Book Review: Mean People Suck

Mean People Suck:  How Empathy Leads To Bigger Profits And A Better Life, by Michael Brenner

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BookSirens.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

I think it can be safely agreed by everyone that mean people suck.  That said, I think most people would likely not consider themselves to be mean people.  They might think of themselves as people in bad situations, or people who might be a bit irritable sometimes, or people who are put in difficult positions, but by and large people would not think that they are mean people or bullies even when they are.  The author throughout this book considers empathy to be the cure for meanness, but his idea of empathy requires the sort of moral imagination that few people can do particularly well.  Genuinely speaking, real empathy comes from personal experience and being able to genuinely feel what someone else does because one has been there too and can relate.  The sort of empathy the author recommends is a vicarious act, a mental experiment, and depends highly on the imagination of the person in being able to guess how something would feel like in the absence of knowing exactly what something is like, and this is less than ideal.

This book is between 150 and 200 pages long and is divided into nine chapters.  The author begins by talking about his varied job experience in an introduction and then moves on to discuss why most people have sucky jobs by looking at wasted efforts and the illusions that exist in how we spend our time (1).  After that the author talks about why companies suck in terms of org charts, alignment between customers and job tasks, and why Kodak failed (2).  The author discusses why managers suck (3) and why customers know we suck because they think of goods and services as largely replaceable (4).  The author urges the reader not to suck by getting closer to customers (5) and then seeks to sell empathy as a winning strategy to making us better people and making businesses more profitable (6).  The author then spends the rest of the time in the book promoting ways of using empathy to tell a story (7) the way that Pixar does, sell the story (8) by recruiting one’s bosses and pushing back, and giving tips on how to be kind, be cool, and be genuine (9), after which the book has some endnotes.

Overall, this book does a good job at diagnosing why it is that institutions like companies frequently fail to serve their employees or customers well.  The author speaks from a wellspring of personal experience involved in more than 50 jobs.  The author is also particularly well-read in terms of what makes companies and their innovation successful [1].  Where this book stumbles is in its use of empathy to describe what is sympathy and compassion, which is more a question of definition than anything else.  This world would be considerably better if we approached others with kindness and compassion, but our empathy is limited by our own experiences and the ability to which we are able to vicariously relate to the suffering and struggles of others, which we may not be particularly prone to do very well.  Likewise, the author’s emphasis on activism and its benefits comes off as more political than some readers will be in agreement with.  As is often the case, this book does better at pointing out what is wrong about the way things are than it is about providing a suitable and practical path to make things right, but that is often the case and does not make this book any less useful for one’s reflection about the role of compassion as an aspect of corporate strategy and culture.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/08/03/book-review-made-to-stick/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2019/06/23/book-review-creativity-inc/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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