child reaching for the ball behind the fenceThere are mean people around us. We don’t have to look hard.

In my Long Beach, CA, neighborhood in the ’60’s, an elderly man lived on our street. There were fifty 8-12 years olds on that street. We played in the street and in each others’ yards. We rode our bikes. We built forts. We operated lemonade stands. We ran around as superheroes with bathroom towels as capes.

Anytime a kid crossed the elderly man’s yard, he yelled at us. If a ball rolled onto his grass, he yelled at us. If a toy went over the fence into his back yard, it was “lost forever.” He complained regularly to our parents about how “unruly” us kids were.

He was the “grumpy old man” in our neighborhood. We did our best to stay away from him.

We see mean behavior between and among family members – to each other and to people outside the family, daily.

At work, we see people acting mean all the time. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 study of US workplaces found that 65 million workers are affected by bullying. “Teasing” takes the form of demeaning and discounting of others’ ideas, efforts, and accomplishments. Cliques form, where insiders are valued and outsiders are scorned. A boss tells a team member their report is “rubbish” – in front of the team.

A recent New York Times article outlined the negative impact on health when workplace incivility reigns.

Mean people are sometimes allowed to get away with mean behavior while keeping their jobs. This week, photos were released of an all-pro NFL player’s ex-girlfriend’s injuries. The player was suspended last year by the league for domestic violence. The release of these pictures has raised the call for the player to be suspended indefinitely.

This player’s mean behaviors continue. The player was seen getting into a confrontation with teammates and a coach on the sideline during a recent game which the team lost – yet the player remains a highly-compensated member of the team.

The player’s new team apparently sees talent as more important than character. The player will start in this Sunday’s game.

Why do people act mean? There might be many valid reasons for people to feel badly about themselves. It could be that they were unloved as a child. It could be that he or she – or a family member – has health problems or financial problems. It could be that they have experienced powerful role models of mean bosses over their careers – so they demonstrate the same meanness.

It could be one of thousands of contributing factors.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why some people act mean. They don’t have to take out their frustrations on others – yet they do. Our choice is what to do with mean people. I suggest we have three options:

Tolerate. We can choose to remain involved with mean people – and say little about their behavior. Toleration means we don’t actively attempt to redirect the mean person’s behavior. We experience it – and the consequences of it, on ourselves and others – daily.

Insulate. We can choose to remain connected with mean people but we intentionally limit our exposure to their meanness. We protect ourselves and our family members or team members by being assertive about what behaviors are appropriate and what behaviors are inappropriate. If mean behaviors blossom, we can address the unkind behavior (while valuing the person) in a neutral, firm fashion – then leave the family dinner or the team meeting. This approach means we must be “on guard” but willing to engage with the mean person, so long as they don’t behave badly.

Eliminate. We can choose to separate ourselves from mean people. We may have to change jobs within our company or to even change companies to eliminate interactions with a mean player. We may choose to not attend family events to ensure we’re not confronted by the bad behavior. We don’t judge, we just move on.

What is the best option for you? For your own well-being, I highly recommend insulation or elimination. Life is too short.

How do mean people in your workplace behave? Does your organization tolerate that mean behavior? How do you insulate or eliminate mean people from your daily lives? Share your insights on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Photo © .shock – Dollar Photo Club. All rights reserved.

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The music heard on my podcasts is from one of my songs, “Heartfelt,” copyright © 2005-2015 Chris Edmonds Music (ASCAP). I play all instruments on these recordings.

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers: Good Comes First (2021) and The Culture Engine (2014).
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