Mean People Finish First?

Most of us are taught from a young age to treat people well and be helpful and good things will follow you. So why, in our corporate culture, does aggressive and mean behavior seem to be rewarded and the bullies more often seem to get ahead? This became painfully real when I came across an article on a recent study that found that agreeable workers tend to make less money than less agreeable employees.

photo by nouQraz via PhotoRee


So why are we taught one thing but then rewarded for another in the work place? It’s not like companies tell their employees to be mean and aggressive. Quite the contrary actually, in my last few positions the companies I worked for had explicit values that highlighted the importance of mutual respect in the work place. Yet, according this study organizations seem to be incenting the more aggressive behavior through increased compensation. Talk about a mixed message! We as individuals also play a role in enabling this kind of behavior. Every time we give a work place bully their way, they learn that their approach works and will continue to treat people accordingly to get things done.

So, what can be done about this? Do we all just need to take off the kid gloves and become bullies? Somehow I think a company full of bullies is going to be even less effective than one with just a few.

For me, it comes down to living my values. At the end of the day I have to look in the mirror and like who I see and be proud of what I have accomplished. Granted, some people don’t have any problem pushing their way through and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. The only way to do anything about these people is to take away their incentives for bullying. Unfortunately at the organizational level there isn’t much you can do about their pay (unless you manage a bully), but the reason they are getting paid more is because they are producing results and the only reason they are doing so is because the nice people are allowing them to bully them to get their way. My dad used to tell me that the only way to deal with a bully was to stand up to them and show them you aren’t scared. Not necessarily to fight them, but to be confident and stand your ground. I think the same can be said in the work place. There are ways to stand our ground and still be professional. It may be frustrating, stressful and even scary at times, but in the long run you are doing the bully and the company a favor. Communication also helps to truly get an understanding of what it the bully is trying to accomplish and work together to find a way to reach the goal professionally. That way both parties get what they want and the bully learns there are other alternatives.

Finally, I think it always helps to follow the old adage, “be the change you want to see in others.” Vickie Elmer wrote a nice post on the site myFootpath on how to get ahead in your career while still being kind. I encourage you to check it out!

So what do you think? Can work place bullies and aggressive behavior be addressed? Or is it just an unfortunate reality of the work place? What are some things you do to deal with this behavior?

About the author: Heath

3 comments to “Mean People Finish First?”

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  1. Jonathan - August 24, 2011 at 2:14 PM Reply

    Being forceful and being effective are very similar, I believe. Sometimes a bully is not really a bully. A true bully would prefer nothing productive be accomplished. While some people feel very strongly about their ideas and hope to compete in a market instead of being concerned so much with their interactions with co-workers.
    Could you agree?
    Some people are intimidating while at any given time there are people who feel intimidated. Causing this fear is a bully’s goal, but it doesn’t not point out a bully. When a person is truly motivated it can be intimidating. In the past, when someone causes fear within me, I always consider both possibilities. I do this because, yes, there are bullies out there.

    • Heath - August 24, 2011 at 2:58 PM Reply

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for your thoughts on this. I would agree that at times there are individuals who are easily intimidated and maybe using the label bully as much as I did was perhaps a little overdone. Where I would personally disagree is saying forcefulness should, in some way, be equated with professionalism. Sure, forceful people can get things done, I don’t dispute that, but I would argue that in the long run they are creating more of a hostile environment for themselves and their coworkers. This can have negative effects on the culture of a work environment which, in turn, can lead to outward impacts on the organization’s customers hindering its competitiveness.

      Personally, I believe truly collaborative and cohesive cultures will stand the test of time and rewarding those forceful people for their actions won’t be congruent with this notion and doesn’t help that individual become a better teammate or leader.

      Maybe someone who sees forcefulness as the correct path would be better off being persuasive? Individuals who are persuasive are able to do so by convincing others to follow them or their ideas rather than forcing them upon their coworkers.

      Thanks again for the perspective. It definitely helped me think through the topic in more detail.

  2. Scott Carbonara - February 26, 2013 at 8:11 AM Reply

    Great article, Heath. I’m glad I came across this. And I agree with your assessment that core values–not the desire to get ahead–differentiates bullies from “nice guys” at work. In his book Entreleadership, Dave Ramsey discusses his company’s Zero Tolerance around Gossip. Why would he have a policy like that? Because Ramsey knows how imperative it is for the long-term health of his organization to define and reinforce the kind of culture he wants. If you find yourself surrounded by what author Robert Sutton would call “—holes” (The No —hole Rule), it’s probably time to find an opportunity and a culture that is more aligned with own values.

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