Bob Sutton has an open call for "stories about workplace assholes," and I will be pulling together a few for him. This is all part of the groundwork he's laying for the forthcoming publication (early 2007?) of his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. (To anyone who's offended by the word: It's certainly a word that I have used in "real life", but I would not tend to use on my blog. And you can argue with the notion that calling someone an asshole might not be the way to build a "civilized workplace." But even those loathe to use words like this have to concede that there is really no substitute: there's just no getting around the fact that there are many occasions when the epithet fits. Based on title alone, there no doubt that the book will provoke a lot of conversation. Too bad Bob's missing the Christmas season: gag gift, stocking stuffer, Yankee Swap...)
Anyway, I've been reading Bob's blog, and a number of the workplace asshole stories he's cited seem to be about people with what I would characterize as a personality disorder - completely and consistently inappropriate anger, scorn, belittling behavior. (Either that, or it's a weird delusion that this is how people are supposed to act if they want to show who's in charge.) Fortunately, I haven't run into many of the real psychos. But I've had plenty of experience with sporadic but regular assholish-ness. In my experience they tend to fall into one of four categories: the occasional asshole (which Bob talks about), the credit grabber, the weakling, and the charismatic. I won't go into the occasional offender. Let's face it. Most of us are, if not guilty of it, are at least capable of committing ad hoc asshole behavior. Some of us can repress it more readily than others, but who hasn't wanted to give in to the odd rant, rage, putdown, or sneer? As for regular repeat offenders:
The credit grabber is obviously obvious. There are two flavors: the out and out thief who siezes your work or the work of a team and presents it as their own. And the passive credit grabber who lets everyone think they were responsible for something, and lets the kudos and thanks just wash over them, without acknowledging that the credit should be spread. I'm not talking about Academy Awards obligatory recognition lists, or asking for false modesty. (The flip side of credit-grabbing is accountability-dodging, of course. The people tend to be one and the same, although somewhat more people are dodgers than are grabbers.)
The weakling is the one who, when cornered, throws someone who works for them under the bus. Tough question comes their way in a meeting, a teensy-tiny bit of criticism. Bang, zoom: Bob did it. Patty's fault. To some extent, this is OK in one on one (or very small group) situations/conversations. Not ideal, maybe, but generally excusable where everyone knows the players and circumstances, people are speaking in confidence, etc. But in a large meeting, group forum. Talk about asshole! If as a manager you can't stand a little heat, you're in the wrong position. If someone gets on you about something, the correct response is something neutral and mealy-mouthed. "Sorry to hear about that, I wasn't aware that my team had completely undermined everything you're trying to do, and will likely be responsible for the company going out of business. I'll look into it and get back to you." The correct response is not to say, "Bob screwed that up. Don't worry, I'm going to demote him so he won't be in a position to do something like that ever again." (Which actually happened in one place I worked.)
In my experience, the charismatic asshole (CA) is the worst. They tend to be in senior positions, and tend to be pretty darn seductive: smart, charming, capable on occasion of making you feel like you, too, are smart and charming and the most important person they've been with THE WHOLE ENTIRE DAY. Some of the most interesting people I've worked for have been CA's. Even though I didn't trust any of them, I was still on occasion sucked in to their orb by sheer magnetic force. Unfortunately, for those CAs who were actualy running the companies, the overall results speak loud and clear: none of my big CA-run companies exists anymore.
Over the next week or so, I'll be posting some of my workplace asshole stories, focusing on the CAs, and I'll be sharing them with Bob Suttton. Readers who want to contribute directly to Bob's cause, look here (as of this writing, the request for Workplace Stories is part way down the screen on the right side.)