study of a novel phenomenon that was emerging: workers were angry, and they were letting it show. While some psychologists were willing to accept that conflict was not only inevitable but also potentially good, Mayo considered a work dispute the collective equivalent of a nervous breakdown, a serious and ideally avoidable malfunction.

In his quest for workplace harmony—which has obvious advantages in terms of reduced labor turnover and time lost in strikes—Mayo and his colleagues made important claims that centered on the understanding and handling of anger at work.

His conclusion was that “worker anger had nothing to do with the job itself.” The idea resonated with managers, as it removed the blame from their shoulders. Mayo’s theory was a crowd-pleaser for the manufacturers who employed the workers and the industrial psychologists who made excuses for them. These human-relations experts (as they were known at the time) claimed in 1938 that critics of capitalism were merely “projecting their own maladjustments upon a conjured monster, the capitalists.” But the basic message was more subtle: workers brought anger to the job from other sources, typically from home.

Harmony required restraint from both managers and employees. If workers were angry not because of the job but because of home life, then an angry response from management was inappropriate. In order to enjoy a superior rationality over emotion-driven employees, it was essential that the manager display consistent restraint.

Mayo posited that “a uniformly benign emotional style was the best managerial tool.” This was probably the greatest shift in thinking that emerged between the two world wars. The gruff, authoritarian boss now took his place alongside the angry, punitive parent in what amounted to a major enlargement of the campaign against anger. Expressing anger—being mean—became one of the leading justifiable causes for being fired. The standards for being a good boss were changing remarkably. These standards didn’t, however, apply to owners and those at the very top.

1940s: Once, an ideal foreman was someone who met production quotas and took charge of technical innovations on the shop floor, but by the forties the foreman was expected to be a human-relations expert who blocked grievances and reduced turnover by managing his own emotions as well as those of his underlings. Bosses were urged to recognize that “the day of the ‘bully’ and ‘slave-driver’ had gone and the day of the ‘gentleman’ and ‘leader’ had arrived.”

Yet ambivalence and hypocrisy remained in this period’s otherwise sweeping attempt to reduce meanness at work and elsewhere. While anger control was expected of workers and internalized by many white-collar managers up the hierarchy, it never quite touched the top executive levels. Executives urged restraint on secretaries without any reciprocity. They sent subordinates to emotion-training sessions, but they didn’t go themselves. At the top, executives could still be bullies, because they were in charge.

1950s: Middle managers were expected to make a particular point of being patient and avoiding aggression; an ability to control their tempers under provocation was paramount. Yet studies from the time showed that top managers were not expected to make being pleasant a priority.

In dealing with grievances or disciplinary cases, restraint was not required of the top ranks.  Aggressiveness and drive—the prerequisites of American gumption—seemed incompatible with reining in one’s spirited emotions. And so the executive temper had to be tolerated, and it was up to the subordinate to learn how to time bad news and to put a favorable gloss on problems in order to minimize conflict.

Sadly, sixty years later, we have not moved forward much from this way of thinking—in other words, meanness and anger are okay for those at the top, but heaven forbid the underlings should push back. But with all of the shifting expectations around work life  that the millennial generation brings with it to the office, could this culture finally be in for an overhaul? Let’s hope so.

How to Create Boundaries with Your Ruthless Boss

During my time at the Austen Riggs Center, I learned much from the experienced clinicians there about dealing with a host of difficult personality types. A recurring theme in my research and interactions with therapists there, and in my consulting work, is the need to create boundaries. It’s healthy to have good boundaries with everyone in our lives, even those we love, but when it comes to having them with an abusive boss, it’s crucial to our survival. Setting boundaries is much easier, however, with your garden-variety passive-aggressive types and narcissists. Mean men have a tendency to see a boundary as a challenge to defeat, at least initially. Because of their tendency to be manipulative, it can be especially hard to hold the line.

You don’t need to announce to your boss your desire to set boundaries—and in many cases you shouldn’t, as it may only raise his defenses, provoking aggression. Boundaries are more about your own behaviors than those of others. Sometimes, nonverbal cues can be extremely useful. When you let certain phone calls roll over to voice mail or wait to respond to e-mails at particular parts of the day, you’re setting boundaries. When you leave the endless heap of work-related Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn notifications for the next day, you’re setting boundaries.

When Disney and Pixar president Ed Catmull began working with Steve Jobs, he picked up quickly on Jobs’s controlling and often confrontational style. But he ended up managing Jobs by intentionally avoiding those situations that had a pattern of leading to conflict. For Catmull, managing Jobs was all about timing, not avoidance. Eventually, he’d get back to Jobs with an answer or other response but not until he believed Jobs’s toxic energy had been depleted on the subject.

Boundaries are especially important when dealing with disordered personalities. Sometimes, active listening is not enough to quell a conflict with the more difficult types. As much as I depend on this technique in my professional work and personal relationships, I’m always intrigued by its failure with those displaying psychopathic traits, as subclinical as they may be.

A consulting client of mine, Aaron,* who definitely fit the profile of a mean man, was in an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa,* that showed no signs of getting better until she began to set boundaries. Near the end of their relationship, Lisa learned from a counselor that implementing boundaries could bring down Aaron’s rage level. When he acted in an inflammatory manner, she would simply refuse to engage. When he started screaming, she would stay in her own psychological space, barely listening to him while she resumed doing other things. When he tried to start a fight, she would respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t know what triggered this mood you have, but I know that I’m feeling okay.” And then she would leave the room. With her boundary firmly in place, Aaron’s maladaptive way of seeking control lost steam; he got less relief from screaming or being irritating. Her refusal to engage with his irate behavior left him swimming in his own swamp.

Mean men require considerable stimulation in their life. Simply put, they become bored more easily than the rest of us. A mean man often experiences an extreme type of boredom that best be described by the French term ennui: an oppressive boredom that often leads to lethargy. Drama is a mean man’s recipe for staving off ennui, but it requires an audience and perhaps an additional actor or two. As the drama begins, he feels invigorated and alive. Control and manipulation can empower a mean man, especially when he can successfully elicit the emotions of others. Crazy as it may sound, he thrives on this drama, regardless of what it is, as long as he sees it as a result of his actions, a sign that the world revolves around him.

Having the key to a victim’s emotions is just what the mean man needs to feel in control. Manipulation is a form of success for a mean man, and he must create drama in order to achieve it. The more reactions he sees as a result of this drama, the more he craves it, and an addiction begins to grow.

But what happens when the reward for drama stops coming? What if the person who consistently reacts to his wrath chooses to disengage like Lisa did with Aaron? More often than not, the person with psychopathic tendencies, the mean man, will become bored, and we know how intolerable that is for him. If those around him show no emotion, he may decide it’s not worth creating the drama if he gets nothing from it.

This strategy—essentially to become boring to him—is a highly effective way to create a boundary. Employees of a tyrannical manager can set boundaries merely by taking away the usual satisfaction he gets from seeing them afraid and upset. When he sees these reactions dwindle, his power is challenged, and he will soon grow bored.

If you are cursed with a boss like this, you must at some point consider more seriously an exit strategy. While boundaries can “shape” some elements of his repulsive behavior, you will not stop it; you will not change him. Assuming you don’t want to be a leading character in this melodrama, start with boundaries and then determine how to get off the stage with him. Permanently.


*Names have been changed.

When Does “Mean” Become a Personality Disorder?

In last week’s post, I talked about how crucial my time at the Austen Riggs Center was for me in terms of making sense of my research about entrepreneurs, and understanding the true impact that mean men can have not only on the organizations they run but on anyone who crosses their path, especially their children. It was an awakening to the deeper question of who these men are and, frankly, what is wrong with them. In a much earlier post, I discussed the ten traits that entrepreneurs share. In moderation, these traits aren’t necessarily problematic, but if taken to extremes, this cluster of traits can add up to a personality disorder.

Take Noel*—a patient of a clinical-psychologist colleague of mine—a senior executive who was forced to resign from his position in a large company. Persistent difficulties with top management compromised his ability to perform effectively, and his long-standing interpersonal problems grated on many who crossed his path. Superficially charming, he manipulated the affections of others to get what he wanted and withdrew his attention when he found them no longer useful. Friends and colleagues eventually came to avoid him.

“All is fair in business” was Noel’s rallying cry. Asking subordinates to manipulate the sales numbers to increase his bonus was in keeping with another of his mantras: you are guilty only if you get caught, and the law is for losers.

Noel was the only child of wealthy parents, an Ivy League frat boy who drank heavily while underage, used illegal drugs, vandalized neighbors’ homes, hired hookers, and bragged that all the while he was never caught. He eventually married a family friend because “it was good for business.” Over the years he had a number of extramarital affairs for which he never expressed remorse.

After he was fired from his executive position, he fell into a depression—which he eventually overcame. Back on his feet, he moved into an arena where men like Noel often thrive, up to a point: entrepreneurship.

Noel wasn’t just your run-of-the mill jerk, however. My colleague went on to diagnose him as a Psychopathic Type: having a sense of inflated grandiosity and a pervasive pattern of taking advantage of—and manipulating—other people, disregarding ethical considerations and moral norms, and showing little if any remorse for his actions.

So what’s the difference between a guy like Noel and a more “normal” person who has the traits that Noel had in extremes? In normal individuals, these traits tend to be more adaptive. Normal people may have an intense level of ambition or drive, but they also have an ability to rein it in, to adapt those traits to circumstances when it’s prudent. Not so for the disordered personality. Their ambition or drive doesn’t adapt to reality or convention. The internal censor or sense of restraint just never kicks in.

Being adaptive allows us to size up situations with greater objectivity. And it makes us easier to work with or for, too. Normal, adaptive people don’t gift their female employees vibrators—as yet another lawsuit against Dov Charney of American Apparel alleged that he did—or say things like: “I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product.”

Characterizing and cataloging personality disorders was the life work of Theodore Millon, former Harvard and University of Miami professor and author of nearly a dozen books on the subject. Millon was among the most influential psychologists in the world, taking complex disorders and distilling them down to understandable traits. Equally important, he conceptualized the notion of personality disorder in a way that’s clearer than any I’ve examined.

Millon showed how personality disorders are made up of maladaptive traits, and he offered two explanations for the severity of a disorder as one moves along the continuum from health to pathology. First, specific traits can be more intense in the ways they are expressed, or have a higher dimension. Second, the number of an individual’s maladaptive traits can increase along that continuum.

For most people, coping strategies are diverse and flexible. When one strategy or behavior doesn’t work, we just try something else. But those with personality disorders tend to practice the same strategies repeatedly with only minor variations in outcome. When things fail to improve, their stress level keeps rising—which further amplifies their sense of vulnerability—and, ultimately, they find themselves in crisis mode. Their perception of the world becomes increasingly distorted. Though oversimplified, the throwaway cliché of craziness defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result has a kernel of truth here.

Psychologically healthy people know when to change something in their lives and also know how to adapt to what the world offers them. If, for example, the boss wants something done in a particular way, most people will follow directions without much fuss. In many ways these situations are almost scripted; we know what to do and how to behave in a seemingly limitless number of situations.

But personality-disordered people are limited by having far fewer alternative strategies in their repertoire. To make matters worse, they impose strict, irrational conditions for implementing these alternatives, almost as though factors (and this often means other people) in their environment will somehow knowingly conform to their needs. Ultimately, when the environment cannot be arranged to suit the person, a crisis erupts. Unlike normal people, who often find new experiences enjoyable and seize opportunities to learn new and more adaptive strategies, the disordered individual derives far less enjoyment in these circumstances. In fact, new situations that require rather quick adaptability can be a living hell for them, and they react with seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Seen through this lens, I began to wonder if some of the most extreme mean men I was studying—the Dov Charneys and Peter Arnells of the business world—weren’t quite beyond help. And what of the society that made them heroes?


*name has been changed

My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

Over the past fifteen years, a new crop of highly skilled researchers has entered the field of entrepreneurial research. They have in large part cleared away the tangled undergrowth of methodological questions: substantive definitions have been established and, increasingly, real entrepreneurs are used in sample populations. Despite the progress made in establishing a common language and base from which to compare and contrast information, most scholars in the field persist in focusing their research on what differentiates entrepreneurs from the rest of us very narrowly.

As Clemson University professor of entrepreneurship William Gartner noted: “Something gets lost when the focus of research on entrepreneurship sticks too closely to the ‘esoteric knowledge’ [of a] narrow disciplinary perspective. A finding can be right and interesting to a scholar within a specific theoretical perspective, but wrong or obvious to the practitioner and scholar with a broader and messier knowledge of the phenomenon.”

Gartner’s words struck a chord with me. And as I continued my own synthesis of existing research (with all of its elegance, and warts), I became even more deliberate about broadening the scope of my work.

What I needed was the scholarship and insight to make sense of my personal experiences as a consultant and what I knew to be anecdotally true about what makes entrepreneurs different from the rest of us. I began amassing an ever-higher pile of articles from academic journals, working papers, autobiographies, newspaper features, and magazine investigations to add to my transcripts of personal interviews with entrepreneurs, their kids, their wives, and, in many cases, their ex-wives. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting somewhere.

In early 2008 I was offered a coveted scholar-in-residence position at The Austen Riggs Center, which is ranked among the top psychiatric centers in North America. Riggs is a not-for-profit “open” hospital for patients who have not found success with the shorter-term biological and behavioral treatments characteristic of today’s approaches. Most of Riggs’ patients have been hospitalized multiple times in more traditional settings before finding their way to the center. Caught in a cycle of repeated crisis interventions that have failed to address the heart of their problems, they have been labeled “treatment resistant.” Importantly for my research, Riggs is the only psychiatric hospital in the United States that has a specialized focus on intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I didn’t have the background to examine my subjects from the perspective of a therapist, but at Austen Riggs, I would be surrounded by those who did.

The offer from Riggs was a singular opportunity to learn about psychopathology while also having the time and space to dig into two decades of legitimate research about entrepreneurial characteristics. I wanted to determine if there was an untold link lurking in the data. At Riggs, I’d be given full access to the staff, clinical privileges to read case workups, and an open invitation to attend all patient case conferences—a rare invitation for someone without clinical credentials. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand some of the most complex psychiatric disorders and to learn how their etiology is traced.

I took the position. And based within Riggs’ Erik Erikson Institute, I found myself surrounded by brilliant, caring, and inquisitive psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers who were willing to act as sounding boards and brainstorm ideas for additional avenues of inquiry.

My first week there, I asked the Institute’s director, Dr. Gerard Fromm, why he chose me over others to be the Erikson scholar-in-residence. I’ll never forget his response: “We’re fascinated by the questions you’re trying to answer, to gain insight to what drives the behaviors of those particular entrepreneurs that interest you. We have a good measure of self-interest in what you’re probing, Mark, because we believe some patients who come to us for help may be the children of the same kind of men you’re focusing on. The more you can answer your questions, and understand what’s behind their behavior, the better we may be able to understand the parental influence that perhaps helped to shape these patients and what they are now struggling with.”

That was the moment when I realized that the themes I had been identifying in my consulting work over the past twenty years—the dark side of entrepreneurship—could have more profound implications. I’d heard plenty of stories over the years about “crazy” CEOs, and I walked out of Jerry Fromm’s office thinking this project could give insight into the consequential impact these men were making not only on their investors and their employees, but also on their wives, families, and communities. This was the moment when my research truly began to take shape. I was well-versed in the damage mean men could do to their organizations, but my time at Austen Riggs begged the question: Did mean men just ruin companies, or did they also ruin lives?

One Significant Way Good People Can Go Bad

The mean men we’ve discussed on this blog come from diverse sectors of our economy and culture: from organized religion to politics to apparel companies. But one thing that their disparate trajectories have in common? They were all enabled for years—in some cases decades—by those who surrounded them. How could this happen? Even if we consider that some of these men are actually evil, surely most of those who worked for them—who literally followed their lead—were not. How did ordinary people witness years of abuse without stepping in and, in some cases, even participate in mean behavior themselves? Probably nobody is more qualified to answer this question than esteemed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His real-life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundary between good and evil—and the ease with which someone might cross it. He’s come to rather shocking conclusions.

In his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Zimbardo and several of his colleagues set out to answer the questions: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does the institution take over or does humanity emerge? They chose twenty-four college-age male volunteers—all deemed to be normal, healthy, and well-adjusted—and randomly divided them into two groups: “guards” and “prisoners.” The prisoners were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks.

Despite the fact that the students were all judged to be normal and healthy and were fully aware that they were participating in an experiment, by the sixth day, all hell had broken loose. Some of the guards were displaying alarmingly sadistic behaviors, and the prisoners showed worrying signs of depression and trauma. Zimbardo put a halt to the study. His findings have gone on to have profound effects on how we analyze the behaviors of humans in institutional settings.

Since that time, Zimbardo has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts and, perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances affect our behaviors—how the barrel, if you will, can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, having served as an expert witness for one of the guards tried. Zimbardo testified that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, the root of the problem was structural mismanagement (since the far-flung CIA ran the prison, there was no one qualified in an executive leadership role to establish a culture of civility) and horrendous working conditions. The guards were low-level, inexperienced military police, slogging through twelve-hour shifts for forty straight days, with no oversight to guide their actions under extreme stress.

The key factor missing in those who participated in the Abu Ghraib scandal was empathy. Long before this case even began, Zimbardo had found that in similar situations, it’s crucial to be able to see a given situation from different points of view. The only way for the suffering of the prisoners to become real for the guards was to have the guards see the situation through the prisoners’ eyes.

“Empathy,” as defined by Cambridge University neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, “occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” Single-minded attention happens when we are thinking only about ourselves, our current thoughts and perceptions. But if we engage in double-minded attention, we are thinking of someone else at the very same time. When empathy is switched off, we focus only on our own interests. If we are capable of flipping the switch to “on,” we then focus on other people’s needs simultaneously with our own. Through those different points of view, we may not feel what other people are feeling, but we do see what they are seeing. Only then can we make a judgment.

This brings us back to Hannah Arendt and her indictment of Eichmann and his inability to take into consideration an “enlarged mentality.” If we are too narrow-minded, our judgment can become thoroughly invalid, out of whack. If we do not try to enlarge our mentality, we will never be able to think from another person’s point of view.

When people are in a situation in which they do not utilize double-minded attention, they’re prevented from identifying what others are thinking or feeling. The result is that they act out toward others in ways that, at the very least, are inappropriate. At worst, they can be diabolically mean. What Zimbardo’s experiment showed us is that this lack of empathy can become ingrained in an institution’s culture to the degree that otherwise normal people will act in deplorable ways.

One need not be a subclinical psychopath to be incapable of empathy and act egregiously toward others. Otherwise normal people are put in organizational contexts that turn off their empathy “switch” more often than we may think. I’ll bet we all can think of a time when this happened to us, when without our conscious awareness, the switch was turned to “off” and we acted in ways that shocked us or made us feel ashamed. It may be unpleasant to think about, but until we accept that empathy can be turned off, we can’t figure out how to turn it back on.

The Banality of Meanness

Mean. Uncivil. Abusive. Controlling. All of these words could easily describe Barry Freundel, Mark Driscoll, and the other men I’ve discussed on this blog. In my countless interviews with victims of mean, an even more sinister descriptor emerges: these guys aren’t just jerks; they’re evil. Looking at our last two case studies of Driscoll and Freundel, we find it’s not so hard to make the leap. These are men who invoked the divine for their own selfish ends and caused a great deal of pain and suffering in the process. But where exactly is that line between bad and evil?

We often characterize evil as an aberration of human nature because it’s so difficult to rationalize. This difficulty of getting our brains around evil behaviors often leads us to create narratives around those responsible. Perhaps, we suspect, the evil is in response to unbearable circumstances a person may have experienced earlier in life. Or maybe the person is a psychopath, is innately evil. To this way of thinking, the evildoer is damaged or crazy or both.

But there’s an alternate school of thought that tells us that evil might not be such an aberration after all.

In her groundbreaking 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt tried to reconcile the actions of Adolf Eichmann—a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust—with Eichmann the person. In her reporting on his trial, she makes a highly controversial argument that remains polarizing to this day: neither Eichmann nor his fellow Nazis were motivated to commit their acts out of hatred and malevolence. Rather, they were the result of lack of thought, imagination, and memory. Eichmann, she adamantly believed, was incapable of empathizing with his victims’ suffering because he lacked the judgment needed to perceive it. He was not smart enough to think for himself and therefore was “just doing his job” as he claimed in court.

Arendt enraged many people with her views on Eichmann as being “ordinary.” She resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of him in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a psychopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggested, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people. All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

Still, one wonders what could possibly have been going through Eichmann’s mind to allow him to commit such atrocities. How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most hated and perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him in the events of the Holocaust, from concentration camp guards to civilians who turned a blind eye? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal, and therefore more distressing, as we ask ourselves, What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Two years after the trial, Arendt reflected:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt had a supporter in Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief US translator at the Nuremberg trials. He too believed that Eichmann and his peers seemed without intellect or insight, distinguished only by being susceptible to flattery and ambition. “Dictators have no peers,” he said at the time. “Only sycophants to do their bidding.”

Arendt felt very keenly that what really connects us to one another is the commitment to try to see the world from others’ points of view—not to subscribe to their points of view or to merge with their points of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. She was all about dialogue. In Eichmann’s case it was precisely the incapacity and lack of interest in that perspective that she found to be at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil. It was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

While Arendt and others argue that evil is banal, empathy is not. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary, or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it. You take it for granted that what you see and feel is obvious. It is not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy, some experts suggest, may even be relatively rare.

Could it be that knowing how to skillfully practice empathy is the key to minimizing and managing mean?

Do You Have a Mean Man in Your Life?

In a recent post, I came up with a working definition of the kind of “mean” man I discuss on my blog and in my forthcoming book. We defined him as a man who is “almost pathologically driven to succeed and doesn’t care who has to suffer for him to do so. His flagrant, unchecked abuse of others is enabled by the immunity granted to him by his wealth, power, and/or sheer charisma.” If this describes the genus of our bête noir, what are the different species of mean men that roam our halls of power?

1. The Unprincipled

This man has an inflated sense of self, shows an indifference to the welfare of others, and is routinely deceptive in his social interactions. He exploits others and expects special recognitions and considerations without taking on the necessary, reciprocal responsibilities. Unprincipled has little access to an inner moral compass, what psychologists call our superego, which represents society’s standards and determines our personal sense of right and wrong. He enjoys the process of outwitting others, and he maintains relationships only so long as he has something to gain. Unprincipled displays an abject indifference to the truth and an artful, cool lack of concern if confronted with his own deception. He is adept in the nuances of social influence, using glibness, charm, and a studied naïveté to get away with his lies.

Mascot: Double-talking, bloviating New Jersey governor, Chris Christie

2. The Disingenuous

Disingenuous is the life of the party, characterized by friendliness and sociability. But it’s all a show. While he makes favorable impressions on new acquaintances, the facade begins to crack as the hallmarks of his true self come through: unreliability, impulsivity, and deep resentment and moodiness. He is facile in social settings, seeking attention and excitement with more than a hint of seduction. However, his relationships are shallow and fleeting and often come to a disastrous end. Underneath his superficial charms, Disingenuous is contriving and plotting; crafty and scheming; insincere, calculating, and deceitful. His insincerity is boundless, as he does anything necessary to get what he needs and wants from others. He seems to enjoy seductive gamesmanship, deriving satisfaction in the excitement and tension of the deceit. Disingenuous is sometimes mistaken for Unprincipled when seen in the wild, but his deep need for attention and approval are a marked difference from Unprincipled, who has an essential self-centeredness that leads him to not care too much what others think.

Mascot: Shady, sneaky, desperately insecure founder and once again CEO of Zynga, Mark Pincus

3. The Risk Taker

This species engages in risk taking just for the thrill of it. Taking risks gives him excitement and makes him feel alive, which he’ll pursue regardless of the damage to his bottom line, his reputation, or those around him. Risk Taker responds quickly without thinking, his reactions unreflective and uncontrolled. His behavior goes beyond impulsiveness; he is essentially fearless, unmoved by events or circumstances that most people would find dangerous or frightening.

He may appear to others like a fool or a hero—Risk Taker doesn’t care. His need for autonomy and independence overrides his self-discipline. Internally, he is consumed with doubt about ever truly achieving his potential, and his experiences often leave him feeling empty and forever chasing new ways to prove himself.

Mascot: Shamed subclinical psychopathic cycling legend-turned-disgrace Lance Armstrong

4. The Envier

The essential feature of Envier is his blatant self-aggrandizement. Envier feels that life has not given him his fair due, that’s he’s been deprived of his rightful amount of love, support, and material rewards. And now, Envier wants revenge. He wants what’s coming to him. Envier is the most likely species to have brushes with the law, since he may pursue what he feels he’s owed through acts of destruction, theft, or abuse. He will never feel he has acquired enough to make up for what was taken from him in the past.

He is pushy and greedy. He is the poster boy for conspicuous consumption. He is self-centered and self-indulgent, unwilling to share with others for fear that he will lose again what he’d so desperately desired. Envier never achieves a deep sense of contentment. He feels unfulfilled, empty, and forlorn, regardless of his success, and will probably remain forever dissatisfied and insatiable.

Mascot: Rags-to-riches-to-reprehensible advertising impresario Peter Arnell

5. The Explosive

This quarrelsome species is known for their rages and may draw much attention for their temper tantrums and outbursts at friends, employees, or family members. Not unlike the tantrums of children, Explosive’s behavior is an instantaneous reaction to cope with frustration or fear. While this behavior may have the effect of intimidating others into silence or passivity, for the Explosive, it releases pent-up feelings of humiliation. Disappointed and feeling frustrated in life, he loses control and seeks revenge for the mistreatment and criticism to which he feels subjected. His rages often have no apparent provocation. He is hypersensitive to feelings of betrayal or may be deeply frustrated by the perceived futility and hopelessness of his life. Explosive is unable to verbalize what he feels and why, so he responds in the only way possible to remove the irritation. A sense of impotence and failure typically lie beneath his aggression.

Mascot: Impassioned, ranting, raging tech/design genius Steve Jobs

6. The Dogmatist

Dogmatist may be more overtly and directly contentious and argumentative than other species. To him, everything and everyone is an object available for nagging, a sounding board for discharging his anger, or even a target for litigious action. He is relentless in magnifying every minor friction into repeated and bitter struggles. He may insist that his argumentativeness is rooted in certain higher principles, but while there may be a grain of truth found in their beliefs, these “higher principles” are mostly simply opinions. He is unquestionably right; others are unquestionably wrong. Dogmatist achieves delight in contradicting others, regardless of the legitimacy and logic of his reasoning. His hostile and oppositional style is at the core of his persona. His knack for denigrating anyone in the name of whatever principle he happens to espouse is well rehearsed and relentless. Criticism of others “is good for them.” He believes he takes no personal satisfaction in berating people or has any ulterior motives for imposing his opinions, so he feels unconstrained, free to say anything “to set people right.”

Mascot: Scumbag former megachurch preacher who claims to speak for God himself Mark Driscoll

Mean Men vs. Mean Women

The obviously gendered title of my book, Mean Men, as well as one of the theories behind it—namely that there is a huge societal problem in the way we routinely excuse abominable interpersonal behavior in successful, powerful men—is something that, I’m happy to report, has been drawing strong reactions from my blog commenters. Some readers seem relieved that I appear to be pointing out a huge discrepancy in what behavior we deem acceptable in men versus that which we’ll tolerate in women, while others decry me for what they see as sexism. Let me say first that I’m thrilled that my posts are encouraging spirited discussion. To question and unpack these ideas is the very purpose of writing this work.

Male and female commenters alike have jumped in to say that they’ve worked for mean female bosses. To clarify, I am not claiming that mean female bosses—or mean women in general—don’t exist. But innumerable studies have shown that women are socialized to behave quite dissimilarly from men, and their relationship with power is a wholly different one. It’s not that women are never nasty or overly competitive, but this is not the kind of mean I’m talking about.

In this context I don’t use mean to imply that someone is unpleasant to be around or difficult or nasty. Mean in the context of the men I discuss is something much darker; it’s the deeply American trope of the self-made man taken to its most malignant extreme. A mean man may be surrounded by many enablers and yes men, but at his core, he’s a lone wolf who is obsessed with control. He’s almost pathologically driven to succeed and doesn’t care who has to suffer for him to do so. His flagrant, unchecked abuse of others is enabled by the immunity granted to him by his wealth, power, and/or sheer charisma. It’s not simply the meanness that sets these men apart; it’s the lack of consequences earlier in their careers that potentially could have extinguished or reduced the behavior after years, or decades, of getting a free ride.

I searched diligently for female examples of this in the course of my research—counterparts to men like Peter Arnell, Dov Charney, Harvey Weinstein, and Lance Armstrong—but they were so scarce that to focus on those I could find seemed to be blatant cherry-picking rather than presenting a representative sample. Partly, this is because there are simply not as many women in positions of power that rival those of the men I discussed, but it goes far deeper than that.

Successful self-made women such as Sara Blakely and Oprah Winfrey are often praised for their good nature and efforts to work collaboratively with their respective teams. Rarely do we see a woman praised for being a solitary genius the way that Steve Jobs was. By the same token, women are not permitted to behave the way men like Jobs are known to: that is, to be emotional, abusive, and out of control. And the truth is, women are socialized out of this long before they ever enter the working world. Women are encouraged to play well with others, where men are often taught they will be measured on their personal achievements. Individualism is key.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville is struck by how individualism began as the first “language” through which Americans tended to think about their lives, how they valued independence and self-reliance above all else.

These qualities are expected to earn success in a competitive society such as ours, but they are also valued as virtues in themselves. American individualism demands personal effort and stimulates great energy to achieve. But it provides little encouragement for nurturance. This narrow view adopts a sink-or-swim approach to moral development as well as to economic success. It admires toughness and strength and sneers at softness and vulnerability. Win, win, win.

This kind of radical individualism is also a key determinant in the making of a mean man. Mean men represent a type of alienating individualism that endangers our more interdependent ideals: commitment, community, and citizenship. And women simply are not encouraged to behave this way.

With all that said, mean women do exist, outliers though they may be. So where are they? You’ll have to wait until next week.

More Strategies for Coping with a Mean Boss

The comments section of last week’s post included some impassioned responses. There were tales of bad leaders, incompetent HR departments, and mean bosses—male and female. As much as it’s important to address the cultural change that’s needed to stop mean men (and women) from getting a free pass, let alone encouragement, to behave as they do, mobility in one’s career is a considerable privilege. Whether it’s because of shifts in the industry you work in, your family situation, geographical location, or any number of other factors, leaving a bad boss isn’t often an option. Certain workers in highly sought-after professions and in particular circumstances (skilled software engineers in San Francisco, for instance) may be able to be as picky as they like, but we all have bills to pay. Many employees have to stick it out until they have better options to choose from, and even those of us with a great deal of autonomy in our work come across mean men from time to time. I may not report to a mean man, but I’ve worked with plenty of them and have learned to get in their heads to better negotiate my dealings with them. When I feel myself getting emotionally wrangled into a client’s need for control and desire to manipulate, I redirect my thinking from how he’s pushing my buttons to what might be pushing his. As I’ve discussed, the need to control is often fear based. In the mean man’s mind, he’s protecting himself from perceived threats to his fragile internal self-control system.

But manipulation or control through verbal abuse takes two, regardless of who is at fault. “He acts mean, and I respond to his meanness,” is how we might sum up the situation. But seizing opportunities to break the dynamic between a mean man and his target may require turning attention inward. You may need to look at the elements that have led you—usually unknowingly—to participate in this lopsided exchange.

This isn’t to say that victims should be blamed. But over the years I have seen many cases in which someone unconsciously gives a mean man an opening for his controlling and manipulating behavior to manifest. If you’ve been in these situations, you may not realize in the moment that someone’s demands are unreasonable and that giving in to them will pull you into a toxic tango. You may believe that in responding to your boss’s demands, you’re just being a good employee. You may even be fully aware of the abusive behavior but unable to resist it; your reactions feel automatic. Chances are there is also a considerable power imbalance between you and your boss.

We all have many layers of personal history that affect how we respond to abusive behavior: the way we were treated as kids, our self-image, the burdens we carry from our past. The behavior of those around us can tap into a pure, raw emotion that has been stored away and simmering for some time. We all have our buttons that get pushed. Some of us have more buttons than others; some of us have buttons that need barely a tap to engage. I have learned to control my emotional reactions to these men by consciously thinking about the needs that drive them to act so inexcusably. Often, I find myself thinking how pathetic their internal machinations must be in that moment, how their sense of helplessness and vulnerability (despite their tough exterior) is probably a theme in their daily lives. Trying to get inside their heads always helps me get inside my own; I’ve learned to better understand my own buttons and what happens when they get pushed. An awareness of this cause and effect often tends to provide me greater control in the midst of managing, say, a malignant narcissist.

What are the triggers that show someone’s vulnerability to these men? Psychologists have identified a few of the most persistent personality characteristics:

  • Very high need for approval
  • High level of self-doubt
  • Low tolerance for conflict; strong desire to keep the peace
  • Fear of anger
  • Tendency to take responsibility for others’ lives

In moderation, these are typically admirable traits; they can also set us up for potential abuse.

Building off my strategies from last week’s post and asking, “What is my part in this? What button is being pushed by this troubled person?” can be a difficult but empowering exercise. It can help you find your own reactive patterns to situations in which there is an imbalance of power and you are faced with someone’s attempt to control or manipulate you.


How to Cope with a Mean Boss

With my upcoming book, Mean Men, I hope to be part of a shift away from our current climate of mean in leadership culture. Meanness as a strategy for success is finally starting to come into question in the mainstream media. Even Forbes weighed in last week, noting that the extraordinary careers of people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs happen in spite of their bullying personalities, not because their behavior and the culture of intimidation they create is a tactical advantage. But as much as things might be changing in our cultural discourse, mean men still run amok in the real world. And while there’s hope that more and more employees will be able to leave when the men in charge get mean, that’s not always a possibility. So what can folks who find themselves stuck between a mean man and a hard place do to preserve their sanity? Are there ways to, at the very least, blunt the impact of these characters?

Psychologists have been developing specific strategies that help others buffer and deflect the full-on abuse that mean men display when left unchecked. These strategies will not transform aggressively controlling behavior, but they will put boundaries around it.

A near-universal trait of mean men is that they are deeply manipulative. They distort reality, making those around them question themselves and their perceptions: it’s a mean man’s world, and we’re all just living in it. But while we can depend on them to deflect blame, criticize others’ work, and grab the credit that others deserve, we can also be proactive in minimizing the effects of their emotional attacks.

Andrea Kimble,* a senior manager under the infamous Dov Charney who I interviewed for my upcoming book, survived by physically avoiding her unpredictable boss and minimizing one-on-one communication whenever she could. She strategically planned her workspace and her workday so as to always have allies around her when she thought Dov might appear. She even had colleagues give her a heads-up if they knew Dov was on his way to see her so that he couldn’t have the upper hand of catching her off guard.

If you’re not able to physically separate yourself from your boss, detaching emotionally can be a good technique for getting some internal distance. Viewing your situation from a fresh perspective so you can see your circumstances objectively puts you in a better position to consider options than getting overwhelmed by how you feel. The emotional part of your brain requires balance with its rational part so it can cool down, calm down, and strategize.

To practice, take a moment to assess your feelings when you’re agitated but are not in a situation where an immediate response is required—for example, when you’ve received an upsetting e-mail from your boss but are not in the room with him. Take an inventory of the situation by going through the following questions:

  1. What’s happening right now? Write down what you see, hear, and feel.
  2. What are the facts? Assess your personal (and organizational) needs in the moment, and quickly summarize how you are being treated as a result of trying to get those needs met. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you need to get it done?
  3. What is he doing? Identify how he is acting and what you think may be sparking his toxic behavior. Don’t try to psychoanalyze him; the best you can do is find the “triggers” that set this behavior off.
  4. What am I doing? Determine as best you can your role in the situation. List how you are reacting (behaviorally and emotionally) and how you have reacted to this same or similar behavior in the past. This is usually the toughest question of the five to answer.
  5. What are my options? Write down some concrete actions you might take to help the immediate problem. As easy as it may be to find rational answers, it can be just as difficult to act on them.

When a situation causes us emotional pain, our natural reaction is to blame the obvious offender and not do a gut check to see what we may be doing to contribute to our own pain. Looking more rationally at our own role in—and vulnerabilities to—the situation can give us points of leverage for reducing the impact of mean behavior. These kinds of coping mechanisms are not a long-term fix, but they can certainly help you hold on to your sanity and values until you can seek greener pastures. I’ll be exploring additional strategies for dealing with mean in the blog posts to come, so stay tuned if you need some support.


*name has been changed

Incivility in America

  One of The New York Times’ most emailed stories last month was an article by Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, entitled “No Time to Be Nice at Work.” Porath made a powerful case in her piece that rudeness and incivility in the workplace have grown dramatically over the past twenty years, during which she’s been studying and collaborating with organizations. And she posits that we as a society are paying the price for this rudeness with our emotional, physical, and mental health. Throughout the course of my research for Mean Men, I’ve noted the same alarming trends. Professor Porath’s work is only the tip of the toxic iceberg.

The 2014 annual report on “Civility in America,”—a national survey of Americans conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, public relations companies, with KRC Research—showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans across four generations—Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation—perceive incivility to be a major problem.

A 2010 Allegheny College survey, for example, on Americans’ views of civility in politics was revealingly titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling & Negativity.” Professor Porath’s 2011 workplace survey found that just over half of employees reported that they experienced rude treatment from fellow employees at least once a week. A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that some 75 percent of Americans felt that people “are becoming ruder and less civilized.”

Much of the discussion generated by reports of increasing incivility focuses on its negative effects on democratic discourse or its direct costs to individuals. Various research initiatives have popped up to promote more thoughtful, less rancorous political engagement, while new “civility projects” and other programs aim to encourage people to “choose civility” and thereby reduce stress in their life.

The findings of these reports are generally consistent with other research published in recent years on the frequency of disrespectful speech and behavior. Though everything from anonymous Internet commenters to politicians was cited as contributing to the issue, most Americans regarded common actions of their fellow citizens as uncivil, such as the way they use cell phones in public or conduct themselves on social media. But the concern with incivility was really driven home by direct personal experiences of rudeness and disrespect, daily experiences of which were especially common at work and online.

Here’s the problem: data from the “Civility in America” project don’t seem to indicate any “incivility cycle” among the general public. Very few people acknowledge having an uncivil behavioral reaction when confronted by the rude, mean, and inconsiderate actions of others. But there was one consistent reaction to rude or mean behavior: tacit avoidance. And avoidance constitutes a problem of its own. In unpleasant face-to-face situations, people often either leave, simply ignore the offender, or suffer in silence under a torrent of abuse. Encountering online ugliness, they often respond by “defriending,” leaving a site or online discussion, or dropping out of an online community. Incivility at work leads people to quit their jobs due to the perception that there’s nothing that can be done to effect change. Although all of this is understandable, avoidance may be cumulatively fostering the incivility problem. The “art of living together,” to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr, requires interaction. Take that away and incivility may be self-perpetuating.

There’s reason to believe that Millennials may represent a part of the solution to this issue. While their older counterparts believe the rise of rudeness is rather hopeless and unstoppable, Millennials are up to four times as likely to believe that civility will improve in the near future. They are vastly less pessimistic than the preceding generations.

Rather than quietly avoiding uncivil situations, Millennials tend to speak with their wallets. Because of how they were treated by someone in an organization, nearly half (49 percent) have either stopped buying from the company and/or advised others not to buy (44 percent). They have stopped attending pro and college sports because of uncivil behavior they witnessed on the field or in the crowd.

Word of incivility can spread with incredible speed via social media—the domain of Millennials—and it can have real costs to those who make missteps, such as in the case of the new media firm that sent out a crude tweet on behalf of Chrysler or any number of brand fails that have damaged companies’ reputations, in some cases beyond repair. Loyalty is essential to maintain a stellar brand, and Millennials are very aware of their power of choice and are equally as willing to exercise their power and hold companies and public figures accountable. Social media users have also shown that they can unite for good causes and spread the word about events where abuse or unfairness might be taking place, such as they did during the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri. Millennials also make good use of sites like Glassdoor to anonymously share the unfiltered truth about what goes on at a company, and particularly how fairly employees are treated, making it harder for bosses who behave badly to recruit new talent.

With social media giving the individual unprecedented ability to make their voice heard, there may yet be hope that the uncivil amongst us will be left with no place to hide.

Why Christie’s Meanness Will Be His Undoing

Chris Christie returned to his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, this past week to make an announcement that many saw coming despite his recent troubles. In the gymnasium of his former high school—scene of Christie’s youthful glory days as president of his class three years running and captain of the baseball team—he took the stage to throw his hat in the ring and join an almost absurdly crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls vying for the 2016 nomination.

In his admittedly rousing speech, he flayed not only President Obama and his “second mate” Hillary Clinton (yawn) and presumptive opponents like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but the government at large for its utter lack of ability to compromise and get things done. It was stirring stuff, but no one’s ever criticized Christie’s skills as an orator. Will his inarguable charisma be enough to get him back in the good graces of the American people in time to make a serious bid for the White House?

Governor Christie of New Jersey rose to fame as a brazenly incautious politician. He was the “straight talker,” defined by his blistering rants, searing insults, and perennial public feuds—all of which he labels as “harmless theatrics.”

But Christie’s meanness may be what does him in before the 2016 presidential election, something he spent much of 2014 and 2015 to date getting ready to throw his weight into. Bridgegate, the New Jersey lane-closing scandal rooted in a ruthless act of political retribution, promises to be a visible narrative of the belligerence he’s so known for and which can as easily work against him as it does for him. In early May 2015, two of Christie’s most loyal and trusted lieutenants were indicted. Brigid Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University, says it’s probably the death knell for Christie’s national aspirations. “Even if he is not directly connected to the indictments,” she noted, “he is guilty of creating a political culture in which corruption was allowed to flourish.” In other words, the polar opposite of what he vowed to accomplish with all of his “straight talk.”

There’s backlash too for Christie throwing his trusting staff under a bus in the wake of the scandal, as Christie and his minions are infamous for punishing any who cross him. When times get rough and you need friends, that kind of turncoat behavior makes others nervous. “Exoneration of the man is not exoneration of his leadership style,” commented The New York Times in the wake of the indictments.

During his meteoric rise, as he won hearts and minds during a series of town hall style meetings throughout New Jersey, Christie was the envy of the Republican Party for his savvy branding as a tough-talking but likeable, relatable guy with heaps of New Jersey swagger. His popularity was such that certain Republican insiders are rumored to have begged him to run instead of Romney in 2012. But in a post-Bridgegate world, Christie’s path to the presidential nomination is buried in the underbrush.

As it stands, a mind-blowing fifty-five percent of Republicans polled couldn’t imagine voting for Christie. In fact, the only Republican candidate less popular at the moment is America’s favorite bloviating buffoon, Donald Trump. And even The Donald was told “you’re fired” by NBC, his syndicating partner for beauty pageants and The Apprentice. Might it be more than a coincidence that the two loudmouths with the lowest polls going into the Republican nomination process have a worldview that the best way to influence others is to bully them?

Americans have historically shown considerable forgiveness for personal scandals (there was a little kerfuffle with the now-beloved Bill Clinton, if you’ll recall). But the public sees Bridgegate not merely as Chris Christie’s scandal but as a singular case of public betrayal, an event notable for its bullying quality and indifference to the thousands of people who were impacted by it. Extraordinary rhetorical skill notwithstanding, meanness is what threatens to take Christie down.

Is Mean the New Normal?

I love reading the comments I receive each week on my blog posts. Most reader reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with folks from all over the country reaching out to share their stories of how they are struggling with mean men in the workplace and elsewhere. But of course, I’m also hearing plenty from the old boys’ club—“Hey, Lipton, quit your whining. This is the way business is done!”

These are the men who hate to see the status quo questioned and who are threatened by equality, openness, transparency, and civility. In other words, to not have unfettered control over other people drives them nuts. I believe that the more we call out mean behaviors and discuss how to extinguish them, the more those who rely on such tactics will eventually be left in the dust. I know the next generation of smart and worldly workers doesn’t take meanness sitting down, and many new companies—such as Google, Guidewire, and HubSpot—consider meanness already a thing of the past. But that old boys’ club isn’t going down without a fight. And in the meantime, we have our current reality to contend with—where there’s plenty of mean to go around.

Most of us shape our behavior according to cues in both our immediate environment and the broader culture. If you live in a small Midwestern town where strangers greet each other on the street, you’ll start to say hello. Likewise, if being mean, aggressively competitive, and outrageously rude seems not only okay but culturally encouraged, you’re more likely to be a jerk.

A number of recent polls indicate that Americans think authentic leadership is in decline. Authentic in this context means the leader has a clear vision and focuses on the big picture (rather than just obsessing over the next quarter’s results). Authentic leaders have strong values and beliefs, and their behavior is consistent with those values and beliefs. These are leaders who are guided by not only their heads but also their hearts: they show emotion and vulnerability and truly connect with their employees. Authentic leaders are results driven, but they put their organizations’ and employees’ interests ahead of their own. Too pie-in-the-sky? Take a look at Bill George’s powerful research. These leaders get results.

Americans now see the workplace as ruder and more competitive than ever, and they blame leadership for setting this tone. Other polls have found that fewer Americans than ever like their jobs or see their employers as trustworthy and loyal.

But you don’t need to go into the office to witness our nation’s cultural descent; just turn on your television. How many shows feature nothing but backstabbing, conniving, and catty contestants and characters? TV has taken the trend in crass far beyond Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” Now, Chef Gordon Ramsay reams nervous chef wannabes. Real housewives from every major US city engage not just in catfights but in full-fledged brawls. Investors on Shark Tank have themselves a ball ridiculing striving entrepreneurs’ start-up ideas.

The level of public brutality, shaming, and shamefulness we mindlessly ingest today would have been unthinkable during the days of Norman Lear’s merely sarcastic sitcoms. Even (the late) Tony Soprano, a mafia man for crying out loud, contextualized his meanness—and was psychologically troubled by it. In sports too, look at our so-called heroes. From doping dramas to cheating scandals to the rampant domestic violence in a number of sports—it’s not a pretty picture.

What messages are we sending our kids about consequence and reward when we laud these people? It’s no wonder that a 2012 survey of high school students found that 57 percent agreed with the statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”

We’re spending millions per year in our schools to preach the anti-bullying message to kids—and how is that going? How will it play out when they get to the workplace?

A ruder society brings everyone down. Nobody wants to be the nice guy wearing his sunscreen and sun visor in the shark tank. Nobody wants to be the chump who dots every i and crosses every t when everyone else is cheating and getting away with it. Mean men can, and do, point to the harsh world around them as an excuse for their actions, and so mean begets mean in a never-ending cycle.

Prominent psychiatrists Harold Greenwald and Nathan Ackerman saw psychopathy as a “contagious and virulent” social disease. Greenwald noted that a few of his trainees had even asked if he could help them “become” sociopaths, saying they would like to learn how to do whatever they pleased and not give a rat’s ass about everybody else.

Sure, we might all appreciate the supervillain in the movies or in our favorite novel. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a handsome wolf. Mad Men’s Don Draper oozes charisma. And maybe enjoying one cutthroat TV show isn’t enough to turn a person into an aggressive a-hole. But the problem is, there’s too much adoration of jerks. Even worse—studies find we actually give jerks power.

In Jerry Useem’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” we meet Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at University of British Columbia. Dahl reports having entered a high-end retail store one day not quite looking high-end himself. When the saleswoman in the shop looked him over and shook her head, Dahl didn’t leave the store—instead, he made purchases he hadn’t intended to make. After berating himself, Dahl then wondered if other people would open their wallets in the clear face of rudeness too.

I wish I didn’t have to report what he discovered: “When it came to ‘aspirational’ brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton, participants were willing to pay more in a scenario in which they felt rejected.”

Maybe shopping for luxury brands isn’t your thing, but the point is this: mean men don’t operate in a vacuum. Something is operating deep in our psychology in the way we react to and actually succumb to them.


I want to hear from you, commenters: Why are we so drawn to mean?