Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Little White Book: The No Asshole Rule

Occupational hazard, I guess, but I read - or, at any rate, skim - a fair number of business books. They tend to fall into a few categories. There are those that describe how a successful company got that way. Given the now-disappeared companies I've kept during much of my career, these read to me like science fiction: strange tales that have characters and situations that are vaguely familiar, but are set in a parallel universe. (So that's how it's supposed to work. Hmmmm.)

Then there are the largely dreadful business puff-ographies, second only to presidential memoirs in their fatuousness. (Has there been a decent one since Ulysses S. Grant?) These tomes tend to be long on self-congratulations and name-dropping ("...that's me golfing with Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles") and short on self-awareness and introspection. Bor-ing.

Then there are the little big-print-small-idea books that they give out at company off-sites. The ones that are supposed to "change everything" if you only follow a few simple steps. If only is right...

Perhaps because I'm a marketer, the ones I typically find the most immediately practical and useful are marketing books. When I read about topics that are relevant to my work - understanding your customer, improving communications, strategic marketing, competitive intelligence, how the Internet changes everything - I generally learn something I can (or should) use in my work.

Overall, the books that I find the most interesting are the ones that deal with organizational dynamics, with human behavior, with how businesses really operate. The latest one I've read is Stanford Professor Bob Sutton's The No Asshole Rule, a book that should be read and taken seriously by anyone running a company where jerks are allowed to roam free, creating a reign of terror that results in heavy costs to individuals - and to businesses themselves.

Advice to those offended by the use of the a-word. Get over it. Think "jerk," think "creep", think "lout" if you must, but don't let this get in the way of the wisdom contained in the book. I've been reading Bob's blog, and a lot of thought went into the use of "the word." There are really no substitutes, and we all know it.

Advice to those who think that the book's kinda-sorta a joke. Get over that, too. Sure, on title alone it will make a great gag gift, but don't let that trivialize it. Open it up and give it a read. If you've ever been victimized by asshole, witnessed them in action, or, indeed, acted like one at work because it's all part of the corporate culture, here's where you find out it doesn't have to be that way.

The book's thesis is that the workaday world would be a better place if companies would institute - and enforce - a no asshole rule. Bob builds a compelling case why this is so, drawing on both academic studies and the painful experiences of "real people" whose careers and lives have been done grave harm by working with assholes.

I know that many of us bandy the word asshole around, using it as a catchall for all sorts of real, imagined, accidental, or whatever behavior, but Bob gives us a definition by providing a brief test:

Does talking with the person in question make the victim feel worse about him or herself? And is the victim someone who's less powerful?

Just in case this doesn't do it for you, there's a checklist of typical asshole behaviors.

Yes, most people are capable of such, and Bob's hoping to minimize the occasional offensives, but he's really aiming at rooting out ongoing loutish behavior by regular offenders. The world's certified assholes.

He points out that the costs of tolerating assholes can be high, even providing a way to calculate the "Total Cost of Assholes" to an organization. (I predict that TCA will find it's way into the acronym pantheon with TCO and ROI.) And he points out that allowing assholes to operate can be poisonous, since the behavior tends to be infectious and exposure to it can cause even nice folks to stray over to the dark side. (There's a very funny example in which a company docked a fellow's bonus after they calculated what he cost the company in terms of HR costs, recruitment of new employees due to turnover, etc.) And Bob writes, too, about the impact on not just the victims, but on those who witness asshole behavior but are powerless to do much about it. Reading this section brought to mind a witness situation I was briefly in a few years back. Cringingly painful. (I feel another post coming on...)

Bob also offers some bracing, even exhilarating, advice for those trapped in bad companies. If you're in an environment where people are routinely treated poorly, ignore all those calls for passion and commitment that are typically trumpeted in business books. "Develop indifference and emotional attachment," Bob advises. "There are times when the best thing for your mental health is to not give a damn about your job, company, and especially all those nasty people."

I can give first-hand testimony to the wisdom of these words.

While most of my career has blessedly not been spent in the company of certified assholes, I've had some close encounters, and these coping mechanisms work. In one place of longtime employment, I worked briefly for a manager whose mission in life seemed to be to make me feel incompetent, undermined, and useless. Once I gave myself permission to not care what she said, did, or thought - indeed, once I gave myself permission to walk out the door without giving notice if I had to - "it" all went away. A year or so later, when the president of the company asked me for my recommendations for a lay-off list, I was able to add her name and the reasons why she had to go. (The president's reaction. He gave a little laugh and said, 'Nobody starts by naming S, but everybody gets to her eventually.' I was apparently not her lone victim.)

Bob offers other coping strategies: find and hang out with "the good guys," look for small victories, offer emotional support to other victims (while avoiding bitch-fests), take control of what you can... All sound advice.

The No Asshole Rule also gives, if not quite equal time, then enough time, to the notion that some assholes are worth all the trouble. (The case in point: Steve Jobs.) Bob makes the arguments (...assholes can inspire people to work hard and try for perfection, etc.), but for the most part he doesn't buy them. (He does, however, argue for the occasional, strategic use of the temper tantrum if you really need to get something done and clueless and lazy people just aren't paying attention. He also provides a brief tip list for how, if you're going to be an asshole, you should at least be an effective one. Mostly, however, his advice here is ultra cautionary.)

Maybe it's the charmed life I've led (in uncharmed companies), but I did find a couple of the examples of workplace assholes so extreme that they were nearly beyond my ken. My fear is that they could lead people to start thinking, 'hey, I don't have it so bad' or - worse - 'hey, I don't act this bad.' Yes, these examples are dramatic, but it seems to me that someone who steams through 250 administrative assistants in 5 years because of his bullying behavior is not your garden variety, certified asshole. He's probably certifiable. (To borrow a bit from the "Gee, Officer Krupke" song in West Side Story: "This boy don't need a job, he needs an analyst's care.")

While I'm on the quibbling side, I found that the surveys and studies cited throughout all started to sound the same. That said, one of the statistical points made is a good one to keep in mind: negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions.

The bottom line: I found The No Asshole Rule not just an enjoyable read, but required reading for anyone who thinks they may not have such a civilized workplace and is intent on building one.

I'll end with a quote from Bob's final page:

We are all given so many hours here on earth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could travel through our lives without encountering people who bring us down with their demeaning remarks and actions?


FYI, I've blogged about this topic several times before in the following posts: Sugar-Honey-Ice-Tea, All Worked Up, and Building a Civilized Workplace.


Anonymous said...

fantastic!!!! It is exists in Intelligence Services!! Asshole jerks in CIA whose only mission in life to degrade and demean ordinary aspiring civilians. A big chip on their because they are stuck in spying holes forever???

Anonymous said...

I live and work with an asshole. He is a vital part of the company. His asshole nature makes him "indespensible" because he is willing to do what no one else is. And so all his "quirks" are overlooked and made light of. Amzaing how these assholes make themselves indespesible to their superiors and run havoc to anyone else who appears in their arena.

Anonymous said...

I was recently interviewed by an employment manager at a hospital, who asked the question, "tell me about a time when firing someone was not an option." She then proceeded to give me an example of a doctor whose skills and talent were so indispensable that firing him was not an option. In other words, he was an asshole, but the hospital and all of it's employees had to put up with his behavior. now that's one for the books!

Anonymous said...

Ability should never be an excuse to let an asshole run rampant and make everyone else's life more difficult. These are the people that need the therapy. There's a very basic level of respect for others that is missing in these people. I just quit a job where it seemed to be company policy to promote the assholes and put them in charge. I was simply tired of working for a bunch of assholes. Unfortunately I suspect that the arrogance and inflated ego of assholes is what gets them into positions of authority. More HR people need to see this for what it is and recognize just how detrimental it is to fellow employees and the company as a whole.