John Stepper

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.

WOL Careers - Slide 1

WOL Careers - Slide 2

WOL Careers - Slide 3

WOL Careers - Slide 4

WOL Careers - Slide 5

WOL Careers - Slide 6

WOL Careers - Slide 6b

WOL Careers - Slide 7

WOL Careers - Slide 8

WOL Careers - Slide 9

WOL Careers - Slide 10

WOL Careers - Slide 11

WOL Careers - Slide 12

WOL Careers - Slide 13

WOL Careers - Slide 14

WOL Careers - Slide 15

WOL Careers - Slide 16

WOL Careers - Slide 18

WOL Careers - Slide 19

WOL Careers - Slide 20

WOL Careers - Slide 20b

WOL Careers - Slide 20c

WOL Careers - Slide 20d

WOL Careers - Slide 21

WOL Careers - Slide 21b

WOL Careers - Slide 22

WOL Careers - Slide 23

WOL Careers - Slide 24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

“How would you accelerate what you’re doing?”

My orange backpackI knew we would get along well when we both had the same bright orange backpack from IKEA. We met in a cafe near Wall Street on Monday and we were talking about Working Out Loud. After I described the main ideas and the circles that are starting to form around the world, he asked me:

“How would you accelerate what you’re doing?”

I paused and offered an uninspiring “I’m not sure.” So I’ve been thinking about it since then and wanted to share what I’ve come up. My hope is that some of you find these ideas useful and some of you can help make them better.

Step 1. Remove friction

workingoutloud.com is coming soonMake it easy for people to get started. A small part of that is writing a book people will want to read and share with their friends and colleagues. Then there needs to be a website with other resources, stories, and ways for people to ask questions and interact.

I also wanted to remove any mental friction. To me, that meant donating all the book royalties, making the other resources freely available, and creating a new workingoutloud.com website rather than using johnstepper.com. Removing money and ego from a movement makes it easier to join.

Step 2. Build momentum

Posted today by a #wolcircle in the UK.

Posted today by a #wolcircle in the UK.

There are already a few hundred people who have reviewed the book or are forming circles based on draft materials. To build momentum, I need to equip them to spread the word if they want to.

That includes simple text they can use to describe working out loud and a short video they can link to. Other ideas include ways for circle members to know about each other, ask questions, and share information. Just today, for example, we introduced the hashtag #wolcircle on Twitter.

I also need to keep publicizing it through speaking and writing about the benefits to individuals and organizations. This one article from The Economist is good, but it’s just a start.

Step 3. Seed & Amplify

Image copyright Denise Ippolito Photography

Image copyright Denise Ippolito Photography

So far, these are basic things that underpin any movement. They’re necessary but not sufficient. To accelerate things, my strategy (though that seems too lofty a word) is to leverage existing networks and equip them to help their members.

Here are 5 real examples. The more I can add to this list and contribute to additional networks, the faster the working out loud movement will spread.

  1. HR associations like CIPD and Society for Human Resource Management
  2. Outplacement and job search firms like The Ayers Group and CareerShift
  3. Social networking vendors like Jive, Yammer, LinkedIn and their customer success networks
  4. Coaching associations like the International Coach Federation and the International Association of Coaching
  5. Training providers like Dale Carnegie Training

There might be different contributions for each of these networks. I might do a free webinar for their members, write content for their magazines, or collaborate with them on customized training materials.

One group alone has 135,000 members. Combined, these networks touch millions of people.

What would you do?

To accelerate the movement, I’m going through the same questions people ask in the first week of a working out loud circle:

What’s my purpose?

Who can help me?

How can I contribute to those people?

What else would you do to remove friction, build momentum, or seed and amplify this movement? Which organizations might benefit from working out loud and how could I help them?

I’m sure I’m missing things, and I appreciate any and all suggestions you might have.

My favorite book launch party lasted three years

Cake by "Baking Outside The Box"

Cake by “Baking Outside The Box”

There’s a familiar pattern to most book launches. The book signings, the radio shows, the racing for people’s attention in the first 30 days after publication, before the world moves on to one of the other 2 million books published every year.

It’s all good. It’s just not me.

So when I read about a different kind of book launch, I thought “Maybe I could do this instead.”

Humble beginnings

In the preface to Eckhart Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now, he tells the story of how it launched. The book was published by Namaste Publishing, a start-up imprint in Vancouver, and they printed 3,000 copies. There was no marketing budget or much attention at all, so Tolle hand-delivered books to local Vancouver bookstores. He said he found this “enormously satisfying, knowing that every book I handed over had the potential of changing someone’s life.”

His other distribution channels included friends placing copies in spiritual bookstores in other cities along the west coast of the US and Canada. Some copies even made it to a shop London. During the first year, “the book found its readers almost exclusively through word of mouth.”

Word spreads

The original blurbs in the front of the book are evidence of these humble beginnings. Instead of celebrities or noted spiritualists, the quotes are from the bookstore managers who first got the book.

The Power of Now was introduced to me by a customer. I read only one page and agreed that it rang true. It is a jewel of clarity and insight. The book has become a word-of-mouth bestseller here at East West.” – Norman Snitkin, comanager, East West Bookshop, Seattle

 

“I have no hesitation in recommending Eckhart Tolle’s wonderful book. Everyone who has picked up a copy has ended up taking it home. The Power of Now sells on its own merit and by word of mouth.” – Stephen Gawtry, Manager, Watkins Books Ltd., London

Over the first two years, the book got favorable reviews in some small magazines and was picked up by a larger publisher. By that time, one reviewer called it “an underground best-seller.”

A year later, actress Meg Ryan mentioned the book to Oprah in an interview. That led to an article in one of the early editions of Oprah magazine, then more mentions and ultimately interviews. After three years, the book was translated in multiple languages and was on its way to becoming a NY Times bestseller. After eight years, Tolle wrote another book and the two books have sold a combined total of over eight million copies in North America alone. A series of webinars with Oprah in 2008 attracted more than 35 million viewers.

My talk with Oprah

While I enjoyed Tolle’s books and the rags-to-riches nature of the story, what I liked most was how he originally published his book to help other people. He had no hope of making much money with it, yet he did it anyway. And word spread.

That’s my approach with Working Out Loud. It’s meant as a gift. If people find it useful, they’ll tell a friend or pick it for their book club. Some will form a working out loud circle and put the ideas into practice. Maybe a few thousand people might buy a copy in the first year. Maybe word will spread. Maybe not.

Once in a while though, I think of what happened to The Power of Now and imagine if something similar happened to Working Out Loud. What if more people find my gift useful? It might take years but what if millions of people wind up building a better career and life? And since the royalties go to education causes around the world, what kinds of positive impact could we make with that money?

My talk with Oprah wouldn’t be about me at all. When I allow myself to daydream about it, I imagine our conversation would be like this interview with Pharrell Williams. In the middle of it, Oprah shows a video of how other people leveraged Pharrell’s work to make themselves and others happier.

As they both cry, she says, “It’s being used for something that’s greater than yourself.”