Do you consider yourself an asshole at times? Can you pinpoint moments where you felt — in retrospect — where you acted like an asshole? Apologies for the profuse use of the word “asshole”, I blame it on a great book I read recently: “The No Asshole Rule” by Bob Sutton. First published in 2007, Sutton describes what makes an asshole and offers tips on how to stop yourself from acting like one!
These are the main things I took away from reading “The No Asshole” book:
- What makes an asshole? — Sutton refers to a valuation by Bennett Tepper who studied psychological abuse in the workplace and introduced a useful definition for asshole behaviour: “the sustained display of hostile verbal and non verbal behaviour, excluding physical contact.”
- Do the asshole test — In the book, Sutton suggests two ways to test whether there’s an asshole at play or not. Firstly, after talking to the alleged asshole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person. In other words, does the target feel worse about him or herself as a result? Secondly, does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at people who are more powerful?
- “Handle with care!?” — I like how Sutton cites research which shows how constructive arguments over ideas — NOT nasty personal arguments — drives greater performance. In order words, interacting effectively with others doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to have a constructive debate or pose a constructive challenge. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson talks a lot about how to best create psychologically work space. A strong sense of fear among employees or people feeling uncomfortable to speak up (especially with more senior people) can be signs of work spaces which don’t feel fully safe to the people that work in them.
- What to do when facing an asshole? “Small wins” — Research has shown that a feeling of control — even over the smallest aspect of your fate — can have a big impact on your wellbeing. Psychologist Karl Weick contends that aiming for ‘small wins’ is often a more comforting and ultimately more effective strategy than aiming for ‘big wins’. In the case of being exposed to assholes, Sutton suggests looking at small ways to reduce the interaction with assholes or other wise to seize a sense of control.
Main learning point: “Assholes are us” is one of the closing comments in Sutton’s book. If you want to create an asshole-free environment, you need start with having a long, hard look at yourself. A good friend of mine once encouraged me to think “how is that true of me?” every time I’d judge someone else or their behaviour. It means being able to stop your ‘inner asshole’ from coming out or you avoiding working at places with lots of assholes :)
Fig. 1 — “The Dirty Dozen — Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use” — Taken from: Bob Sutton, “The No Asshole Rule”, p. 10
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s ‘personal territory’
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non verbal
- ‘Sarcastic jokes’ and ‘teasing’ used as insult delivery systems
- Withering email flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or ‘status degradation’ rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
Fig. 2 — What’s your Total Cost of Assholes to Your Organisation; factors to consider when calculating the total cost of assholes to your organisation — Examples taken from: Bob Sutton, “The No Asshole Rule”, pp. 44–46
- Damage to victims and witnesses — For example: distraction from tasks; reduced psychological safety and climate of fear and loss of motivation;
- Woes of certified assholes — Victims and witnesses hesitating to help; retaliation from victims and witnesses and long term career damage.
- Wicked consequences for management — Time spent appeasing, calming, counselling or disciplining assholes; time spent ‘cooling out’ employees who are victimised and managing burnout.
- Legal and HR management costs — Anger management and other training to reform assholes; legal costs for inside and outside counsel and health-insurance costs.
- When assholes reign: negative effectives on organisations — Reduced innovation and creativity; reduced ‘discretionary’ effort and and dysfunctional internal cooperation.
Related links for further learning: