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Why Being A Meaner Boss Will Help Your Company—And Make Your Employees Happy

Everybody likes to be liked. And unless you’re the type of boss who revels in tyranny, it’s only natural to seek the favor of your underlings. But there’s a big difference between engaging with employees and fawning over them.
In an era when the virtues of a collegial and collaborative environment are widely espoused, there’s guilt associated with being a strong-handed boss. Managers are often afraid to pull rank for fear they’ll fall out of grace with their reports and spoil team camaraderie if they’re not nice. "So many leaders, supervisors, and bosses suffer from a nice-guy conflict," says Bruce Tulgand, author of It's Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need. "Managers are afraid that people will think they’re a jerk."
Quite frankly, being nice is overrated. In fact, a 2011 study, "Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?" posits that disagreeable people are more successful. The study, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that disagreeable people (especially men) earn more money and are perceived as better leaders. The research has too often been used to draw the conclusion that being mean is a good thing, says study co-author Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University. Which isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, the lesson here is that some people could stand to be less nice.

"Disagreeableness is a multifaceted trait," says Livingston. Less agreeable people are generally "people who don’t really care what you think." Unconcerned with stepping on toes or being unpopular, they cut a clear path to the brass ring and make more decisive leaders—which is especially important because building consensus often doesn't translate to success. 

Let the performance be the arbiter—unless you’re running a commune.

One HR exec at a tech company tells the story of acquiring a startup with a culture that was so consensus-driven that they couldn't decide on which features to cut in order to keep projects on schedule and budget. "Products were delayed, but according to them they had the ‘best culture’ in the world," he says. 

Less-agreeable people are also more likely to advocate for themselves and for others—a huge part of being a leader. A moderately disagreeable person might have the attitude, "I’m not going to step on people willy-nilly, but I’m not going to let people step on me, either," says Livingston.
Nice people tend to be too considerate and afraid to initiate structure, which can be trouble for a startup trying to establish itself as a legitimate business. Livingston cited Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg as a good example of someone who realized that if he wanted to continue as the creative, likable boss in flip-flops, he needed to have a bad cop around to bust some heads. "He hired [Sheryl Sandberg] from Google, and she whipped everybody into shape. They were pretty chaotic before that."
Even in these kindler, more collaborative times, someone has to set priorities, pull the plug on an unprofitable project, or fire someone who’s not pulling his weight. If the reins lay in your hands, here are some tips to help you tighten your hold without being labeled a meanie.
Don’t Be Weak
Many bosses are reluctant managers because they’re afraid to come off as jerks, says Tulgan. "Really, if employees think a boss is a jerk, it’s when they’re too weak." Weakling managers don’t take the time to manage on a daily basis. They let small problems build up into big problems. They pretend to be friends, but when things go south they show their true colors. And the only time they own their authority is when they’re angry with someone. "Be brave enough to own your authority before things go wrong," says Tulgan.
Work it Out
"Don’t fall for the myth of the natural leader," says Tulgan. "If you want to be in good shape, you have to train every day." Talk to people one-on-one, understand what their problems are, and remind them of how their role fits into the greater mission at hand. The big mistake that managers make, says Tulgan, is waiting until they have to give bad news or make a hard decision to start managing. They haven’t laid the groundwork. "If the only time you manage is when you have bad news, then every time they see you coming they’ll say ‘Oh no, here he comes.’"
Build Structure
Structure is not a dirty word to employees. In many cases, they crave it. Philadelphia-based knowledge network startup, Quewey, recently brought on a CEO and the organizational changes have been welcomed by the group. "We realized that we needed a pointed decision maker," says Michael Magill, of Quewey's business development and finance. "A lot of day-to-day decisions come up that don’t seem like big decisions, but they really mold your strategy. At a certain point, younger workers will begin to wonder who is responsible for managing the overall direction, message, and strategy of a business." Magill says that having a defined leader has helped people understand their roles, set the founder's vision in sight, streamline processes, and increase delegation. And projects that would have otherwise remained in the brainstorming stage actually see action.
Monitor Performance
Managers sometimes struggle with rewarding employees, fearing that others will feel passed over, like when giving out raises or offering a better office space. "Let the performance be the arbiter—unless you’re running a commune," says Tulgan.  If you keep close track of each person’s performance and what’s going on with the team, decisions will be respected. Tulgan says that leaders need to also show employees that they will help them earn promotions and find success.
Separate Wheat From The Chaff
The same goes for firing someone who’s dragging down the team. If you’re talking with your team every day and making clear what takes priority and what should be back-burnered, reports will have a clear sense of what needs to be done and you’ll know who’s delivering and who’s not. And don’t assume chopping a few heads will be received poorly by the high-performers. Says Tulgan: "Usually what managers find is that employees say, 'What took you so long?'" Low performers take up money that might otherwise be available for a raise, and they undermine teamwork. Good workers recognize this.
Share Information
Some managers try to keep too much information too close to their chest. Then when the axe comes down, folks are shocked and angered—and you come off as mean and callous. By explaining the facts up front, you’ll save a lot of heartache. For example, "If we delay this project, none of us will see our annual bonus." Employees will respond to your transparency and know what lays ahead.
Hold Yourself Responsible
Take ownership for bad news. If the news is a result of your own poor business decisions, take the blame, says Tulgan. "I’m gonna take a bullet, but we’re all gonna suffer." If the news is based on a decision from above, don’t just blame it on the guys at corporate. "That undermines everybody’s confidence in the organization and the chain of command. Because that’s your source of authority, it weakens you." Explain the business decisions that were made, and how it will affect the company.

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[Image: Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar]

Add New Comment


  • Sam Wilson

    The title of the article succeeded in its goal.  1. It got your attention  2. It made you think about the positives and negatives of a so called, "mean boss".  If you get lost in semantics the message will get lost too. 

  • Daniel Atwood

    Great content but the title is misleading. Mean/nice is the wrong framework, and is probably harmful.

  • June Read

    Mean = Bully.   Jerk = Inept.  Not the same equation or solution for managing people...  Leaders = vision + emotional intelligence  

    The inclusion of "mean' in the article title is misleading. Assertive would be better.

    There is ample evidence that managers are fired or demoted (the higher they are the further they fall)  because they do not demonstrate social or emotional intelligence. 

    Temper tantrums, abusive language make us sick. Those managers full of themselves and full of meanness -  fall short on leadership.  There is more evidence about that. 

    Managers  capable of making difficult decisions while,providing clear and honest communications to the team of people they work with are leaders we crave.    Throw out the 'mean' ingredients - they are tasteless!

  • fhc gsps

    Clearly, young Denis is a victim of too much reality TV and not enough research. Gen X and Gen Y LOVE high drama and histrionics. So they fuel their environments with crap like this. ANYONE with any experience knows that working for "mean" people is demoralizing and demotivating.

    You don't have to be a push-over to be a great boss. You just have to be well trained, a clear communicator and supportive of your staff. And, you have to be a good employee yourself. If you don't have a clue, everyone under you suffers.

    Unfortunately, many a paranoid, weak-link buttholes are in the position of being "bosses". And many people hate their jobs because of it.

    The best "boss" I worked for was a military officer -- hardly a push over -- but he wasn't  a "mean" boss nor was he a butthole. I never heard him raise his voice. I never witnessed him behaving unethically to cover his decisions. He was respectful, wise and covered his staff. He took responsibility. 

    It is possible to not be a jerk and to be a great manager. And, young Denis -- there is a difference between being a "boss" and being "boss-y". Unfortunately, your generation doesn't know the difference.

  • John Mack

    This gets at the foundation of being a good boss.

    “If you want to be in good shape, you have to train every day.” Talk to
    people one-on-one, understand what their problems are, and remind them
    of how their role fits into the greater mission at hand."

    I would add, in talking to the people you manage,  "Talk to each other about how you as individuals and how your group fits in to the greater mission, and build any consensus you need with a sharp focus on the mission. If you need some help, call on me. But first put effort into working things out among yourselves."

    "Write your short term goals down. Share them with each other. When you accomplish one, individually or as a group, let me know."

  • John Williams

    A collaborative environment doesn't have to take decision making away from the boss / manager.

    The key is to collaborate and then based on that additional knowledge and insight make
    better decisions.

    If you collaborate you
    don’t have to abdicate from the decision making, quite the opposite. Even if
    decisions are going against popular opinion you should still make them if you
    believe them to be right, you just need to make your reasons known. That's what good managers do.

  • Dr. Greg Bowden

    There are some real issues with this article. First, the "mean"
    word gives license to behavior that is emotional, non-rational, and
    non-productive.  Mean behavior is defined (loosely from Wictionary) as: A)
    without dignity of mind, destitute of honor, low-minded, spiritless, base; B)
    disobliging, pettily offensive or unaccommodating; C) small; selfish, acting
    without consideration of others, unkind; and D) causing or intending to cause
    intentional harm, bearing ill will towards another, cruel, malicious.  


    So my issues are 1) who would willingly work for a boss with these traits,
    unless a gun was pointed at them?  2) Who in their right mind would hire a
    person at any level to manage others with these strategies, and accept
    responsibilities (damages) from the results?  3) If this person is
    establishing the operating values for the organization, who would want to do
    business with this company?  Hitler put together a very productive war
    machine, but a book about his leadership strategies would not be a best seller.
     Just sayin' - I can't see mean behavior reconciled with integrity in any
    fashion - and integrity means a lot more to employees and customers.

  • Cedricj

    The effective leader always has to balance the tough/kind components of his/her personality. But a factor that cannot be denied, according to Daniel Goleman, is that employees absorb the boss' moods almost by osmosis. As a result toughness on the part of the boss has to be balanced by fairness, consideration, and empathy. 

    Too often a 'mean' boss casts a dark cloud over an organization. One does not have to be mean to be tough or effective as a leader.
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Michael Martel

    Well, I don't necessarily agree with the term mean.  I do like the topics you have.  I equate this with being a leader.  A true leader isn't mean, just does what needs to be done.  There is the term Compassionate Samurai.  Most managers go through their professional careers either being totally compassionate and not doing what needs to be done or being too heavy handed leaving a wake of destruction.  A true leader can be compassionate yet cut down to bone when it needs to occur.  People will respect and like this kind of leader.

  • Jeanne Link

    In my opinion this article wouldn't be potentially damaging if the terminology were more accurate. I feel like the label mean is being used in place of the word assertive. Perhaps "mean" is being used as a hook because an article titled "Why
    Being An Assertive Boss Will Help Your Company--And Make Your Employees
    Happy" is much less compelling. I think article describes primarily assertive tendencies. In my experience, meanness is malicious versus driven by pragmatism, rarely transparent and people on the receiving end are never happy (unless they have some whack masochistic streak). Truly mean management requires employees spend time, and significant energy, emotionally processing disturbing decisions and events instead of being productive. Making wise decisions is not always fair or welcome, but I don't equate that with being mean. The mean boss doesn't take a bullet for the team- they throw someone else under the bus. Meanness is a strong short term motivator but soon people will be leaving ASAP because mean tactics often equal fear tactics.

  • Robert Pawlikowski

    You're practically granting a license for a boss to be a bully.  I'm not expecting a hug fest from my boss, but I don't want a virtual slug fest either.  Is there some reason why we can't have a simple straightforward, adult, professional relationship between boss and employee?

    "Own your authority?"  Well, OK, but own the responsibility of your actions on the emotional well being of your employees.  People love to quote Machiavelli's "It's better to be feared than loved", but you could make the case that he advocated that in the absence of love, fear would serve.

    A boss that is only feared is incompetent - he inspires no loyalty, and will likely be undermined by a mass exodus of employees as the economy improves.

    The difference between the demanding boss and the bully is the demanding boss says "I think you can do better", and inspires the empoyee to strive to do so.  The bully says, "Can't you do any better?", and the employee strives to find another job.

    The demanding boss seeks to be able to say "Good job!" instead of "Good riddance!"

    God save us from the bully bosses in the workplace who conflate the meaning of "subordinate" with "submissive."  Your job as a boss is to raise people up, not put them down.

  • Rohit Bhargava

    Denis - great and timely post, I really enjoyed it.  This is a topic I've spent much of the last year studying as well, in writing my upcoming book called Likeonomics. To me, one thing that stood out in my research was just how often people combine the idea of being nice with the idea of being likeable. They aren't the same thing.

    Steve Jobs would never have been described as nice. Yet if you talked to the people closest to him (both colleagues and family), he was universally loved.  Why?  The reason is because being likeable requires very different things than just focusing on being nice to everyone.  Jim Collins, for example, in Good to Great talked about the qualities in the most successful leaders and noted one in particular that seemed pretty surprising ... humility.  The best leaders of the most consistently successful brands in the world don't have huge egos, and instead manage to put their company first. 

    As you share in this great piece, success isn't about being nice.  But if you are going to inspire people to follow your lead and build a successful team and organization - you do need the ability to inspire them.  That is based on trust, and we trust people we like.  Even if they don't happen to be the nicest person in the room.

  • fhc gsps

     I'm not sure Jobs was loved. He may have been respected for his creativity and for his strong intuitive sense, but outside of his family and close friends -- not sure he was loved. He certainly wasn't likeable, as we've all come to learn.

  • Matthew Safaii

    As the founder of Quewey, Michael is absolutely right.  After bringing on David Luk as CEO the company has been more productive AND it still has the original vision in tact.  Here is a blog post on welcoming David into Quewey -

    A founder must be careful in selecting the right CEO to take the lead. The founder must understand he/she is handing the reigns over, must stick by that and not get in the way. At the same time the new CEO must agree with the vision of the company and thrive to reach the same forecasted goals as the founder. 

    FYI - Here is a movie on Quewey. Would be great to have you join and to receive any feedback. Thanks!