Why people are mean at work and what you can do about it

I confess to listening in on people. Like some urban anthropologist, I try to glean what’s happening in people’s lives from the fragments of what they talk about walking down the street, eating lunch, or at the coffee shop near the office.

Like a poke in the eyeThe thing they seem to talk about most is other people, often replaying conversations that have made them upset.

“Do you believe what he said?”

“She can’t talk to me that way!”

“Who does he think he is?”

While the details are mostly trivial, the anger and hurt can be substantial, with themes of disrespect and mistrust coming up again and again.

Here’s why this happens so often, and what you can do the next time someone is mean to you at work.

5 reasons people are mean to you

Meanness, it seems, knows no limits. It’s not correlated to a particular demographic or occupation. People are mean in restrooms, conference rooms, and boardrooms. Here are five common causes.

It’s not personal

Perhaps the most common cause of meanness is that someone who’s mean doesn’t see you as a person. A fascinating study showed how easy it is for young boys to quickly form tribes and then label, objectify, and mistreat the other side. On a positive note, the same study also showed how how simple humanizing measures switched the behavior from negative to positive.

They were conditioned to be mean

Perhaps their boss does it to them and, over time, they believe that’s how things are done. If people in authority are mean often enough, a culture of meanness is created and the bad behavior spreads throughout an organization like a virus. Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience? Your boss may be a jerk because the management environment systematically produces that behavior.

Their world is small

Small issues loom large in a small world. Cloistered behind a title and a desk, some managers’ lack of perspective turns little things into crises. Even the smallest problems are marked URGENT and need to be handled ASAP, inflating their sense of self-importance and reinforcing their control over you.

They’re suffering

The next time someone is rude to you, it could be for a reason you simply don’t know about. Perhaps their job is terrible, they’re ill, or something tragic happened in their life. You have no idea what their story truly is.

It’s a mis-communication

I was in the middle of a phone conversation with a colleague and I could hear her talking with someone else. I kept speaking but she didn’t stop. “How rude!” I thought, getting increasingly irritated on the phone. “How could she?” I fumed, preparing a sarcastic rebuke for when she returned to our conversation.

Then I noticed my phone was on mute. And I wondered how many other times I was sure someone had slighted me and it was just a mis-communication.

The best thing you can do

No matter the reason, when someone is mean to you your feelings of hurt and anger are real. Even after those feelings subside, something else lingers: a sense of detachment. If you’re hurt often enough, you protect yourself by caring less.

It’s a costly strategy. As you numb the pain, you deaden the very sensations that allow you to savor work and life.

I’m tempted to use this strategy all the time. Just this week, for example, I got a message that made me tap into my Bronx roots and think: “Well, **** you. Who the hell are you to be snotty and unappreciative?” Feeling my pulse quicken, I stopped and smiled. The curt email was serving as a helpful reminder to practice three things I’ve learned recently.

“It’s only got the power you give it.”

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”

When you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.

I looked around. I was in a place filled with smart, engaging people who inspired me and here I was getting angry over an email.

“It’s a choice, John,” I reminded myself.  I can’t control if other people are mean, but I can choose how I react to it. So I waited a while, wrote a constructive, positive note, and moved on. Instead of wasting my time and energy on something negative, I invested in talking and collaborating with people who make my work and life better.

This time, I chose wisely.

A career talk that everyone should hear (and that anyone could deliver)

WOL Careers - Slide 1People at all stages of their careers have been asking the same basic questions for decades:

“How do I get promoted?”

“How do I find jobs that are available?

“How do I manage my career?”

To help answer those questions, there are plenty of career development talks at work, networking events, and HR courses which give people advice and examples. These can be helpful and sometimes inspiring. They just don’t equip people to make any meaningful change in how they manage their careers.

Now, we have something better.

A different kind of career event

Last month, I was asked to give a talk on personal branding so I could answer some of those career questions for a particular organization. Instead, I offered to talk about working out loud and help people form working out loud circles. We put together a 60-minute, interactive session for over 80 people which ended with Q&A and a call for volunteers to join circles.

25% of the audience volunteered.

The reason so many people joined wasn’t because of me or my slides, it was because they were hungry for something they could do to invest in themselves. Although most had never heard of working out loud, the ideas seemed like common sense and the circles gave them a way to apply that common sense towards a personal goal they cared about. A few weeks later, five circles formed and started meeting.

Results you can replicate

Speaking at this event gave me an idea. I had seen how, even if you want to work out loud, convincing friends who’ve never heard of it to form a circle could be hard. So a career event is a natural trigger to taking some positive action. With dozens of people all attending at the same time, hearing the same information, and with a convenient sign-up sheet at the end, it was simple.

So what if we made it easy for anyone to have such an event?

Towards that end, here are a set of slides and commentary you can make your own. The next time you hear about a career or networking event at your firm, maybe you can offer to give this talk instead. Maybe your organization can go beyond offering advice and examples to  truly empowering people, helping them to take control of their careers and their lives.

Slides and commentary you can make your own

My own style for slides is to use large photos and minimal text wherever I can. It means the slides are readable in almost any environment but it also means they don’t stand on their own. So I’ve included images here along with the main points I make. I’ve also included the actual slides as .key and .ppt files and as a PDF.

Feel free to use them in any way you like to help people form working out loud circles. This is just one way to accelerate a positive movement. I welcome and appreciate all questions, suggestions for improvements, and comments about what worked and didn’t work.

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Career planning has changed

  • Career planning has changed from just 5 years ago.
  • For decades, it was a lottery. Who recruited on your campus? Which company picked you? Who was your boss?
  • Now, you have more control than ever.

Three stories

  • Three quick stories of how people find work that’s meaningful & fulfilling.
  • I’ve written about Jordi Munoz and Joyce Sullivan before. The third is Anne-Marie Imafidon who is a friend, colleague,  founder of the Stemettes, and who merits her own chapter in Working Out Loud. Yes, that’s her with the Queen. You might substitute someone in your own organization as an example.
  • The thing they have in common is they all work out loud.

Working Out Loud – 5 elements

You can do better than a lottery

  • A lot rides on which company you join, which part you fall into, and which boss you get assigned.
  • You can increase the odds of landing in a good spot.
  • A bigger, diverse network with deeper relationship provides you access to a wider range of possibilities.

A short exercise

  • Ask people to take out their smartphones and Google themselves.
  • Who are they? Do they have to rely on a broker to help them describe themselves? Or a 2-page resume? From the animated conversations, people found this both funny and embarrassing.

We all need help

  • Many of us don’t even do the simple things we all know we should do, like photos on a profile.
  • It’s not that we’re bad at it, we ‘re just not good at it yet. We need help.

Making change easier

  • Research on changing habits shows how we can make change easier and sustainable.
  • It includes chunking the change into small, fear-free steps and getting feedback along the way. (Albert Bandura called it guided mastery and cured snakes phobias in an hour this way.)
  • It also includes getting help from friends while practicing, practicing, practicing.

WOL Circles

  • Explain how circles work generally and ground rules for inside the firm, especially how they are confidential, with no need to have a certain rating or corporate title.
  • Available resources include the book, circle guides, and a range of material coming to workingoutloud.com. I provide drafts of the material to all circle members.

Call to action

  • Point them to the sign-up sheet or whiteboard and open for Q&A.

I used Apple’s Keynote to create the slides and also exported them here as a PDF and a Powerpoint file.

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation.key

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation (PDF)

Working Out Loud – Career Planning Presentation.ppt

If life came with an owner’s manual, this would be it

Are You Ready to Succeed?After I finished reading this book for the second time, I knew I would be reading it again and again throughout my life.

That wasn’t my reaction when I first got it in the summer of 2013. I didn’t like the title and I didn’t like the cover. Then I started reading it and stopped. But my friend who recommended the book is smart and accomplished, so a few months later I picked it up again. The more I read, the more I knew it was a special book.

The book is Are Your Ready to Succeed? by Srikumar Rao. Practicing the ideas in the book is one of the best investments you can make.

Simple switches in the way we approach life

In the introduction, the author describes how his early career and life was unfulfilling: “The notion that one could find deep meaning and sustenance from life and from what one did for a living was an alien one.” He switched to teaching and began searching through a wide range of texts and traditions, looking for a better way.

He packaged what he learned into a course that he ultimately taught at Columbia Business School. The ideas in the course are about an approach to life and the way we view it, but he felt those ideas would shape his students’ careers as well.

“I knew I could help them achieve even better results with far less anguish by teaching them a series of simples switches in the way they approached life, such as by focusing on what they could contribute rather than what they could get.”

One of the many things I love about the book is the selection of charming parables sprinkled throughout. Here’s a Sufi story as introduced by the author.

Good Thing, Bad Thing, Who Knows?

The first thing when you face an outcome different from what you expected is to judge it. You label it “good” or “bad,” but generally “bad.” The greater the deviation from what you wanted, the worse you think it is.

The following Sufi tale is instructive.

An old man lived in a verdant valley with his son, a handsome and dutiful youth. They lived an idyllic life despite a lack of material possessions and were very happy. So much so that feelings of envy arose in their neighbors.

The old man used practically all his savings to buy a young wild stallion. It was a beautiful creature and he planned to use it for breeding. The same night he bought it, it jumped over the paddock and disappeared into the wild. The neighbors came over and commiserated, “How terrible,” they said.

“Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” said the old man.

Ten days later, the stallion was back. It came with a herd of about a dozen wild horses, and the old man was able to lure all of them into his paddock, which he had fixed so escape was no longer possible. “What good fortune!” said the neighbors as they clustered around.

“Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” said the old man.

His son started to train the horses. One of them knocked him down and stomped on his leg. It healed crookedly and left him with a permanent limp. “Such misfortune,” said the neighbors.

“Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” said the old man.

The next summer, the King declared war. Press gangs came to the village and rounded up all the young men The old man’s son was spared because of his game leg. “Truly you are lucky,” exclaimed his neighbors as they bemoaned their own losses.

“Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” said the old man.

That very winter…

Wisdom to practice and live by

The underlying wisdom in this story is about knowing your truth, sticking to the process, and being free of the outcomes. The way Srikumar Rao delivered it made me understand and embrace that wisdom and want to put it into practice.

Most of the truths in Are You Ready to Succeed? are related to being mindful and controlling our attention and have been available to us for thousands of years. Yet it’s only with practice that we can realize the benefits of knowing them.

I look forward to reading the book again and to redoing the exercises in a special journal I’ve dedicated for that purpose. I just bought the book and a journal for my daughter in the hopes that she can start applying its wisdom sooner than I did.

The keys to a happier life are in your head. This book will help you find them.

The beginning of a movement

There’s a video that shows, in 3 minutes, how movements are often built. Maybe you’ve seen it.

The beginning of a movementDuring the Sasquatch Music festival in 2009 festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. He’s lanky and not a particularly good dancer. It’s awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Then a third.

What happens next is incredible to me even though I’ve watched the video dozens of times.

This week, I felt like that awkward guy who’s been doing a goofy dance for a while. I can almost feel what’s about to happen next.

Different people, different dances

The dance I’m doing is writing a book called Working Out Loud and enabling people to form their own peer support circles. The idea is to help people, through actual practice, learn how to build a network of relationships that can help them with any goal, including discovering more meaning and fulfillment in work and life.

I’ve been doing this dance for about three years. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s been painful to watch. Just this week though, something changed.

Author and bloggerUnbeknownst to me, an organization with 130,000 members made this wonderful video about how they work out loud. They even cited me as “author and blogger,” the first time I was described that way.

Then, the first circle formed that didn’t include me or someone I coached. A woman I didn’t know but had read the blog simply decided she wanted to invest in herself.

A division at work held a career development event where I spoke about how people could take more control of their career and lives. People signed up for five more circles.

NHS Working Out LoudI was notified by some wonderful people in Australia that they’ll be forming circles in Sydney and Melbourne, the first circles comprised solely of people from other firms.

Then, via Twitter, I saw how some smart, creative people at the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK are proposing to form circles there, too.

 

What happens at the end of the video

Watch the video now if you can. See how that second and third dancer made it feel like a group, something others could more readily be a part of. That’s how I felt last week.

After that, more and more people join, each doing their own dance, each attracting yet more people. By the end of the 3-minute video, people are racing from all directions to become part of it. There are hundreds of people, dancing and screaming, and it’s become a movement. You can’t even see the first dancer any more.

That’s exactly the kind of movement I’m hoping for. If I was trying to make money or become famous, then I would spoil it by being selfish or too self-conscious. Instead, I’m just trying to spread an idea that helps people access possibilities for meaning and fulfillment.

Here’s to dancing like nobody’s watching.

The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

I remember my smug dismissal of the advice when my friend first mentioned it. She said she saw it on Oprah.

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.”

It seemed ridiculous. But I kept thinking about it in the following weeks and months. I started to see how much time I spent worrying instead of doing, and how that was a major source of unhappiness for me. I also started to see how to change that.

Who says such things?

The advice came from Eckhart Tolle, whose acclaims include being listed as “the most spiritually influential person in the world.” It came up in response to a question from a viewer during Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Here’s a two-minute video clip.

My friend’s pithy recounting of his advice wasn’t an exact quote, but she captured the essence of it.

“It is true that you need to take action. It is not true that you have to worry to take action….You don’t need worry. You need action.”

New age wisdom isn’t so new

Once I was attuned to the idea of replacing worrying with action, I saw that the idea wasn’t new. Leaders throughout the ages have all given advice similar to Pay the bills.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. 

– Winston Churchill

 

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

 - Marcus Aurelius

 

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.  

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, also wrote about helping people live richer, fuller lives. This is from his Scrapbook:

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

In writing this post today, I learned Dale Carnegie also wrote another popular book: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

How I use this advice all the time

Just this week, when an issue arose at work, I worried. When I was feeling overwhelmed with things to do to finish the book, I worried. When the cough I’ve had for 5 weeks wasn’t going away, I worried. Each time, I told myself:

Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.

I knew that I didn’t need worry. I needed action. So I organized a response to the issue at work and focused on it all week. I mapped out all the remaining book tasks and asked for help for those things I didn’t know how to do. I went to see my doctor.

I was happier. And I’ll be sure to listen to my friend’s advice more often.