Monday, May 2, 2022

The No Asshole Rule

Do provocative titles make a difference?  There are no words in this book that aren't spoken by millions of people everyday.  There is much to commend it and even change your life for the better.  An average work day takes up about a third of your day; no need to let assholes spoil it.

Author Bob Sutton has the credentials.  Currently working from Stanford and having graduated from Harvard he has done lots of research into business management and has had many books published.  This particular theme started its journey as articles with the Harvard Business Review.  

A definition of "asshole" is someone who demeans another person (usually with less power).  How do they do it?  Yelling, insulting, sarcasm or even silence among other tools to put down someone.  The author contends there is at least a little bit of temporary assholeness about most of us.  That can get out of hand if we are not careful, but the real concern is what he calls certified assholes.  

Obviously such behavior is demoralizing to the victim, but the damage is more widespread than might be appreciated.  The stress given to the victim is often transferred in part to co-workers and even family.  By-standers and even those who only have been told about it are also intimidated.  Sutton quotes studies that show that assholes can damage a company's bottom line.  Staff turnover (with attendant costs), investor uncertainty, staff morale are just a few of the drags on profit.

Often an asshole is productive and is tolerated for that reason, but the author suggests that is likely illusionary.  At the end Sutton points out it no one really wants to work with an asshole.

The book was published in 2007 at which time he identified John Bolton as an asshole.  The author felt that "certified" was likely apt.

Steve Jobs was also identified as an asshole.  A perfectionist he made a lot of details more effective.  A lot of good people, though did not want to work with him.

Bobby Knight, a very successful basketball coach, but was noted for a lot of asshole behavior the author conceded that maybe he was a bit of a strategic asshole.  Personally I was offended by one of his actions:

Many years ago in my university days, a sociology professor, Don Grady recounted an experience he had in an elevator shared with Lyndon Johnson when the president lost his temper.  A confined space made it more chilling.  LBJ projected intimidation to get things done, but he also had a more thoughtful side.  Any man that could work with Martin Luther King Jr. can't be all bad.

Maybe I am in a temporary state, but I can't help identifying Donald Trump as a certified asshole.  My claim is based solely on public information gleaned from the media, but he seems proud of it.  Insulting and wild gesturing to demean individuals and groups has been too common.  Many are entertained by it partly because they find politics boring and others partly because they like demeaning many they do not know.  Not a good way to deal with serious problems like climate change, pandemics, international provocations, crime, inequality, etc. etc.

It used to be said that the customer is always right, but employees know that is not always true.  Sutton applies the rule to customers.  Companies don't need disruptive customers.  Southwest Airlines supports its employees against abusive customers that make everyone uncomfortable.

Don't be an asshole.  The condition can multiply.  The first step is to admit that you are.  Sutton acknowledges that being a temporary asshole is normal and even that some successful people have been strategic assholes.  

To minimize the problem start at the hiring process.  One approach is to hire interns to better assess for assholes.  Multiple interviews involving co-workers and subordinates.  Often an employer has to decide if a top producer is worth the aggravation caused.  The author compares this dilemma to decisions that sometimes are tipped by sunk costs--a mistake. 

Don't replace assholes with wimps.  You need constructive challenges from staff, but that can be done by setting a new atmosphere where no one is afraid to express themselves.  Karl Wieck suggests "Fight like you are right; listen as if you are wrong."  Definitely check references as they often give clues to real history.   Important to emphasize to all applicants that your company emphasizes team work.

Leveling pay inequality boosts team work and is good for profit.  An example of this is COSTCO.  Don't treat employees as arch rivals.  Two experiences illustrate this for me.  In the worst we had a contest that allowed each territory manager to sell and recruit workers in other territories.  This encourages resentment.  By contrast two teams were also encouraged to go into other territories, but the incentives were set up so that a team could win a small reward for achieving a quota, but get a much bigger reward if  both teams reached the group goal.  By the way, I won both ways, but teamwork was much better for the company and also for each participant. 

What can an individual do if they have to deal with an asshole?  It is not easy, but start with low expectations and be emotionally detached.  Stay calm in the face of belligerence.  When opportune gently correct misinformation.

This is only a crude outline of advice to be gained reading the book.   

In my opinion Jessica Lerner  has made at least two wise choices.  One was marrying Daniel Pink and other was recommending this book which got my attention on one of her husband's facebook postings.  Thank you.  There are likely more wise decisions.

Daniel Pink is a long time favorite thinker you can check at:  blog

Check out another provocative title with good advice:

Robert "Bob" I. Sutton  has done a lot since this book and you can check his current thoughts at:

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