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.