For thousands of years, humans have struggled against their crudest instincts. They influence us daily. They require work to overcome. Whether it’s courage over fear, coexistence over destruction, love over reproduction, or faith over hopelessness; the first in each pair requires work to overcome the second. These same crude instincts cause us to misinterpret meanness as competent and smart. They encourage the misevaluation of talent.
The desire for security is a powerful emotional trigger in all humans. Long ago, we craved leaders whose meanness and insensitivity didn’t permit squeamishness to interfere in eradicating our enemies. That was our crudest definition of competency.
Despite our advancement, civilization and legalism, this crudeness has not left us. “A Sad Fact of Life: It’s Actually Smart to Be Mean Online” (Wired, November 2014 edition) by Clive Thompson and the research, Downplaying Positive Impressions: Compensation Between Warmth and Competence in Impression Management, by Deborah Holoien (The Ohio State University) and Susan Fiske (Princeton University) find that we tend to see meanness as competent and smart. They technically define meanness as hypercriticism.
Moreover, as noted by the research Thompson cites, Wanting to Appear Smart: Hypercriticism as an Indirect Impression Management Strategy (Bryan Gibson, Central Michigan University), applicants and employees can trigger these in us as an active part of an indirect impression management strategy (more). Indirect means subconscious here.
Holoien and Fiske also found that a tradeoff exists. Not only do we see meanness as competent and smart, but we also see warmth as less competent and smart. In other words, we find it very difficult to see someone as both warm and compassionate, and competent and smart. Emotionally, a tradeoff exists for us. Thus, the mean get hired and promoted over the warm.
Returning to our roots, business seems to tap our crudest instincts. The survivability of our enterprises is on par with our prehistoric struggles for life. No doubt, we have experienced tremendous civil, legal and technological advancements. Emotionally though, we have not advanced to where we are comfortable putting the fate of the enterprise in the hands of the warm and compassionate . . . no matter how competent and smart they are.