Debunking the Myth That to Be Successful, You Must Be Mean

Debunking the Myth That to Be Successful, You Must Be Mean

On a recent Tuesday, I opened my computer to find a message from a friend, Katherine, who I hadn’t spoken to in a while. The message read:

“Hey Emily!! How are you?! It’s been forever! I have a question for you if you feel comfortable sharing, I am looking to start my own design business and I was wondering if you had an opinion on starting out. I’m slowly learning the ropes on how to handle all this, so any advice you have would be so helpful! And let’s set a date to catch up, it’s been too long!”

I jumped at the chance not only to spend time with Katherine but also to speak to her about the joys and stresses of starting a creative business. A few days went by and we met for lunch. We talked about S Corps vs. LLCs, what to look for in a good lawyer and how to begin building a network of clients for future work. Most importantly though, we spoke about Katherine’s motivation to leave her job and start her intrepid journey into the world of entrepreneurship.

She had (what seemed at the time to be) an excellent job working in high-end residential interiors with great budgets, kind clients and a boss who seemed to revel in her own villainous behavior. “I have never been treated with such disrespect.” Katherine said, as she regaled me with tales of her boss constantly insulting, micromanaging and second-guessing everyone with whom she worked. “She told me I would never be successful in business because I’m too nice.”

I looked up from my salad, stunned. “You know that’s not true, right? You don’t have to be mean to be successful.” I could see the relief flood into Katherine’s face.

According to Dori Ben Chanoch, a client of mine and certified behavioral coach and leadership development expert, there are two engines to leadership:

  1. The first is reactive; it is avoidance-based or fear-based.
  2. The second is value-based and purpose-based; passion is what propels you forward.

It seems Katherine’s former boss subscribes to the first tenet of leadership, reacting to every situation with fear-based lapses of ethical conduct. Though she may seem successful, she has low employee retention, de-motivates her employees to do good work, has put-off potential collaborators from engaging with her and just seems unhappy. Is this truly success?

Often times, people conflate being mean with power and being nice with weakness. But you can still be powerful and assertive while being tactful and professional. Further, there are huge benefits to being nice in the workplace. Studies show that being nice has the most positive effect on innovative behaviors. In other words, in order to foster a work environment where people are at their most productive, you must be nurturing.

  1. Grant your employees autonomy and space to try new things. Designers deal with constant critiquing and editing, which can hinder productivity. Giving people space to connect with their creativity in an un-oppressive environment can lead to the most exciting end result.
  2. Be open and inclusive about the decision making processes. This gives everyone involved in a project a broader understanding of what is going on and, therefore, a feeling of ownership over the end result. When someone feels ownership and responsibility for something, they try their hardest at creating a successful product.
  3. Share expert knowledge. Don’t hoard your insights like cans of beans in the zombie apocalypse. Share it. If people understand your thought process, reinforced by experience, they will implement that knowledge in future projects, which can only bolster future successes.
  4. Always learn. According to Bill Nye (the science guy), “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” There is so much to learn from your clients, your peers and your employees. No one is beneath you; if you keep your eyes and ears open, you will always gather know-how and understanding from others that allow you to be better.

There are days where I understand the impulse to “be mean,” to be forceful, to rule with a big stick. Then I think about Virtue Ethics, an idea that “encompasses actions and choices that are flourishing, that represent the best of the human condition and that enhance quality of life.” In an article published in the Journal of Business Ethics, “Virtue Ethics has an amplifying effect that enhances performance as well as a buffering effect that offsets negative consequences, dysfunction, and disappointment.” So there is really no reason to be mean to get your way. In fact, it serves as a disservice to yourself and others.