Does it pay to be mean in business?

Does it pay to be mean in business?

Company CEOs, business leaders, and bosses have long been stereotyped as some of the most cutthroat people out there. Is this a fair way to classify successful individuals? Prominent businesspeople like Daniel Loeb, Paul Singer, Harvey Weinstein, Rupert Murdoch and others all have public personas that have been at times perceived as ruthless, making many wonder if their success is the result of mean business practices.

Others point out that the connection between meanness and success isn’t necessarily an inherent trait in businesspeople, but rather in affluent individuals in general. Explains Forbes contributor Alice G. Walton, “The evidence is fairly convincing that people of higher socioeconomic status can be somewhat lacking in the kindness department,” of how research has shown a correlation between wealth and lack of empathy, in some cases. She also poses the question, “Does being rich make you mean, unfeeling, less humane, or do you need to have these characteristics in the first place, to help you climb the ladder?”

Of course, movies and media will have us believe that all high powered businesspeople are cutthroat and calculating. Anna Wintour-inspired Miranda Priestly, Gordon Gekko, Bill Lumbergh, and Buddy Ackerman all come to mind as infamous characters on the silver screen; these portrayals of CEOs and higher-ups would have us believe that from fashion to finance, it pays to be mean. These examples of ruthless, high power figures in film beg the question: does art imitate life in big business?

Ms. Walton makes the case for kindness in business and finance, explaining that being compassionate has its benefits too. She explains, “One might speculate that the connection goes both ways – that certain characteristics are needed to achieve wealth […] The rich should be kinder, more giving, and more empathetic, since, after all, they have it good. Even though it may have taken a lot of work to get where they are, they’re essentially the lucky ones – so they should be grateful for it and nice to everyone as a result,” of how committing to philanthropy, doing good, and being a positive leader in business can also lead to success.

Of course, as Walton notes, “unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way if you look at the vast literature on the subject,” in regards to the way that although being empathetic in big business isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is very rarely common practice.

What do you think? Does being mean pay off in the world of business, or are cutthroat business practices merely a byproduct of financial success?