Mean men. Some of them are globally famous and wildly successful. Others have a much smaller sphere of influence, but they’ve still gained notoriety in their respective corners of the world. Everyone has crossed paths with them. Some of you may be working with or for them.
Who are these mean men? Are we in some sort of mean men epidemic? And most importantly, how should we deal with these unsavory individuals?
Mark Lipton is the author of “Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man.” Lipton is also a professor of management at The New School in New York City, and has advised Fortune 500 corporations, as well as nonprofits, think tanks, and a variety of other types of organizations.
He explains the who, what, and why of this explosion of mean men, and provides tactics for dealing with them.
5 FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE RISE OF MEAN MEN
Expansion of Entrepreneurship: While manufacturing is on the decline, information and service industries are booming, and businesses have been able to start and scale at unprecedented rates, to the delight of investors looking for instant profits. “This shift in the investment economy has created a business environment friendly to creative people with entrepreneurial tendencies who would rather pave their own way as soon as possible,” Lipton says. “Why trudge through the ranks of a large corporation when you can sell a vision that promises to change some element of our world?”
As a result, many men are not learning how to build and work on a team. “They can land millions in angel funding and the early stages of venture capital investment dollars to become head of a company before they would have graduated from college.”
Booming Venture Capitalism: The venture capital industry is expanding. “With hundreds of millions and then billions of dollars sloshing around in their coffers, investors demanded quick – and high – returns, what’s a VC to do?”
Lipton says companies are being pressured to succeed quickly. “Scaling up a disruptive enterprise tests the entrepreneurial personalities of the CEOs being told to deliver on the promise of fast growth under considerable pressure,” Lipton says. “Unfortunately, a less-noted consequence of this pressure is increased tolerance of toxic behavior in entrepreneurial leaders.”
The Hyper-individualistic American: U.S. mythology is littered with stories of inventors and entrepreneurs with big dreams who overcame adversity to be successful. “However, until the 1960s, that prizing of individualism was tempered by strong communal ties among neighbors, church-goers, coworkers and family members.”
“However, the counter-culture revolution responsible for bringing so much social progress in our society also created a distrust in authority, frayed communal ties, and paved the way for the unfettered individualism a vast swath of the business world lives by today,” Lipton explains.
“This is the ideal mean man habitat—we are quick to forget their misdeeds and put our faith in them again, because we think this is just how people get things done now.”
Weak Controls on Bad Behavior: There’s a misconception that a corporation’s Board of Directors will keep CEOs in check. “But the modern CEO – with gobs of special-classed stock shares – has the ability to not only select most members of the Board, but may now enjoy the luxury of knowing the board can never truly fire him,” Lipton says.
“Mr. Zuckerberg and the Google guys figured this out quickly and, fortunately for both firms, they are rather upstanding leaders.” Uber’s Travis Kalanick was forced to resign. “He thought he was immune but, as we saw, he was so toxic as to bring down the wrath of a particularly strong member of his board.”
Normalizing Mean: Meanness isn’t limited to entrepreneurial environments. “Mean men in power outside of the start-up world are similarly quite free to continue to exert power in spite of behavior others find distasteful or harmful,” Lipton says. Sometimes, they’re clever enough to avoid the type of offenses that lead to serious responses.
In other cases, he says they double down in the face of confrontation. “However, when we, the public, accept their lousy apologies, look past abuse and harassment as long as possible because denial feels more comfortable, and subconsciously admire meanness in our leaders, we are also responsible for its proliferation.”
Lipton says we excuse these behaviors as just trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, or theorize that ruthlessness is required at that level. Also, he explains that there’s a little meanness in us. “We relish the spectacle of the crushed singer on a competitive show where a hilariously mean judge gives them a reality check as much as we long for that triumphant moment when the Susan Boyles of the world get to shine.”
And, since popular culture encourages a level of meanness, Lipton is not surprised we’re not sounding alarms when powerful men are mean.
“All of this adds up to a recipe for disaster—a perfect environment for the mean man to take and maintain power in the business world and outside of it,” Lipton explains. “Culturally, economically and politically, we accept mean as the norm and even a necessity.”
THE 6 TYPES OF MEAN MEN
So, who are these cruel and callous men? Lipton explains:
Two-Face: For example, Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State coach who is a convicted serial rapist. Two-face has a façade of deep caring and empathy, but the façade can crack quickly. He said at his trial: “I really care about young men and their healthy development.”
The Opportunist: For example, Lance Armstrong expects recognition and privilege just for being who he is. He is unscrupulous, amoral in relationships, unafraid to humiliate or deceive others to get what he wants.
The Hothead: Long before his history of sexual harassment became public, Harvey Weinstein was notorious for ‘adult tantrums,’ attacks on others, rage, and sudden displays of hostility. Unfortunately, people like Weinstein are normalized, as a film reviewer wrote of him: “He can be cruel and abusive . . . but look at the great works of culture he’s given us.”
The Cowboy: For example, Uber’s founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. Risk-taking thrill junkie. Ultimately may look stupid rather than courageous.
The Dogmatist: For example, Steve Jobs, who was endlessly argumentative, delighted in contradicting others. But unlike those who spar intellectually, the dogmatist is less concerned with legitimacy or logic of reasoning. Wants to frustrate and undermine opponents.
Mr. Dissatisfaction: For example, Donald Trump, who feels like life hasn’t given him his due, feels deprived. Remains, at his core, insecure about his power and possessions. Pushy, greedy, poster boy for conspicuous consumption.
WHY MEAN MEN ARE TOLERATED
“Actually, the people often attracted to mean men, or stay with them longer than what seems rational, are operating under an unconscious need that draws them into their ‘spell’ – in effect, there is a fantasy that some deep psychological needs will be met by the leader who is mean.”
Lipton says there are 3 types of groups that tolerate and even embrace mean men:
- Dependency Group: members need to be dependent on a charismatic leader. He’s very effective at getting people to feel good about what they want to hear. It’s a cult of personality, built on loyalty, through a means of communicating to the group that gets them to emote, to nod, from the way the words are delivered (“Lock her up”). Trump attracts this group.
- Pairing Group: the group sees the leader as the savior, a Messiah. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he was the last hope to save the Apple brand. His employees “paired” with him and gave him that halo of the Messiah. It didn’t matter that he crapped out the first time around, it didn’t matter that Next failed. People who stayed were able to say, “I’ll take what he’s dishing out because I care so much.”
- Fight/Flight Group: the dependency here is to appeal to the fears of his base. With Dov Charney (ousted founder of American Apparel), there was the promise to protect his base of largely immigrant employees against deportation and to bring American apparel manufacturing back to America. While his largely white senior executives were immune from these problems, they too joined with the fight-flight dynamic he churned up.
DEALING WITH MEAN MEN
For women, Lipton says effectively handling mean men requires an understanding of the characteristics they look for in their victims:
- Very high need for approval
- High level of self-doubt
- Lower tolerance for conflict, strong desire to keep the peace
- Fear of anger
- Tendency to take responsibility for others’ lives
Lipton also recommends specific strategies for dealing with mean men, based on your relationship:
If the mean man is your boss, Lipton says you must bring rationality to your emotional state:
- What’s happening right now?
- Inventory the situation: capture what you see, hear feel
- What are the facts?
- Assess your personal needs in the moment
- How are you being treated in trying to get needs met?
- What do you want to get done?
- What is he doing?
- How is he acting, what do you think is triggering toxic behavior?
- What am you doing (toughest question)?
- How do you respond to his behaviors right now?
- How are you reacting to him?
- What are your options?
Lipton also says you must protect yourself by seeing if you have any of the trigger characteristics he looks for.
The next step is to revise history:
- Capture the subtle reactions and feelings you experienced
- Replay the scene, recall the meanness, but rewrite what happened
- Practice new responses, reactions to him
He says it’s important to create and keep boundaries with mean mean.
If the mean men are coworkers, Lipton recommends creating coalitions to ostracize them. “They are toxic and must be removed,” he explains.
If the mean men are employees, Lipton has two words: fire them.