How mean bosses and teammates slow down content performance

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“The time of the smart jerk needs to be over” – Michael Brenner
on the Business Storytelling Podcast

We can have the best strategies and tactics in the world. But they can easily fail when we work with mean people. That’s what inspired Michael Brenner to write his book – “Mean People Suck.” He joined me on an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast to talk about the topic.

The following is an overview of some of our discussion on the show with editorial commentary inserted throughout.

Why focus on mean people now? (1:52 mark)

After writing “The Content Formula” readers mentioned that the formula made sense but that it was hard to implement because they were just too many mean people in the organization. The plan has given people the answer on how to do something or why to do it but that doesn’t mean it works in a resistant or mean culture.

Some people mentioned that they would love to do it but they also had a boss who doesn’t believe in it and he is a jerk or she is mean.

Certainly there is a difference between a boss or leadership having different priorities to being mean. In general many marketers’ feedback to Michael was that they were miserable about the inaction they’re seeing.

There’s also a difference between true meanness and traditional office politics, while admittedly office politics often can feel mean spirited.

A hierarchical organization can actually get in the way of doing what’s right for the customer. Putting the customer first is important and that’s why Amazon, lists it as one of the company’s  leadership principles:

Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Another way to put that is that there are way too many command and control structures. I certainly agree with that statement. In my content performance philosophy we need teams that work collaboratively towards a goal without being jerks.

The real problem when teams don’t create good content can often be linked back to this overly command and control setup. To make it more complicated sometimes the barrier leader isn’t even on the marketing team. For example, think of a strong sales leader who has a lot of influence and slows things down because of a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of understanding of marketing strategies
  • Other goals
  • Is doing just fine with what’s happening now
  • Etc.

Sometimes the barrier is that the leader asked the team to share content that’s less than perfect and overly promotional.

[Tweet “Don’t create selfish content.”]


What’s the definition of being mean? (3:41 mark)

Children often say their parents are mean but the parents are just doing what they believe to be the right thing. That can also apply in a business setting: Managers may just think they’re doing the right thing. But don’t think of a leader – employee relationship similarly to parent – child relationship, Michael cautioned.

Some of that certainly comes back to hiring the right people for the right jobs.

[Tweet “The time of the smart jerk need to be over -‪@BrennerMichael ‬”]

If you hire somebody to make a chocolate cake don’t keep telling them nonstop what ingredients to use. Good bosses certainly are allowed to collaborate with the team, but that can be a fine line:

[Tweet “Good bosses collaborate versus direct all the time.”]

A mean boss says my job is to tell you what to do. You don’t need to understand why.

This is a problem nowadays as there are many ways to get to a goal. Good bosses hire the best people and then:

  • Say here’s what we are trying to do
  • Offer some ideas and guidance
  • Allow team members to brainstorm
  • Provide support

Another thing that I find good leaders do: Roll out projects in phases. Not sure if a new strategy will work? That’s okay!. Try it for an agreed-upon time frame and see what worked and what didn’t work.

Certainly how much leeway a team gets also depends on their maturity and experience level. Entry-level employees certainly should get more guidance and oversight assistance. Bosses still don’t need to be mean about it.

How can organizations be less mean? (6:32 mark)

There certainly are many models that organizational structure experts may recommend here. I’m personally a fan of a version of a matrix model. The problem even in a matrix model is that some people still feel the need to behave like a traditional boss. At the worst, now people have 3-4 traditional bosses where they had just 1 before. At the best, a matrix model pushes collaboration on a project level.

The bullseye model is another option where it’s not about reporting structures but always about the customer. Of course, at the end of the day, somebody will  still hold people accountable, approve things, run budgets and some of those more traditional management tasks that do not go away.

Michael Brenner’s bullseye model

When you put the customer first employees are empowered to ask questions and challenge. The story of a brand that wants to sponsor an athletic facility when 85 percent of target customers don’t care about that sport was mentioned. Employees on any level should be allowed to question that proposed decision.

[Tweet “We need to move away from the hero worship of executives – ‪@BrennerMichael ‬”]

How do people learn to ask challenging questions? (9:40 mark)

Being able to present a business case is a skill many people are missing. Make the case for how something is good for the customer and the business. Look at the market need, the budget, etc. What’s the plan? How can we accomplish it?

Of course, this can also be used to slow things down – even to a halt. I’ve been on projects where I would say the mean bosses used this strategy to keep people so busy with putting together a plan that nothing ever was implemented. But a lot of plans were created!

Another thing that many people forget about is telling a good story on why something is needed or how it will help. Presentations need to be more engaging. Don’t just share facts. Tell a story. Make the customer the hero. Be a storyteller.

Storytelling books

How to gauge how mean or nice people are in an organization (14:36)

One way to find out how things are going in an organization is to send out surveys. This could be as simple as sending a survey like this:

How was your week: Rate 1-10

How happy were you last week: 1-10

What impacted your rating: <Open text field>

That can easily give you an idea how things are looking and how people are feeling. It’s easier to do on larger teams as results are more anonymized. If there’s just one person on a team or even two a survey doesn’t make sense.

You can also ask employees the net promoter question: How likely are you to recommend your company to others?

Instead of a survey consider asking your teams these questions during check-ins:

  • How are you doing?
  • How are things going?
  • What can I do to help?

Of course, employees do need to play along and not just say “fine.”

Mean people wrap

At the end of the day, most everyone – if not everyone – on content teams wants to perform well. The more we can empower people to do that the better it is for all of us. It does require a new level of open and collaborative communications.

I also bet that most – maybe all – leaders do not set out to be mean! Maybe some of them don’t even know they are perceived as being mean.


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