“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
Thousands of books have been written about meanness, both fiction and non-fiction, not least because meanness is a character trait that seethes with interesting demons. Whether at work or at play, we naturally avoid mean people – but secretly find it quite compelling to watch them from a safe distance. If you watched this season’s ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’ and witnessed the harsh tongue of ‘Lady C’ – you may have been driven to outrage by her personal attacks. Did you also feel a teensy bit disappointed when she walked out of the jungle of her own accord? It was all rather dull afterwards. Car-crash TV gives little strokes and cat-treats to the gremlin in all of us. Fact.
Mean characters have huge human appeal across many levels – think Scrooge, Cruella DeVille, Lex Luther (Lex appeal), Henry VIII (Rex appeal), Donald Trump (utter tool) – they are all compelling characters, but their success has an expiry date. And that’s the nub of the matter. If they were mean AND clever, they would all benefit from cultivating kindness in order to prolong their time on stage.
“Studies show that children who bully at school often have relatively high self-esteem”
Meanness comes in many shapes and sizes, from bullying or criticising to less common negative behaviours such as control, manipulation and denigration. You would be forgiven for thinking that children or adults who behave meanly, do so because they have low self-esteem, but in fact studies show that children who bully at school often have relatively high self-esteem. This throws into question the theory that bullying behaviour says more about how the bully feels rather than the other person.
Bullies at school do not necessarily turn out to be mean people. Meanness can fester in children, adults and the elderly in equal measure. The key is watching for the tiny warning signs of meanness (yes, we are all prone) and addressing them. If left to grow, small acts of meanness can spread like blue mould in a Stilton – tainting all things in their path and forcing relationships apart with an increasing pong. The law of averages dictates that some Stilton-tainted bullies will succeed, but success comes more readily to the milder cheeses. Here are 3 good reasons why:
- Being mean makes you think less
Unless you’re a boxer, you won’t win in business through attack, and you will never do your best work in a fight. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win in business is to move ahead at a healthy pace, not to stop and confront.
Again, unless you’re a professional in the ring, fights are not often won by thought, but by spontaneous response, mastery and trickery. Mean people who have no desire to improve are damned by their condition. Whether employers or employees, they will invariably be wasting energy on learning ways to be increasingly manipulative.
- Being mean doesn’t attract good people
Being mean is not a great attribute when you are working to get off the starting block in business. In start-ups, one reason that mean founders lose is that they simply cannot get the best people to work for them. OK, so they can hire people who will put up with them because they need a job. But great people will always have other options. A mean person can’t convince the best people to work for them unless they are super convincing. Such deception has a shelf-life.
- Natural drive is borne from the need to improve
Once a business is established, those who keep going are driven by something else. They may not say so explicitly, but they’re usually trying to improve the world (finding solutions to a problem). People who have a desire to improve the world have a natural advantage because they will more naturally be drawn to problem-solving rather than power or self-aggrandisement.
“Some selfish people rise because some kind people haven’t learned the art of saying no to them”
Let’s not get idealistic about kindness, we know that some mean people succeed. The social ascent of these people usually has a direct correlation to the types of individuals who surround them. In the words of Sanhita Baruah, “Some selfish people rise because some kind people haven’t learned the art of saying no to them.” Being mean can get you places, but it won’t give you a visiting card to come back. Turning the issue on its head, actively cultivating kindness should be a lesson we learn as young children – at playschool as well in the home. With a little active schooling in this arena, we might see the traits of kindness being more generously applied in the workplace as adults, encouraging thoughtful employers and a fulfilled workforce.
There is much to be gained by eliminating mean from your machine. Kindness is good for you! Good feelings elevate dopamine in the brain, giving us a natural high on emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces oxytocin in the brain and body, leading to reduced blood pressure and protection of the heart.
Yes, being kind ACTUALLY protects your heart.
And finally, kindness breeds kindness. It’s the kind of contagious bug we don’t mind catching. So, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions – why not add something this year instead of quitting something? Introduce small acts of kindness into your home-life and at work and see what comes around…