Friday, November 17, 2017

The No Asshole Rule, by Robert Sutton

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, by Robert Sutton

n preparation for a review of Robert Sutton's latest book, "The Asshole Survival Guide", I went back to his bestseller, "The No Asshole Rule."

Prof. Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University. In 2007 he wrote "The No Asshole Rule", which turned out to be a blockbuster bestseller, selling close to a million copies. The book itself was the result of an article he wrote in 2004, "More Trouble Than They’re Worth", and which became a Harvard Business Review's "Business Breakthrough Ideas for 2004".

Dealing with, interacting with, being at the receiving end of, and sometimes even acting like one are an inescapable fact of the workplace. What is? Who are? Being what? An "asshole", is what the author writes.

It is also a fact that we use the word 'asshole' fairly 'indiscriminately'. Applying a more rigorous criteria, however, means that an 'asshole' is one who indulges in "the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact." This can sometimes be a frustratingly vague definition. Don't be in a hurry to brand someone an asshole. The author suggests resisting the "temptation to apply the label to anyone who annoys you or who has a bad moment". Second, just because someone acted like a temporary asshole, be slow to apply the label - they may be "porcupines with hearts of gold"!

Unfortunately, there are scores of examples of real-life exhibitions of behavior that help clarify the definition. There are some who "do their damage through open rage and arrogance." Unfortunately, not all assholes work their magic so openly. The most dangerous ones are those "two-faced back-stabbers ... who have enough skill and emotional control to save their dirty work for moments when they can't get caught." They are the most successful assholes, who get away with this toxic behavior.

Similarly, it is important to make a distinction between "states (fleeting feelings, thoughts, and actions) and traits (enduring personality characteristics)".

Bob Sutton puts down his own "Dirty Dozen" list of twelve actions that assholes use. It is too invaluable to not reproduce here:
  1. Personal Insults
  2. Invading one's 'personal territory'
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  5. 'Sarcastic jokes' and 'teasing' used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or 'status degradation' rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible
If you didn't wince at least once or twice as you read through the list, then I suggest that cognitive dissonance is another problem you have. But let that be, for the moment. What if a person is just like that! What if he is a rude, insensitive jerk by nature? Well, is he the same to the powerless and powerful alike? If not, then you may be looking at an asshole.

The fact is that any discussion or debate that is conducted spiritedly and with passion can turn into an exhibition of at least some of the traits listed above. The answer cannot lie in censoring or banning discussions on every single topic of contention. The answer lies in teaching 'people how to fight', posits Bob Sutton.  Intel's motto, for example, is to 'Disagree and then commit', because it preaches that "the only thing worse than too much confrontation is no confrontation."

Being an asshole is not illegal. No, it isn't. But such behavior doesn't come free. There is a cost that organizations have to pay. A company in Silicon Valley actually calculated the "Total Cost of an Asshole", using a an asshole who was also one of their star employees. The annual cost, they calculated, came to $160,000. That is just one person. The costs, however, are much, much more for organizations, the victims, to the certified assholes themselves, for management, the legal and HR management costs, and more. But there is worse. Companies exhibit what "Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter calls 'homosocial reproduction.'" In case it's not quite clear what that means, the author spells it out - "The implication is that assholes will breed like rabbits." Why? Because "research on job interviews and hiring decisions shows that a recruiter tends to hire candidates who look and act like his or her favorite person on the planet." Assholes will hire more assholes. Each jerk will make the workplace slightly more intolerable for the normal, sane people, thus pushing them into quitting when they can. Eventually the entire workplace tends to homogenize - staffed by jerks from stem to stern.

What causes people to turn into assholes? Can you take a test, in private, to see if you score high enough to qualify as an asshole? The worrying answer, backed by a huge amount of research, is that normal people can easily turn into jerks.
"When people are put in positions of power, they start talking more, talking what they want for themselves, ignoring what other people say or want, ignoring how less powerful people react to their behavior, acting more rudely, and generally treating any situation or person as a means for satisfying their own needs - and that being put in positions of power blinds them to the fact that are acting like jerks."
Sadly enough, it seems that even "tiny and trivial power advantages can change how people think and act."

If the costs are so high for tolerating jerks in the workplace, why do companies still tolerate, or even nurture, assholes? The author writes that part of the blame, at least in America, lies in embracing "cliches like 'Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing' and 'Second place means being the first loser.'"

I once had the pleasure of observing a manager who was an absolute asshole with his team members, but an angel of virtue and civility in front of his own manager. He is still employed as a successful, highly-paid executive at a large, successful company. No, in case you start wondering, life is not fair. It should be. But it isn't. What do you do to lessen the grief from working with, from interacting with assholes? Try and limit your contact with assholes - is one advice from the author. There are other suggestions too, but that is perhaps best left for another time, since Bob Sutton has written an entire book on that topic! It came out in 2017, and is titled, unsurprisingly, "The Asshole Survival Guide" 🙂

It is not a pleasant experience to read up on unpleasant behavior, on people with these unpleasant characteristics, but the book is well-written, marshalls a ton of anecdotes and research, and well presented too! Not all of us are on this side of the table, in a manner of speaking, when it comes to the subject of assholes. I too have been guilty of acting like a jerk, an asshole. I am sure you too have acted like one. This book is as useful today as it was ten years ago.

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© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.