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.

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 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.

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaA month ago, I saw an extraordinary post about a way to change your air travel experience, and it included a line I kept thinking about:

“Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile.”

That image stuck with me. Imagine, no striving or manufactured complications. No irritation at the foibles of others, at the inhumane systems, or at the unpredictable nature of things. You could still travel far but you could be, well, cool about it.

I began thinking: That’s what I want my life to be like! 

3 quotes in my office that are all from the same book

As the universe would have it, around that time I’d just finished reading a book a dear friend had given me for my birthday called Cathedral of the Wild. It’s written by Boyd Varty and it’s about the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. The reserve is about the size of Switzerland and the Varty family has gradually returned it to its natural state over the last 40 years.

The book is a memoir filled with stories of the people and animals at Londolozi. But it’s also about Boyd’s internal struggles and personal growth, and those are the lines from the book I remembered. When I’d finished reading, I did something I never do: I printed out three quotes and taped them to my office desk.

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

 

“It’s only got the power I give it.”

 

“Tsama hansie. Put down all you have been carrying.”

Operating instructions for a right life

In many ways, Lonodolozi was idyllic, a restored garden of Eden. But a years-long investor lawsuit related to one of the family’s ambitious projects made it feel like like their work and dreams were unraveling. Worse, the close-knit family started to come apart too.

The first quote was from a spiritual master in an Indian ashram where Boyd went seeking advice. The second was from his father speaking in reaction to the many calls from lawyers. The last was what the local Shangaan people would tell Boyd when he was a boy when he was tired after a long day.

They could be dismissed as just quotes, and even Boyd remembers snarling about the pithy wisdom from the ashram master. “I could have gotten that from a fortune cookie.” But by the end of the book, at the ripe old age of 29, Boyd sees the wisdom underlying these quotes as “the only operating instructions we will ever need for a right life.”

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

Years ago I would have dismissed ideas like these as New Age fluff, but that was simply the result of ignorance and a closed mind. Now, I take comfort in life’s operating instructions every day.

When I’m trying to do good work and people, management systems, or bad luck deal me a setback, I think Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome. All I can do is to persevere doing what I think is right.

When a person acts in a way that makes me angry or upset, I think It’s only got the power I give it. Mostly, my reactions to the barbs of everyday life are bigger problems than the barbs themselves. I need to recognize an issue without making it bigger than it is.

When I’m finished working, I think Put down all you have been carrying. There are times to focus on what needs to be done and there are times to tsama hansie - to restore, recharge, and just enjoy the moment.

Life, like airports, can be nasty and brutish. Or you can choose how you approach things and utterly change the experience.

How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks

My first Happiness Resolutions chartJust six weeks. I’m still amazed.

I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade – researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.

Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.

Happiness science

How of HappinessThere’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.

The difference is in behavior – what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

How to change the 40%

The Happiness ProjectThis May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits – what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.

“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”

My Happiness Project

This week's Happiness Resolutions chartI had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.

I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:

Feeling good

  • Friends/family – Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
  • 6-second hugs – Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.

Feeling bad

  • No alcohol – Not abstinence but balance.
  • No anger – Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
  • Admin – Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
  • Honest Day’s Work – Putting in a solid effort at work.
  • No negative talk – Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
  • No phone overuse – Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.

Feeling right

Atmosphere of growth

  • Book/Circles – Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
  • Yoga/gym – Training my body to be healthier.
  • Meditation – Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.

Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.

The results 

Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.

What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.

The thing I learned was this: You shouldn’t wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.