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.