You’ve probably encountered a mean man in your career. If not, you’ve definitely seen them on TV or heard about them in the news. Mean men often rise to the top and are celebrated by society despite the damage they can inflict. Mark Lipton, professor, veteran progressive C-suite adviser and author of Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man (September 5 2017) talks about how to recognize these people and how they can negatively impact a business or brand.
How do mean men impact the image and success of a brand or business?
Simply put: They erode brands, and often dramatically. A recent study showed that when people witnessed a mean man verbally berating an employee in public, only one-fifth said they would want to continue doing business with the firm in the future. Look at how Lance Armstrong’s “brand” went from stunning to nearly worthless once the public became aware of his harsh treatment to teammates and others in his orbit.
What are some common traits of mean men?
At times they can seem charming but they are masters of manipulation and quick to take advantage of others. They may seem normal, but they are often obsessed with being in control and having autonomy, We find them to be consistently impulsive – with a fixation on getting immediate gratification, distrusting others, and highly predisposed to take outsized risks. They think very highly of themselves and this gives them the false confidence to take these risks. They also need quite a bit of approval, so if you’re not a sycophant, you’ll have trouble working closely with one. Roll up these factors and you have a guy who looks confident but is quite uneasy in his own skin. If manipulation does not get his needs met through others, then he can be verbally abusive…or worse.
Why does society often celebrate the success of mean men and often look up to them as role models?
First, and perhaps foremost, they have the “cult of personality.” Often seen initially as charismatic and visionary, they can create an emotional appeal when they talk about their dreams, or play on your darkest fears when they speak publicly. They are famously great liars since they cannot feel the emotion of guilt, which allows them to lie so convincingly. They often get away with their mean behavior since no one is holding them accountable….so long as they seem to be succeeding in other ways. With entrepreneurs, their boards of directors and venture capitalists tend to look the other way. And, perhaps most importantly, the media have typically fawned over these men while mentioning only that they can “be difficult.” Sure, there are famous mean men, like Steve Jobs, who have accomplished much but it was not until his death that the tsunami of stories started to be heard about how horrible he was to work with. Even then, the media shrouded his meanness by highlighting what a brilliant perfectionist and visionary he was.
Are there mean women? If so, how do they differ from mean men? What impact do mean men have on women in the workplace?
Mean women exist, for sure, but in far fewer numbers. Women’s personality is often characterized as having milder traits mention in Q2, but the most significant difference is their lower level of Testosterone. This hormone is responsible for “fueling” the traits that create the meanness I write about. One infamous mean woman is Linda Wachner, who used to run Warnaco, the large apparel manufacturer. The way she treated people ended up taking her down, professionally.
How can business schools help educate future leaders and change organizations to prevent mean men from being in charge?
Great question! I don’t think too much progress can be made by attempting to take the “meanness” out of a mean man by putting him through an MBA program. We will see genuine progress by educating our future managers and leaders to recognize the mean traits when they encounter them, to be mindful of the destruction they can cause, and to then understand ways to neutralize their destructiveness. Whether one becomes a board member, a venture capitalist, or a peer to a mean man, they should never tolerate this behavior – even if that means pushing them and their toxicity out of the organization.