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?