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How to Handle Mean People at the Office

Every office has at least one mean person. It sounds silly, but it’s true.

Mean people exist everywhere. It’s not just in an office setting. But there is something about office politics, the pressure to perform, and personal doubt that provide a fertile environment for mean people to thrive. Life is, after all, survival of the fittest, right?

Let’s Define Mean.

Mean people are not confrontational, direct communicators. The office is a melting pot of different personalities who must learn to get along. Some people are better at verbalizing their ideas than others. We all communicate in different ways and should learn how to best do that with a variety of people. (Note: This is the “magic” of management.)

Mean people are, to put it bluntly, toxic. They may appear put together on the outside, but internally they are raging with envy, jealousy, and greed. They fear everyone is going to take something from them, so they are always on the look out for a perceived threat and whom they will “take out” next. They often have a storied reputation of leaving “bodies in their wake.”

A Non-Professional Take On Why People Are Mean

Let me just clarify that I am not a psychologist and haven’t scientifically studied the human psyche. My thoughts are simply observations from being in hundreds of professional settings in a wide variety of roles. This has given me a bird’s eye view that has contributed to many of my observations. And like many, I’ve tangled up with “mean people” from time to time. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost. No matter what, I learned something every time.

In my opinion, people are mean for three main reasons:

  1. They are insecure. Even successful, high-ranking people are sometimes insecure people which can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Insecurity is real, and we all struggle with it to a certain extent.

  2. They are in over their heads. Sometimes people are promoted beyond their skill set. Just because you are a successful salesperson doesn’t mean you’ll be a good sales manager. The opposite is true, too. When people are in over their heads, they often don’t want anyone to know. Meanness is sometimes simply a tool to deflect attention away from them.

  3. They are threatened by another situation or person. Few people in business are the “Level 5 Leaders” that Jim Collins wrote about in, “Good to Great.” Most people are in it for themselves and don’t care who they hurt or step on along the way. If a person or situation creates a perceived threat to access, influence, or the professional future of someone, that can present itself in some pretty nasty ways.

How Do You Know If Someone Is “the Mean One”?

Just be observant. This is something I recommend to every professional. As someone once told me, “Never be surprised when people act like people.”

If you’re willing to pay attention, you’ll quickly learn who the mean person or people are in your office. This person often has a reputation that most people in the office are aware of and new people discover through sidelined conversations in the break room or in moments away from the office on a random trip for coffee or something like that.

Meanness Can Rear Its Head in Many Ways.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones:

  1. The Verbal Abuser. This person uses body language, tone, sound, and words to confront other people with the intention of intimidating them.

  2. The Want-to-Be Authority Figure. This person portrays himself or herself as someone who has the ability to disrupt your work life if you don’t follow along with their demands or wishes. This is rarely overt and is often passive-aggressive in nature.

  3. The Authority Figure. This person does have authority over your future at your company. He or she can make your life miserable or orchestrate situations and scenarios where you will be consistently tagged with negative outcomes.

How Should I Interact With Mean People at the Office?

Truthfully, you shouldn’t worry about them. Mean people live in their own version of hell and are often very lonely people. (Note: Just because you are surrounded by a lot of people doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely.) They never want to let anyone too close because then someone would eventually figure out how they operate.

Mean people will, ultimately, create their own demise—either personally or professionally. Even if you are the victim of a mean person’s attack, it’s rarely fatal unless you choose to act or behave in ways that contribute to your own end.

Worst case scenario, your current employment or business relationship ends. So what? Life is too short to be miserable. You can’t exist in a toxic situation for long and not be affected by it.

The sooner you recognize there is no other resolution, the sooner you’ll know it’s time to start preparing yourself for a transition. But choosing to leave your job, end a business relationship, or make a measurable shift in your life, should be a last resort and only employed when you know there is no other resolution to the situation. That is rare, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

What Do I Do If I Am the Target of a Mean Person?

You can’t control what other people do, but you can control what you do and how you react. Be smart, observant, and intentional in your interactions with mean people. Never feel like you have don’t have any options. That is exactly what they want you to think.

Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Document your interactions. Don’t be extreme. Just note when you talked, what it was about, what was the outcome, etc.

  2. Avoid the mean person when possible. At the very least, limit your interactions with them.

  3. Stay focused on doing your best in your current role. High performers are hard for mean people to pick off. Keep your efforts on your role and measurable outcomes as much as possible.

  4. Talk to someone in HR. That’s why HR exists. There are lots of protections in place for employees. An experienced HR rep should be able to help you remedy the situation. Many times that can be accomplished without needing to interact with or directly confront the mean person.

  5. Avoid feeling like you’re stuck. Get that thinking out of your head. One person can’t control your destiny. He or she may provide some obstacles, but don’t give them more power over your life than they actually possess.

  6. Don’t accept personal abuse. Walk out of the room, hang up the phone, or reschedule a meeting if you feel the level of conversation has become unreasonable and unproductive. Stand up for yourself.

  7. When appropriate, tell the mean person how you perceive their actions. Sometimes people don’t realize how they are coming across. What’s normal for some people isn’t normal for others.

There will always be mean people in your life. Your success depends on you and your ability to stay focused on your job, consistently achieve your goals, and provide ridiculous amounts of value to your company or business relationship.

Dealing with people is part of life. Embrace it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and others. In fact, your ability to navigate a variety of personality types is as much as part of your success as the outcomes you produce.

What advice would you give when deal with mean people in a professional setting?



Ben Stroup is Chief Growth Architect and President at Velocity Strategy Solutions where he helps leaders design, develop, and deploy smarter business growth strategies. Ben is a futurist, disruptor, and data champion. He leads a team that takes a structured learning approach to business challenges, which allows them to assist leaders in bridging the gap between ideas, innovation, and revenue—taking ideas from mind to market.

Velocity Strategy Solutions is an on-demand, next-generation business strategy and management consulting firm which provides clients with a relentless focus on data, execution, and results that positively impact the bottom line. Velocity delivers integrated people and revenue strategies combined with a disciplined approach to growth architecture that elevates the capacity of leaders, teams, and organizations to succeed and win more.

Topics:   Leadership