Can We Protect Those Who Confront Mean Men?

We’re all privy to the dramas of mean men as they unfold in the media, but what about when those offenses happen closer to home? What if it’s you or one of your colleagues suffering at the hands of a mean boss? How do you call them on it . . . and who do you call? What may be the consequences of blowing the whistle? The intricacies of whistleblower protection in the United States came to the public’s attention in 2002, when the exceedingly bad behavior of a group of rogue top executives at Enron begat the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This act provides protection to employees who decide to blow the whistle when they have evidence of illegal conduct.

Whistleblower legislation is not new. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 covers federal whistleblowers; the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 covers employees of publicly owned corporations; and in 2014, protection was significantly widened by the US Supreme Court to include private corporations functioning as subcontractors to publicly owned firms.

Still, all this legalese provides little comfort to the individual who is working in an organization that fails to meet these criteria for protection.

The ethics violations that are most frequently reported are not confined to obviously illegal acts such as financial fraud or safety violations. The Ethics Resource Center notes in its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey that the top unethical workplace behavior cited was misuse of company time. The second and third most frequent forms of misconduct reported were abusive behavior and lying to employees.

Patricia Harned, the center’s president, says that although abuse is not often labeled unethical, it is the number one reason people leave their jobs.

It gets worse.

Whistleblowing is on the rise, but so is retaliation. According to the Ethics Resource Center’s report, more than one-fifth of employees interviewed—two times as many as reported in 2007—said they had experienced negative consequences for reporting workplace misconduct. Some were simply given the cold shoulder, while others were passed over for promotion.

And it gets worse still: in 2011, 31 percent of whistleblowers said they received physical threats when outed, compared to 4 percent in 2009.

Retaliation against whistleblowers doesn’t just threaten individuals: it threatens our culture. To curb this egregious behavior, we must attempt to do all of the following simultaneously:

  • create a system and a process that fosters the exposure of abusive behavior
  • protect the whistleblower
  • ensure that the information gets to the proper authorities

One major obstacle to employees of entrepreneur-driven firms safely and securely naming or ousting mean men is that they have no “big law” backing. Many of these firms lack a strong internal system of checks and balances, and higher-ups simply don’t know what’s going on day to day in the ranks. In these cases, implementation of a 360-degree review or upward review process, where employees rate their managers, can help.

In 2013, I was asked to consult for an aggressive sales-driven firm with a mean entrepreneur at the helm. This man hoarded as much control as possible, and in the arrogant style typical of so many mean men, he believed he couldn’t lose.

A few years earlier, he had created a board that he planned to use whenever he needed to. Believing that his new board members would be happy simply to take a directorship fee and add some gravitas to meetings, he was shaken to discover that, in fact, they had a very low tolerance for behavior that could damage their company.

When word about his toxicity began to trickle in from reliable sources, action was taken. I helped set up a full management assessment process, and the company swiftly kicked this individual to the curb. Nobody has looked back since.

Another organization I worked with recently was founded by a brilliant entrepreneur who many considered demonically possessed by the will to achieve. He worked nonstop in a cutthroat industry, and yet, unlike our arrogant control freak above, this man expected and fostered civility. He promoted the notion that if you treat employees with respect, they’ll do their best.

This man wasn’t threatened by the idea of implementing a system of checks and balances; in fact, he invited me to create one that was anchored in the values he aspired to for his firm. Employees participated enthusiastically because they felt safe and empowered. The culture quickly became even healthier, with everyone, literally, reaping greater net profit.

There is no singular silver bullet to address mean men who are in positions of power. Context-specific solutions work, but they must be organization-specific and leadership-specific as well. Clarity about the values that undergird the firm’s culture, along with a zeal for actually instilling those values, must exist. Consequences for breaching civility must be meaningful in order to bring about cultural change.

Leaders who tend not to play well with others tend to play even worse when cornered or exposed. And according to the numbers above, these leaders are getting away with committing abuse upon abuse now more than ever before—despite whistleblowing legislation and the increased public awareness of bullying.

Setting up better internal systems of checks and balances will help ensure that whistleblowers do report. How can we expect brave whistleblowers to put their careers—and sometimes even their well-being—on the line if we don’t have their backs?

The deeper issue here, however, is the culture that permits these abuses to run rampant to begin with. When mean men are excused for egregious behavior by their boards as long as they have a solid bottom line, when they’re given a pass from the media for as long as their success holds, and when we explain them away as fragile, emotional geniuses, we’re giving them the green light to treat people however they see fit. And we all need to blow the whistle on that.

Where Are the Mean Women?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that inspired some spirited debate on my blog and LinkedIn page. It seemed to several of my commenters that I was unfairly picking on men. And indeed, I do focus on mean men in my blog posts and in my forthcoming book of the same title. So what gives? Where are the mean women? As I’ve discussed at length, mean men are often perceived as powerful, persuasive, competent, and in control. Their very meanness may in fact help them convince others that they deserve to be top dog. But does it work as well for women?

In 2006, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, asserted that then Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president. In a time when shouting down one’s opponents has become normative political behavior, why was Clinton singled out for being mean? Politicians have always used tactics like this to defame their opponents, but when the comments were picked up by the media, this case began to raise questions about a double standard. The problem wasn’t so much about anger or meanness per se, but that Clinton was being accused of behavior that wasn’t considered befitting a woman. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times categorized the issue in this way:

They are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies. . . . The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn’t speak out strongly against President Bush, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.

Clinton’s experience perfectly expresses the bind many female leaders find themselves in. Women are expected to be kinder and more modest than men and suffer if they fail to conform to this prescriptive stereotype. Groundbreaking studies by Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann, professors at Yale and Northwestern, respectively, confirm what many of us suspect: that while men may be perceived as better leaders because of mean behavior, the opposite is true for women.

Women are conditioned away from being mean, but men essentially get a free pass on displaying anger due to our own cultural biases. We see male anger as a natural response to objective, external circumstances. When women show anger in the workplace, it seems out of context, and thus we naturally presume it’s a product of her personality. Her anger is viewed as internally caused (“she’s an angry person”; “she’s out of control”) rather than externally instigated (“the situation was frustrating or unacceptable”).

The Brescoll/Uhlmann study examined the very real consequences of these biases. The expression of anger by men actually increased their potential to be seen as having higher status by others. Angry men were more likely to be seen as leaders. However, professional women who expressed anger were consistently assigned to a lower rung on the ladder and also earned lower wages. Angry women were seen as less competent than angry men and unemotional women.

Another study, by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford, found that men who expressed anger in professional settings were more likely to be hired than men who expressed sadness and were also given more status, power, and independence in their jobs. Unlike with men, a woman’s occupational rank (whether CEO or trainee) in no way influenced the judgements made about their behavior. Angry women were consistently seen as out of control.

These studies jibe with my personal experience researching and writing about the subject of mean behavior in the workplace. Examples of mean men abound, but try as I might, I had incredible difficulty finding examples of powerful women who exhibit the same set of traits. What I found was that women leaders were held to a distinct double standard. Men can get away with mean, but if women are to maintain their status in any social system (politics, organizational life, entrepreneurship, to name only three), then they may have to suppress some of their emotions in order to be seen as rational, lest they be perceived as less socially skilled, and therefore less hirable for jobs that require social-interaction skills than are men who behave identically.

And it’s not only about meanness: women who demonstrate assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness experience backlash and have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice versus competent and cold. If a woman shows anger, she is the ice queen, the ballbuster, the dragon lady, the bitch.

Experimental studies consistently find that, unlike men, when women try to negotiate greater compensation, they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation, they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they criticize, they are disliked. See a pattern here? The same behaviors that enhance a man’s status are the ones that make a woman less popular. In leadership roles, women may find themselves in a never-ending double bind of figuring out how to direct, command, and control their followers without appearing to do so.

So are women just better human beings, more prone to generosity and agreeableness than they are to getting ahead, making the deal, crushing the competition? The research suggests to me that while inherent goodness isn’t gendered, how we react to and reward the expression of mean traits reflects a deep gender bias in society. Would we have more mean women if we gave the same allowances for powerful women to express their anger? Maybe or maybe not. What we do know is that women are strongly conditioned away from mean, while men realize early on that mean can work to their advantage. As a society, we need to take a hard look at the behavior we reward and that which we punish, and the monsters we’re creating as we do so.

The Irony of Accountability: It’s About the Money, Not the Meanness

The best evidence of how much latitude mean men are given lies in the stories of how most of them finally fall. Rarely are they brought down for being mean; often they are ousted only when they stop hitting home runs—or when they take their bat and bludgeon someone so publicly and so badly that keeping them around becomes a liability. Dov Charney is a poster boy for the irony of accountability: he wasn’t forced out of American Apparel because of his well-known and longstanding record of sexist and outrageous behavior; he was forced out because he was driving the company into financial ruin. He is living proof that in today’s era of bottom-line triumphalism, as long as you are making a lot of money for shareholders, investors, and owners, it’s OK to be an ogre.

Peter Arnell heaped abuse on employees for years, and Omnicom—the company that had purchased his entrepreneurial branding firm, the Arnell Group and trusted him to lead it—turned a blind eye. It was only when Arnell began to take embarrassing and costly advertising missteps that Omnicom “suddenly” woke up. What sunk this infamously nasty CEO? It wasn’t his violent outbursts within the office or even the lawsuit filed against him by four former female employees—it was orange juice.

When the Arnell Group won the PepsiCo contract to design new logos for both Pepsi and Tropicana, the design for the former drew mixed reactions, but the design for the latter caused thousands of Americans to practically lose their breakfast. Customers complained that the new labeling was so different they couldn’t find Tropicana on the shelf.

The blogosphere exploded with criticism aimed at Arnell: “Give us back our orange with a straw in it!” One blogger went so far as to call him “the Bernie Madoff of brands.”

Just weeks after the new design’s launch, Tropicana announced it would revert to its old packaging. The company lost millions of dollars.

It was around this time that the infamous Mona Lisa memo Arnell had written to PepsiCo was made public. With its references to the famous painting—and to the Parthenon, the golden ratio, the relativity of space and time, the “gravitational pull” of a can of Pepsi on a supermarket shelf, and the rate of expansion of the universe—some thought the memo was a joke. It wasn’t.

Most people in Arnell’s position would have hidden in shame and embarrassment or offered an apology to the American public, but as is typical of narcissistic mean men, Arnell responded to critics by saying: “What the hell—I got paid a lot of money.”

He was fired soon thereafter from the group that bore his name but has recently resurfaced. We’ll see how that goes.

We know it takes a while for bullies to get their comeuppance. Mean men rarely retract their claws; they dig deep into their organization’s flesh. They possess their company’s culture. Demon, monster, beast, ogre, asshole—there are multiple labels for mean men, and they’ve heard them all and do not care.

Former Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, known as Chainsaw Al, was notorious for his mass layoffs, but as long as share prices rose, none of the higher-ups were asking him to stop. Interestingly, Jon Ronson interviewed Dunlap for his book The Psychopath Test, and, though admitting he is not a psychologist, reported that “Mr. Dunlap scored positive in category after category.” Ronson noted: “The morning continued with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives.”

Longtime business journalist and editor John A. Byrne wrote: “In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from ever serving as an officer of a public corporation, Dunlap sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”

Byrne knew how Dunlap felt about him too: “He once told a reporter for the New York Times, ‘If he were on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him.’”

What did it take to get Dunlap to leave? Numbers.

Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, is best known for making outrageous comments, insulting women’s bodies—insisting some women were not made to wear the clothes his company produces—and claiming it was “funny” to hear Japanese people talk about his brand “because they have a hard time pronouncing their Ls.” Children who lived on the streets or in developing nations, Wilson believed, needed money—so perhaps child labor laws should be loosened.

This inhumane man got away with saying all this until the public had enough. Lululemon made the 2014 Ten Most Hated Companies in America list, and stock prices dropped. Perhaps Wilson’s behavior is less offensive than that of the others mentioned here, but it is still not suited to the top of the C-suite.

Mean men are everywhere, and only a small portion of the worst offenders are in jail. Many, like Arnell, remain dormant for a spell, only to resurface like the undefeatable creatures they are. For a nation fixated on teaching its children not to bully one another in school, we seem to swallow the adult-bully-as-workplace-genius pill whole.

But social media has mobilized power to the people. Non-shareholders, non-investors, and non-yes-men and women can raise significantly more public outcry now than they could in the past—meaning that some mean men are being held accountable sooner than they might have been just five years ago.

Perhaps the tolerance for psychopaths who belittle, berate, harass, and destroy others is decreasing—especially as study after study shows that this kind of behavior is ineffective. But any tolerance for this level of cruelty in the workplace begs the question: Why do we continue to accept it at all?

Profiles in Mean: Harvey Weinstein

Throughout the seventies, Harvey Weinstein, his brother, Bob, and their friend Corky Burger worked as concert promoters in upstate New York. In the early eighties, Harvey and Bob decided to try out the film industry. Most movie lovers will know how that story goes. Miramax started out on a very tight budget. After the breakout success of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, the Weinstein brothers grew their business slowly through the 1980s, producing foreign and artistic films. By the end of the decade, after receiving accolades for The Thin Blue Line and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, they controlled a large and profitable company.

While Miramax was an enormous success, by many accounts it was also a brutal place to work. Myrna Chagnard, who is described in Peter Biskind’s Vanity Fair article “The Weinstein Way” as a “hard woman with a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude,” says she almost had a nervous breakdown after working for Harvey and Bob.

“It almost destroyed me,” Chagnard said. “I went on workmen’s comp and stayed out for three or four months. I was a basket case.”

Former Miramax publicist Mark Urman said, “The culture at Miramax was very fierce. It was all about aggression. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever enough, period.”

And Eleanor Reznikoff, another former publicist said, “Working there was like having your feet held to the fire. My first experience with Harvey was when he was flying out for a premiere. He would usually arrive the day of the screening, and he called from the plane and said, ‘When my plane lands, if I don’t have 25 tickets in my hand, you’re fired!’”

Employees were genuinely afraid of both brothers. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the scariest, Bob was probably at 9.5. And Harvey? Off the chart.

Alison Brantley, former head of acquisitions, said that when Harvey became angry “he would kind of puff up, like the barometric pressure had changed, so you’d think he was going to explode. . . . It wasn’t like he was going to throw chairs. It was more you thought he was going to go right for you, strangle you.”

Harvey was aware that his behavior was problematic, and he has—more than once—told reporters he knows he is considered an “asshole.” He has blamed his ill temper on a poor diet and once agreed to see an anger management specialist, but he has never offered to hand over the reins of power.

After Disney acquired Miramax for $60 million in 1993, people in the industry hoped the Weinsteins might finally be forced to change their tune—that their new corporate bosses would surely demand they curb the cruelty and tone down the outrage. Alas, this never happened: as long as Miramax continued to generate box office hits and profits—which they did—Disney let the brothers run things the way they always had.

If anything, things got uglier. In 2000, Harvey reportedly dragged a New York Observer reporter out into the street and shouted, “It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.”

Top Disney executives may have considered the Weinstein brothers “pigs,” as one observer put it, but because they attracted Hollywood’s top talent—and made piles of money—they were left alone. There were no repercussions for the Brothers Mean.

It’s not uncommon for top executives and board members who work with men like Harvey and Bob Weinstein to look the other way. For most, this level of raging, threatening, and generally acting like petulant boys in ill-fitting suits wouldn’t fly. But the main objective in the highest echelon of Hollywood is to generate growth and profits, and values such as basic civility and common courtesy come second—or last.

Running people into the ground until their physical or mental health is at risk is a practice not uncommon to mean men like Harvey Weinstein, and people do stick around—until they literally can take no more.

It’s my opinion that men who can’t fathom the possibility of running a company in a collaborative manner show a lack not just of humanity, but also of emotional intelligence. The Weinsteins might be billionaires, they might have an army of minions, and they might not care one whit that their reputation as SOBs precedes them. The world may remember the Weinstein brothers for their work, but how will they be remembered by those who had the dubious pleasure of their acquaintance?

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be a force for exposing mean men, but it could be a lot more powerful. Even stories that strive to be a drumbeat for action come across as sounding as hollow as a toddler’s toy bongo. Rarely does the press linger long enough on business leaders’ abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson 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?

Why Mean Doesn’t Work

Ruthless and abusive leaders are often defended on the grounds that they produce results. Yes, a few eggs get broken, but the omelet comes out great. Profile after profile of Steve Jobs, Charlie Ergen, and Harvey Weinstein note their tough personalities before breezily moving on to the good news: a growth in profits, a big uptick in new satellite TV subscribers, Academy Awards, et cetera. Despite these well-worn examples, there is growing evidence that mean isn’t effective and that unrelenting incivility in the workplace can have disastrous effects on a company.

It Hurts the Brand and Drives Away Customers

Most of us think twice about patronizing companies that treat their employees badly. University of Southern California marketing professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes set up an experiment in which half the participants witnessed a supposed bank representative publicly reprimanding another for a minor infraction such as incorrectly presenting credit card information. Only twenty percent of those who’d seen the encounter said that they would use the bank’s services in the future, compared with eighty percent of those who hadn’t. And nearly two-thirds of those who’d seen the exchange said that they would feel anxious dealing with any employee of the bank. The results were not affected by the employee’s competence, whether the reprimand was public or private, or even whether the employee had done something questionable or illegal, such as park in a disabled spot.

Research also finds that abused employees often pay the ill will forward. In a poll of eight hundred managers and employees from seventeen industries, twenty-five percent of workers who’d been on the receiving end of incivility admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

It Undermines Morale

There’s a growing body of empirical research that shows just how much tyrannical behavior can undermine morale. The poll mentioned above comes from a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which documented the full range of ways that incivility can undermine morale, and the results are striking. The poll showed these findings among workers who’d been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the incivility.

It Sabotages Teamwork

Effective teams are crucial to successful organizations, but mean leaders tend to sabotage teamwork in a variety of ways: from creating a hostile environment to pitting employees against each other to turning a healthy competition into a toxic internal feud. Internal schisms can be extremely damaging to companies, and they’re more likely to emerge under a Machiavellian leader who takes a dog-eat-dog view of the world.

If employees feel as though they are in opposing camps, it’s very difficult for them to get any clarity about an organization’s overall mission or goals, which stymies successful strategic planning.

It Drives Away Talent

However unethical it is, a fast-food restaurant, retail store, or other commoditized service may be able to get away with an authoritarian workplace—with mean leadership—because these types of businesses don’t have to compete as hard for their employees. But it’s a different story in companies that need to recruit workers who are in high demand.

These days, Internet sites, like Glassdoor, that allow employees to dish dirt anonymously can provide a window into the company culture. Spend a few minutes on Zynga’s page, for example, and you won’t want to work there, particularly once you know that the founding CEO who is responsible for that culture is back in the saddle.

Toxic workplaces don’t just repel talent, they hemorrhage it, and this can be even more damaging to a company’s bottom line. If a top engineer or executive walks away at a crucial moment, a company can face big problems in terms of developing products and following through on initiatives. That’s all the more likely to happen in industries where the competition for talent is intense, and headhunters are constantly trying to get sought-after workers to jump ship for the promise of higher pay or a better work environment.

It Scares Away Investors and Partners

It’s not just employees who may steer clear of companies run by mean men but also investors, partners, and other players—the kind of powerful allies that enable companies to grow or can provide for a lucrative exit for the CEO.

These players understand that organizational culture is paramount in terms of future growth and profitability. They know how much it affects employee morale, which in turn affects creativity and productivity. If a company has a reputation for being a snake pit, potential investors or acquirers may decide to stay away.

It Blocks Innovation

Mean leaders can undermine or block innovation—crucial to all successful companies—in different ways.

First, their need for control can make it hard for those below them to take initiative. Mean men don’t build up and empower others; they tear them down and leave them feeling frustrated and impotent.

The drive for control can block innovation even more directly when a leader stops new projects that threaten their vision for the company or their status within it. Henry Ford infamously smashed the prototype of a new car that his people had developed when he was overseas and away from the company.

Abusive leadership can undermine creativity in other ways too. Steve Jobs is famous for being an innovator, but he was also famous at Apple for squelching new ideas. People think twice about freewheeling brainstorming when the reward is harsh ridiculing of their ideas.

Profiles in Mean: Mark Pincus

Mark Pincus, best known as the founder of Zynga Inc., has never played well with others. The Chicago native began his career at Lazard Frères, an august financial firm with 150 years of tradition and a polished internal culture: a disastrous fit for Pincus. As he later told Details magazine: “I went out of my way to tell people they were stupid if I thought they were. People loved me or hated me. In hindsight I was forcing myself to be an entrepreneur—I was shutting all the doors.” How delightful.

After Lazard, Pincus eventually landed in the MBA program at Harvard. He recalled later that he was the only one in his class who didn’t already have a job lined up at graduation, having not been offered a position at Bain & Company, where he’d interned. It was clear by then that Pincus was not cut out for large organizations. “Even if I’d wanted to work at Goldman Sachs, they weren’t going to hire me, because I was saying things like ‘That’s a dumb question’ when I was asked something stupid in the interviews. I just didn’t have a lot of respect for authority.”

He started his first company, FreeLoader, in 1995. The company, which offered a “push technology” service that downloaded webpages for dial-up customers and presented them at broadband speeds, went on to be acquired by online news site Individual Inc. for $38 million.

After kicking around for a bit, Pincus began his second start-up,, a remote tech-support company. It was here that Pincus’s reputation for being difficult started to gain steam, and his obsession with control emerged. Control is a serious concern for entrepreneurs who use outside funds, of course, as they often end up sharing power with venture capitalists who have their own agenda and vision. Like many young CEOs, Pincus became paranoid.

As started to scale up, the VCs behind the company became less comfortable with Pincus’s leadership abilities and abrasive management style. In 1999, two years after founding, he was replaced as CEO.

He remained involved in as chairman until 2003, when he left to cofound the social networking site Tribe had a very bumpy ride, going through three CEOs in a few years. Again, problems surfaced with Pincus.

Tribe’s former head of IT, Darren Mckeeman, would later emerge as a leading critic of Pincus. By 2008, Mckeeman was the last employee at Tribe (by then owned by Cisco Systems). He resigned in September with a public tweet: “Mark Pincus just cursed at me in email and I sent him back my resignation. My 40th birthday resolution was to stop tolerating verbal abuse.”

Mckeeman would go on to allege that Pincus had “misappropriated” $30,000 in revenue from the company to start Zynga at a moment when Tribe desperately needed the funds to stay afloat.

When Pincus ran into trouble at Zynga years later, Mckeeman would again chime in: “Pincus lies as easily as he breathes. The entire venture was a pump-and-dump, built on the ashes of Tribe (whose users he ripped off to start Zynga).”

In 2007, Pincus started Presidio Media and released Texas Hold’ Em Poker. After securing $10 million in funding, he renamed the company Zynga after his beloved bulldog. This time, he was determined not to give up control.

During a talk in 2009 at the Startup@Berkeley mixer, he explained his early game plan:

I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues. Right. Fucking. Now. . . . So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I don’t know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it [laughs]. We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business . . . So control your destiny. So that was a big lesson, controlling your business.

Pincus raised $850 million in VC funding, creating games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille and acquiring popular games such as Words With Friends.

Meanwhile, his reputation for being a control freak grew. He structured his stock holdings to give himself dominant voting power and limit the power of his investors. He also reportedly demanded that employees return stock if he decided their work at Zynga wasn’t valuable enough. Employees who refused were fired. These equity “clawbacks” occurred right before Zynga’s IPO. Pincus reportedly believed that he and other executives had given away too much stock in the company’s early days.

In December 2011, Zynga launched its IPO, with the company’s estimated value at around $14 billion (it would eventually settle at $7 billion).

Mark Pincus was now a billionaire, owning 87 million shares of his newly public company. He later sold 7.8 million shares at a high price of $13.96 per share and, in a secondary offering, sold 16.5 million shares at a price of $12 per share. Pincus’s massive off-loading undermined investor confidence, sparked allegations of insider trading, and sent Zynga’s stock price tumbling.

Meanwhile, Zynga employees gave the company and its CEO scathing reviews on One employee commented that management was “disrespectful to employees. They demand 24/7 availability and don’t hesitate to fire. Managers yell and push people publicly. Common to be put down or disrespected. No value for employees.” And another noted: “The company is very disorganized and so political that the environment has often been described as a modern-day Game of Thrones.”

Between August and September 2012, six high-level executives left Zynga, including the COO, the chief creative officers, VP of marketing, and the company’s top technologist. In June 2013, Zynga laid off over five hundred employees—a reported one-fifth of its workforce—and shuttered its New York and LA offices. A month later, Pincus finally relinquished the CEO post, becoming the chairman and chief products officer.

It’s hard to keep a mean man like Pincus down, though, and on April 8 it was announced that he’ll be returning as CEO of Zynga.

Zynga’s shares plunged 18 percent on the first trading day following the news. Not surprising as his ego-fueled deafness to market realities, undiscriminating arrogance, and blatant disregard for shareholders could fill a book.

While he owns less than 10 percent of outstanding shares, he now holds an imperious 59 percent of the voting power due to his creation of multiple classes of stock. Is Zynga a case study of the effect of one horrible entrepreneur, or is it a lesson about a more insidious dynamic of new, badly managed firms? For mean men to stay in control, they need puppet board members who are disinterested in the average shareholder. Maybe Pincus and his board deserve each other.

Why Women Stay with Mean Men

Last week we took a look at what attracts women to mean men. In many ways, women fall for these men as romantic partners for the same reasons that everyone falls for them: their charm, charisma, and dynamism. The more compelling question might not be why women get together with mean men, but why do they stay? * When we watch accomplished women like Silda Spitzer (wife of Eliot) and Elizabeth Edwards (wife of John) standing by their men through humiliation, we wonder: What is she thinking?

The truth of these partnerships is much more complex than it may appear from the outside. If a man is on the psychopathy spectrum, his romantic relationships are literal psychodramas. He is not so much partnering with his mate as he is colluding with her.

Collusion in this context is a subconscious, repetitive pattern of interaction between two people, with the woman often looking to ease some deep past wound and the man looking to assuage his own anxiety and insecurity by asserting complete control over his partner.

The psychiatrist Jürg Willi defines the collusion principle as the “unconscious interplay of two partners who are looking for each other in the hope of coming to terms together with those conflicts and frustrations in their lives which they have not yet managed to resolve.” They collude around the unconscious hope that they will find in each other what they need to quiet their respective anxieties.

Relationship collusion can suck up an enormous amount of energy. And though the fault for the abusive behavior certainly lies with the controlling partner, the collusion itself is the fault of neither person—no matter how imbalanced it may look to the outside.

If the woman forming a romantic bond with the mean man is his “complement” for collusion, then a mental gridlock emerges and the two become trapped in a parasitic bond.

In Lisa’s case, her husband, Aaron, knew how to lay on the charm and make her feel special. They met when she was a senior in college with her sights set on graduate school at Columbia. But regardless of her intelligence, engaging personality, and attractiveness, she admitted decades later that when she met first met Aaron her self-esteem was low. After she underwent her postdivorce therapy, she saw how the attraction to Aaron and the subsequent twenty years of marriage was, as she put it, “a marriage of psychological convenience. We both brought our own shitty emotional baggage to the marriage but it wasn’t a loving marriage. We were both in it, as psychological near-opposites, trying to get our needs met through the other.”

Although they may appear to others as polar opposites, deep down these toxic couples share a complementary conflict. The roles may shift: the more passive a position she takes, the more active the mean man becomes. And, the actors will intermittently reverse their roles to maintain equilibrium, with the psychopathic husband making the occasional artificial show of loosening his hold on his partner.

Often one partner pawns off on their mate whatever traits he or she can’t quite admit to—anger, depression, neediness, or inadequacy. Think of the paranoid, unfaithful husband who accuses his wife of cheating. In these projections, a couple splits up emotions like household chores. One partner will always be weak, the other always strong.

In Lisa’s case, the one constant in the marriage was her passivity. As she started to clinically deconstruct this drama, she began to understand that she was trying to get from her partner what she lacked at an earlier, critical point in her emotional development.

Like many women married to mean men, Lisa only developed this insight once she’d fully extricated herself from the relationship and devoted her energy to unpacking these issues in psychotherapy. With help, she developed a fuller understanding of her self-defeating proclivities that existed at a subconscious level.

“Willing” victims of psychopathic men are not necessarily suffering from low self-esteem in a conventional sense of the term, however. In fact, they may have a very high opinion of themselves in general, but their self-worth is utterly contingent on having someone to validate them and make them feel special: enter the mean man. Women with a weakness for mean men are often the most loyal of romantic partners, standing by a man no matter what he does wrong. At the extreme, their devotion becomes cultlike.

If a woman is highly susceptible, she may stay with a manipulative man even when he stops validating her on a regular basis and only offers occasional tokens of praise or respect. By that time she may be in too deep to see a way out.

At some point the dysfunctional features of the relationship become painfully obvious. The couple may become too involved in their energy-draining fighting rituals to keep up the pretense of a normal relationship.

When these couples finally do split up, it often gets extremely ugly. The divorce between Vegas impresario Steve Wynn and his wife, Elaine, is grabbing headlines right now as she fights to maintain her seat on the board of a company she was instrumental in building.

It turns out better for some, however. It might have been baffling to watch Silda stand by her husband’s side back in 2008, but this past April when news of her lucrative divorce settlement broke, it appeared she might be getting the last laugh.

*For the purposes of this post I’ve used male and female pronouns to reflect my personal research; however, it is important to note that this toxic relationship dynamic can also exist in gay couples.

Married to Mean

If working for a mean CEO sounds awful, imagine being married to one. And yet, many of the men I’ve studied have had devoted spouses, several of whom were with them long before their husbands found success. So what’s the appeal? Aaron*—an ultra-controlling, tantrum-throwing entrepreneur I coached years ago—had been married to his wife, Lisa, for nearly twenty years when I met them. After interviewing a new client’s direct subordinates and a few other key individuals who worked with them, I would often ask to meet with his or her spouse or partner. While some colleagues considered this approach unusual, I found the spouse’s perspective invaluable. Typically, this would entail only one meeting, and I would rarely have reason to see the spouse again. Lisa was an exception.

Over the years, Lisa had learned to cope with Aaron’s deafening outbursts and his increasing need for flashy bling to show off his success. She attributed Aaron’s affectations to the trauma of growing up with an abusive father who told him he’d never amount to anything. Though she wasn’t materialistic like her husband, she grew to feel pride in their opulent, sprawling northern New Jersey mansion.

She’d grown to accept her lot in life and the daily reality of marriage to a controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally tone-deaf husband. On the upside—I imagine she told herself—he was a good provider, he loved his children, and he didn’t cheat on her (that she knew of). While far from idyllic, it could always be worse.

I was surprised when Lisa reached out a year after I terminated my work with Aaron. The voice mail she left asking if we could meet for coffee sounded distraught and desperate. She didn’t sound like the person I recalled from our in-depth conversation years earlier.

When I met up with her, the woman who sat across from me was a different Lisa. Eyes dark from lack of sleep and red from crying, and with thirty-odd pounds shed from her already svelte frame. She was a wreck.

Two months earlier, she told me, Aaron had calmly announced to Lisa that he was divorcing her. There was no discussion of their problems, no screaming tantrums, just a firm, emotionless declaration.

Confused, hurt, and feeling thoroughly responsible for his decision, Lisa groped for explanation. After reaching out to family and friends about him, she thought I might be able to provide some additional insight into what was happening with Aaron. Though I’d certainly been left with an unfavorable impression of the man, my professional boundaries left me powerless to do much for Lisa other than provide a sympathetic ear. But leaving the coffee shop, I too was confused. For all his bravado, experience told me that someone like Aaron needed a woman like Lisa to keep him steady, a dependable partner who would be there during the vulnerable moments he’d never let anyone else see.

Weeks later, Lisa discovered that Aaron had been developing a serious relationship with a woman in Chicago over the past two years. He’d originally told Lisa how excited he was to be working with a new client there, and that he needed to start spending more time there. How convenient.

After an intervening period of intense postdivorce psychotherapy, Lisa started to understand not only how much deception there had truly been in her relationship with Aaron, but also how much insecurity, denial, and rationalization she must have brought into the marriage to endure it for all of those years.

So what would make a woman like Lisa so unable to resist Aaron? Even after those around her—and perhaps on some level she herself—had seen through his façade?

Only recently has there been much research into the victims of subclinical psychopaths (a group we can comfortably include Aaron in) and what they go through. While these partnerships may often look “normal” to the rest of us, they are typically extraordinarily dysfunctional and often become hellish for the female partner.

In a 2005 study, Christine Kirkman, a psychology professor from the University of Bolton in the UK, sought insights into “the psychopathy of everyday life” with a focus on women in long-term relationships with “successful” psychopaths (that is, those who satisfied clinical criteria of psychopathy, but where the men never showed up in any criminal-justice database). Her findings revealed a mosaic of psychopathic interactions and behavior that highlight the emotional difficulties of the women who become involved with these men. Additional studies followed, validating and building on Kirkman’s findings.

Regardless of where the men fell on the spectrum of psychopathy (from mild to extreme), three remarkably consistent themes emerged from Kirkman’s data and the subsequent studies. First, the male partner was consistently reported to have superficial charm and relatively high intelligence, enabling these men to convince the woman—and her friends and family—that he was trustworthy.

Second, one hundred percent of the men in Kirkman’s study were reported to be pathological liars, providing false yet compelling details to the women about themselves, details which sometimes remained undiscovered for years. Many also consistently lied about their involvement with other women, sometimes numerous women at a time—all of them being lied to. As one woman commented to a researcher during a subsequent study, “I wonder now who I had been living with for 10 years. The man I fell in love with did not even exist.”

The third theme was an antisocial, amoral pursuit of power. Women reported that the men gained and retained power over them by a variety of controlling behaviors. Emotional and psychological abuse were also persistent factors.

Conventional wisdom tells us that men who work hard and bring home big paychecks are great catches romantically, but we best beware of the psychopath in the corner office.


*Names have been changed



Next up: “Why Women Stay with Mean Men.”

Profiles in Mean: Dov Charney

Dov Charney, the disgraced founder of American Apparel, is arguably one of the most visible mean entrepreneurs of the past few decades. Charney was born in Montreal, Canada and raised by creative parents: his mother, Sylvia, was a painter and sculptor, and his father, Morris, an architect. Like Peter Arnell, Charney had to overcome an early obstacle: in his case, a learning disorder that he claims made him “functionally illiterate” until he was thirteen. He only learned to read and write with the tireless efforts of a junior high school teacher who spent two hours a day with him.

He moved to Connecticut to spend his senior year of high school at posh boarding school Choate, and there his entrepreneurial drive kicked into high gear. He began bringing thousands of Hanes and Fruit of the Loom t-shirts—purchased in the U.S. in bulk—over the boarder to Montreal via U-Haul truck where he sold them for a profit.

In 1987, Charney enrolled at Tufts University and during his freshman year there he teamed up with his first partner, Bob Smith. Though the latter came up with the moniker “American Apparel” for the company, the name is reflective of Charney’s obsession with American-made goods and values, a rejection of the Quebec nationalism he grew up surrounded by. Charney’s partnership with Smith wouldn’t last, however, becoming the first in a long series of failed business relationships for the driven but difficult Charney.

Charney dropped out of Tufts in 1990 and borrowed $10,000 from his father to focus on his business full-time, moving operations to South Carolina to start manufacturing clothing rather than importing it. By the mid-1990s, the twenty-something Charney had built American Apparel into a thriving company, catering to young urbanites drawn to the “Made in America” label and Charney’s outspokenness about the mistreatment of garment workers in developing nations. Charney had grandiose dreams from the get-go, once proclaiming “I want to be remembered as one of the great CEOs of our time and of my generation.”

But from the earliest years, Charney’s business life was a rocky ride. In 1996, American Apparel had to restructure and file for Chapter 11, after which he moved his business to Los Angeles and branched out into retails stores. His resilience and bold moves over the next few years earned him millions of dollars and plenty of accolades, even landing him Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year nod in 2004.

For a time, Charney seemed unstoppable. But like so many with such outsize business ambitions, the same risk-taking drive that made him successful, eventually led to his downfall.

Thanks to the multiple lawsuits that have piled up against him over the years, the jaw-dropping ways that Charney treated his staff and others is well-known. And it’s an ugly picture.

Like Arnell, Charney was prone to fits of rage that were way out of proportion to whatever sparked them. In one lawsuit, former store manager Michael Bumblis says that Charney grabbed his throat and began choking him during a store visit. The reason? Bumblis was improperly storing inventory on the store’s second floor.

Chaney also inspected one of the dressing areas in Bumblis’ store and, finding dirt and dust on the floor, he reportedly grabbed the dirt and “managed to push his dirt filled hand into [Bumblis’] face with such force as to cause his head and neck to snap backwards.”

Bumblis was fired from American Apparel and was not given a reason for his termination.

Charney’s impulsivity also frequently manifested itself in compulsive sexual behavior, which would be the centerpiece of many of the lawsuits against him. Former female employees described “sexually offensive conduct” by Charney and a sexually hostile work environment. One suit said that photos from vintage adult magazines were “posted in plain view in the American Apparel stores.” Another said that Charney regularly used disparaging terms such as “cunt”, “slut”, and “whore” in front of both male and female employees. He was widely reported to work in his underwear, and then there is the legendary story of Dov masturbating during an interview with a reporter from Jane magazine.

So why did people put up with it? A senior manager of Charney’s who I did numerous in-depth interviews with explained the double-edged sword of working for American Apparel and Charney. “He was disgusting. I avoided interacting with him in any way I could. His mercurial, loud, in-your-face behavior was intolerable.” Yet, she said “I loved the company and the people. I felt for years—from working at the store level all the way to senior management at headquarters—we were on an important mission. We were making a statement about how America could once again be fair to manufacturing employees, and immigrants in particular. Dov made me feel we were part of some movement, with so many outside the company wishing we would fail.”

In 2014, with American Apparel posting losses to the tune of $300 million and the company’s reputation suffering from their founder’s abominable conduct, Charney was fired from the company he created. Despite being ousted, Charney has as yet refused to cut emotional ties with American Apparel, holding a backyard rally with over 300 current employees of the company at his home just this March.

There’s no doubt that Charney has extraordinary drive and singular sense of purpose but for hubristic men like him, the line between golden boy and cautionary tale might be thinner than he ever imagined.

Profiles in Mean: Peter Arnell

I’ve put countless hours of academic research into what makes entrepreneurs tick, so believe me when I tell you that it can be heady stuff. But examining the behavior of real people is always a more interesting way to explore theoretical constructs than data alone, so let’s take a look at a real life example of an entrepreneur gone bad. Legendary advertising impresario Peter Arnell is widely known for being the boss from Hell. One former employee I spoke to—who wished to remain anonymous—described an incident in which one of Arnell's male personal assistants was forced to sit under a desk as punishment during a meeting. At this point, Arnell is as famous for his horrific behavior as he is for his work.

“He has this remarkable capacity to be both the most intoxicating character – lovable, brilliant, seductively intellectual – and then turn on a dime and be staggeringly cruel,” a former business associate recalled in a 2009 Newsweek feature on him.  Arnell humiliated employees, he said, by making them get down and do push-ups in front of clients. “He is unencumbered by any sense of morality, until you experience it first-hand, it’s just completely and utterly unfathomable.”

So how did Peter Arnell get this way? What drives this crazy behavior?

Arnell’s early life story is a classic tale of struggle, perseverance, and reinvention. Arnell grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father, a mechanical engineer who changed the family name from Abramovitz to Arnell, abandoned the family when Peter was young. His mother was unable to cope with caring for him and his sister, and so the two were raised by her father, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked as a fishmonger, and his wife. Arnell was profoundly influenced by his grandfather’s strong work ethic, and would sometimes rise at dawn to work with him at Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market. In 1976 Arnell graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, marking the end of his formal education. Soon after, he met postmodernist architect Michael Graves at a lecture and talked his way into an internship with him. It was at Graves’ studio that he met Princeton architecture student Ted Bickford and started collaborating with him on books about artists and architects. In the early 1980s, then fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, Dawn Mello, hired the duo to create ads for the legendary department store.

The budding design team got their big break when fashion designer Donna Karan asked them to create an ad for her; they would later go on to design her iconic DKNY logo. By the mid-1980s, the Arnell-Bickford agency was on a roll, with clients that included Bank of America, Chanel, Condé Nast, and Tommy Hilfiger. Arnell, still in his late 20s, acquired an 8,000 square-foot penthouse in Tribeca and an estate in tony Katonah, NY.

Yet even as Arnell’s star rose, stories began to circulate about his volatile temper and misogynistic attitude toward women. The harsh reality of working for Arnell was exposed in detail by a sexual harassment suit brought against him by four former assistants in the 1990s. The suit accused Arnell of verbally abusing plaintiffs during “fits of rage” simply for being women, letting off strings of expletives and degrading them for the benefit of the male employees present. He would frequently use foul and abusive language to reduce office workers—particularly women—to tears for the way they took a message, phrased a question, or cleaned the top of his desk.

His lawyer gave up even trying to defend her client’s behavior and could only claim that the actions were “not illegal.” She cited in her motion “the right to free speech” in responding to the plaintiffs’ defamation and emotional distress claims. The essence of Arnell’s defense:  “As case law demonstrates, words like ‘stupid,’ ‘useless,’ ‘worthless,’ and ‘incompetent’ constitute non-actionable, protected opinions.” The suit was eventually settled out of court.

Meanwhile, a feature article during the summer of 1996 in American Photo magazine about one of his campaigns captured an exchange in which Arnell berated his staff for their work. The reporter wrote that Arnell said his outburst was ''a good opportunity to spread a little healthy fear among the crew.''

In 2007, when Arnell made Gawker’s list of “New York’s Worst Bosses”, one employee was moved to defend the man: "It's all true. Arnell is a difficult boss as well as a sadist with a lower case, sans serif ‘s.’ He's also a crude bully, a terrible coward and famously insincere. But, in his favor, when he's not pretending to kiss the ass of the insipid rich, famous and powerful, he shows a refreshing contempt for authority and takes an anarchistic delight in creative destruction. His saving grace is that the man is ultimately an aesthete. Of his many fetishes, his love of beauty has compelled him to create some of the most beautiful advertising work in the last twenty years."

This quote perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy that so many mean entrepreneurs embody: they are at once inspiring and unbearable. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the comments on the Gawker piece are a litany of Arnell legends not fit to print.

Arnell’s career hit major turbulence in the 2000s after widely derided design work on the Tropicana and Pepsi brands and later, a fallout with Omnicom, the company that acquired his advertising firm in 2001. Despite his setbacks, we certainly haven’t heard the last of Arnell; he was reported to be back working with GNC in 2013, and last year Frank Gehry curated a splashy retrospective of his work.

So why does someone as successful as Arnell behave so abusively toward his staff? And why, despite widespread stories of his unconscionable behavior, does he have such staying power?