During What we now consider the genteel 1990s, the meanest SOB I had ever met was Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today. His ego then was bigger than his newspaper, with which Gannett was blanketing the country at huge losses. At one meeting in offices not his, before people not in his employ, he rose from the table, walked behind the assembled managers, and flexed and unflexed his fist repeatedly in the style of a Third World dictator. We were sitting, he was standing, and we were looking him right in the eyes. But it wasn’t about height: Everybody in the room knew that whatever Al unleashed would be deadly.
Another time, I saw a grown man, a former war correspondent who is now a major TV anchor, get up from a meeting with Al and leave a sweat stain on his couch. (At least, I hope it was a sweat stain.) But Al had a gift. Although he dished out anticompliments — usually, he told people how bad they were before he ever got to the good news — he had that rare quality in a leader: empathy. Okay, twisted empathy, but empathy all the same. Al could chew you out like you’d never been chewed before. Then you’d get home, and waiting for you would be a basket of flowers that looked as if they’d been torn from a Matisse painting. Al worked you, but he expected you to come back stronger and to give him a good fight.
So now that we’re into the mean 2000s, here’s the question: When are bosses going to learn to be as nice as Al?
Today, everywhere you look, business is being gripped by the power of negative thinking. Conventional wisdom says that it’s better to think positive: Business leaders don’t have opportunities and problems — they have opportunities and challenges! We may even like to believe that thinking positive results in success. But our real romance lies with the dark side. We love to taste the salt of our tears. Organizations encourage at least half of their people to be masochists and the other half to be sadists.
In uncertain times, that’s what we call power. A year ago, at a party to celebrate Andy Grove’s memoir, one guest was shocked to hear him say that he wished that he’d treated the good people better. In fact, for many years, Intel people called him the Mad Hungarian. After the party, someone, inspired by Grove’s new, softer sentiment, called and asked him for a favor — one in return for the many that the person had done for Grove over the years. Grove — the kinder, gentler version — flat out refused. There were no Al flowers at the end of that Grove.
The power of negativity in business organizations, it turns out, is all about envy. A couple of issues ago, I wrote about the CEO as narcissist. To complement the narcissist, meet the envier. The envier is a less recognized but even more lethal power type than the narcissist. For the envier, power isn’t a game of strategy, it’s a show of force. One psychologist shocked me by saying, “Envy is the principal reason why men don’t get along with women. It isn’t because of sexual tension. It’s because men envy their social ease, grace, and intuitive skills. They try to kill them, take credit for their work, silence them — the whole nine yards.”
Enviers are usually highly successful. They seem to have it all: spouse, kids, house, money to burn, dreams! But enviers constantly mourn for what they don’t have — which is whatever you happen to have. According to a story that appeared in the New York Times magazine, Michael Ovitz was having lunch with Ron Meyer, his friend and former partner at Creative Artists Agency. Meyer mentioned that he was thinking about buying a certain Malibu home. Two days later, when he decided to place a bid, he learned that Ovitz had bought the house the day before. (Ovitz would later gave up his claim to it). This is what makes enviers lethal: A jealous person wants what you have. An envier not only wants what you have, he wants you not to have it. Tell an envier that you’re working on a particular project, and soon he’ll be working on something similar. Enviers use your contacts and cut you out of the loop. They love excellence for the same reason that hunters love deer: for the kill.
How did the negative become so powerful? I reached out to the least Bambi-like creature in the forest: Howard Rubenstein, PR guru to the powerful and the godfather of spin. He has represented Ovitz, Donald Trump, and others who only know how to take the offensive. I asked him why people love to focus on the negative. “Public relations is human dynamics at the tattoo level,” Rubenstein replies. “These days, whatever is bad gets almost exclusive attention. The negative is in every aspect of our lives: in business and politics, in theater and motion pictures, in kleptomaniacs. You see more tabloid journalism than ever before. Right now, the American public wants relief from its own problems. That will change once we return to a stable economy. But it may not happen for a while.”
In other words, the negative is the story — now deal with it. But how? “Don’t set yourself up for the takedown,” advises Rubenstein. “Tell an accurate story, a factual story. Never criticize another person directly. We talk about the issues as though we’re going to be positive, but it’s actually a setup for anything that’s negative. The person who’s reading or hearing the negative enjoys it as a feast. It psyches them up when they’re down, when they’re thinking, ‘I’m a little person; nobody ever pays attention to me.’ “
Al had it right. There are times when you have to be an SOB to be seen and heard. But remember: A little bit of empathy helps the medicine go down.
Harriet Rubin (hrubin@fastcompany. com), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Find her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany. com/keyword/rubin).