“Don’t work with assholes”: Employee tips and a test for the boss
No to assholes is the rule laid out in his essay in the Harvard Business Review by Stanford University professor Robert Sutton. Three years after the publication he received more than 1,000 responses and published the book “Don’t Work with Assholes”, in which he talks not only about how to manage assholes, scoundrels and cruel bosses, but also about how a manager can avoid turning into an asshole himself. “The Secret” publishes Sutton’s tips to help quiet the “inner goat,” as well as a test to see if you’ve already become an asshole.
“No to assholes” was the rule laid down by Stanford University professor Robert Sutton in his Harvard Business Review essay. Three years after it was published, he received more than a thousand responses and published a book called “Don’t Work with Assholes. In it, the professor talks about how to manage jerks, scoundrels and abusive bosses, and how not to turn into an asshole yourself. “The Secret” publishes Sutton’s tips for quieting the “inner goat,” as well as a test to see if you’ve already become an asshole.
Look back at your past and prevent “asshole fever”
Deciding to face your own dark past (as alcoholics and people with other addictions do during treatment) can be an important step toward soberly evaluating your actions and beginning to change “prone to becoming an asshole.” Ask yourself, were you a bully in school? There are hundreds of scholarly papers on the subject of bullying at this age about kids who constantly harass and humiliate their classmates. Deciding to face the facts about your past behavior will help you assess the risk of being a bully in the future.
There are some pretty interesting studies by anthropologists, historians, and psychologists that suggest that the culture you were raised in can increase that risk, especially if you grew up in an abusive family. Experiments by Dov Cohen, published in 1996 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, show that men who come from the South of the United States continue to be significantly influenced by honor culture even after moving to northern states. Researchers at the University of Michigan recorded how “subjects” (half Southerners and half Northerners) walked past a front person who “happened” to run into them and called everyone an asshole. The difference between the reactions of Southerners and Northerners was significant: 65 percent of Northerners were amused by the incident and only 35 percent became angry; of Southerners, 15 percent laughed and 85 percent became enraged.
The moral of these and many other experiments is this: if you were raised as a Southerner (“cowboy”), you are likely to be more polite than your colleagues, but when even a small jerk comes your way, you are likely to fight him back and thereby catalyze the cycle of “asshole fever.
Treat asshole behavior as a contagious disease
The assholes, like a “politeness vacuum,” suck the warmth and kindness out of everyone who enters it, and fill the resulting void with coldness and arrogance. As soon as you give vent to your arrogance, anger and resentment, or when they come down on you in certain situations, the aggression spreads like Greek fire. Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues in their study titled “Emotional contagion” concluded that “in conversation people tend to automatically and constantly mimic the movements, facial expressions, voice, postures and operant behavior of the interlocutor, trying to synchronize them. If you have contempt written all over your face, others (even bystanders, not just the immediate “objects” of your emotions) will respond to you in a mirror image, fomenting a vicious circle that can turn everyone into evil monsters like you.
Avoid assholes not just when hiring employees
By associating with scoundrels, you are more likely to catch their disease. Unfortunately, I only learned this lesson after joining a group led by a famous management guru at the time. This was in Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com boom, when arrogance, selfishness, and the unspoken belief that if you don’t get rich now, you must be a fool. Our small group met several Sundays in a row, and we talked about creating a website devoted to business strategies. There were usually seven or eight people at the meetings, but only four of us were rude: that guru, two management experts, and me. We were all competing to establish ourselves as the alpha male. Besides, it was mostly us who spoke; the other women and younger men present rarely opened their mouths, but if they did, we ignored or interrupted them and went back to our pathetic “jousting tournament” with the prize of status.
A management consultant I know describes such meetings as follows: “It’s like watching monkeys in a zoo throwing feces to assert their dominance in the pack.” A colleague’s remark pretty accurately sums up our sessions. At the end of each session, I felt like a total asshole, and it was well-deserved. My wife Marina noticed that every time I came home from these meetings, I continued to act like an overbearing and pompous jerk at home as well. According to her, I was suffering from severe “testosterone poisoning. Eventually, when I came to my senses, I realized that I had caught and ignited an epidemic of “asshole fever” in the group. So I left the group.
Stay as far away from assholes as possible: go to meetings with assholes you know as little as possible, respond to their requests as slowly as possible or try not to respond to them at all, and if you can’t avoid meetings, try to keep their duration as short as possible. To do that, you may have to learn to do what we were all told in grade school: that “good kids” sit in their seats and tolerate everything from stupefying boredom to angry teachers. Many of us, as adults, can’t get that maxim out of our heads. We feel glued to our chairs during conversations or encounters with unpleasant people.
Don’t see everyone as a rival or an enemy
By tying self-esteem to “big shot” status and the desire to remain at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, you are playing a game you are likely to lose. You are unlikely to become a better salesman, a better baseball player, or a CEO, but even if you become one, you will eventually lose your crown. Winning is a wonderful thing when you are able to help and respect people along the way. Walking to high status head over heels and treating others like losers (when you finally reach the top) is, in my opinion, degrading your own human dignity and undermining your team or organization.
Many organizations multiply the problems by constantly recertifying and rating employees, giving out bonuses to a couple of stars, and treating the rest as second or third class. Unfortunately, as a result of this policy, colleagues who are supposed to be friends are divided and become enemies, ruthless jerks who go wild in their attempts to climb the career ladder while pitting their rivals against each other.
The consequences of looking at life solely as a competitive game are well illustrated in the words of James Halpin, former CEO of CompUSA. Here’s what he advised his people: “Your colleagues are your competitors,” “I suggest that my employees ask themselves at the end of work, ‘What have I done today to rise above my colleagues?’ and if they have nothing to answer, then the day has been wasted.” Halpin told the Academy of Management Executive magazine that he put that philosophy into practice by drawing a line in the middle of the conference room table dividing it into two halves while he was holding meetings with 20 regional retail executives. He seated people like this: the 10 most effective directors were placed behind it, and the 10 weakest ones were placed in front of it, closer to the company’s top managers, “because it was more useful for them to listen to what we had to say”. All of the directors had badges with numbers indicating the “takeout rate” (lost and stolen equipment) in the stores they managed.
Halpin never mentioned the alternative system, in which people who do well help and advise those who do poorly, and the whole organization benefits. Halpin was eventually kicked out of CompUSA after the company ran into serious financial problems, but I have always been interested in the approach he described, which vividly demonstrates the impact of a person’s worldview on their behavior. Halpin purposefully created a world where ruthless competition was expected and even desirable.
Watch your expressions
If you want to curb your “inner goat” and avoid contracting (and spreading) this form of “asshole fever,” then use ideas and turns of phrase that will describe life as a system that helps you focus on collaboration. The famous management guru Peter Drucker, who just before his death looked back on his 65-year career as a consultant, concluded that great leaders could be “both charismatic and boring, dreamers and rationalists,” but the most inspiring and effective managers he knew had something in common. Most importantly, “they thought and said ‘we’ instead of ‘I.'” So start listening to the words you and your colleagues use. Record a few meetings on a tape recorder, and then listen to what you get. If you hear “me” or “me” or “I” and “we” versus “them” almost all the time on the recordings, it may be time to change the way you talk. This will help you keep your “inner goat” in check.
Find out if people around you think you’re an asshole.
It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a scoundrel or not, it’s more important what other people think about it. If you want to face the hard facts instead of wallowing in your whitewashing delusions, try comparing your self-image to how people see you.
Business coaches Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson’s work with the “alpha males” of several companies demonstrates how this should be done. Ludeman and Erlandson realized that in order to change the destructive behavior of the “alpha male,” you must first gather information about how he is seen by people of higher rank, peers and subordinates. So, for one client, they gathered a 50-page dossier of his actions and behavior by interviewing 35 different respondents, and then compressed the information into a table that fits on one page.
As Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson reported to Harvard Business Review, among their most famous clients were Michael Dell (founder and chairman of computer giant Dell) and Kevin Rollins (current CEO of that company). Michael Dell’s subordinates considered him aloof, impatient and ungrateful. People who worked with Rollins complained about his excessive criticism, stubbornness, self-confidence and inability to listen to the other person to the end, because he had a habit of immediately rejecting other people’s ideas and going back to his own proposals. Neither Dell nor Rollins knew how much fear and frustration they were breeding in their company. To their credit, Dell and Rollins had worked hard to change their own negative behavior and were now monitoring their progress with regular comprehensive checks. In addition, both have embraced the process of curbing what I call the “inner goat” with a dose of humor. Rollins, for example, bought a toy, Curious George, to remind himself to “be more considerate and open to other people’s ideas.”
Signs that your “inner goat” is rearing its ugly head
I’ve developed a little self-diagnostic test that will allow you to figure out if you are a certified asshole.
Instructions. Answer yes or no to whether each statement correctly describes your typical feelings and behaviors at work.
What is your instinctive reaction to people?
- You think you’re surrounded by incompetent idiots, and you can’t resist reminding them of this from time to time.
- You were a good person until you started working with this bunch of creeps.
- You don’t trust the people around you, and they don’t trust you.
- You think of your coworkers as competitors.
- You think the best way to make a career is to eliminate competitors from your path.
- You secretly enjoy watching others suffer.
- You are often jealous of your colleagues and cannot bring yourself to be genuinely happy about their successes.
- You have a short list of close friends and a long list of enemies, and you are equally proud of them.
How do you treat other people?
- Sometimes you just can’t contain the contempt you feel for the losers and jerks at work.
- You find it helpful to dislike, insult and sometimes yell at some idiots (otherwise they will never bring themselves to work).
- You like to take credit for your team’s accomplishments – why wouldn’t you? Where would they be if it weren’t for you?
- In meetings, you like to make “innocent” remarks that have no purpose other than to harass or humiliate the person you dislike.
- You immediately point out people’s mistakes.
- You are never wrong. If something goes wrong, it’s some idiot’s fault. You constantly cut other people off because, after all, what you have to say is more important anyway.
- You often fawn over your supervisor and other influential people and expect the same from your subordinates. Your jokes and teasing sometimes look too harsh, but you have to admit, they’re pretty funny.
- You love only your team, and your people love you, but you are at constant war with the rest of the organization. You treat “outsiders” like crap, because if they’re not on your team, they’re either empty space or the enemy.
How do those around you perceive you?
- You notice that people avoid eye contact with you during conversations and are often very nervous. You get the feeling that people are very cautious about talking in your presence.
- People are always hostile in their responses to your emails, which often leads to altercations with these jerks.
- People seem hesitant to share personal information with you.
- People usually stop having fun when they see you. People always react to your appearance by announcing that it’s time for them to leave.
Calculate the result: add up the number of statements you marked with a yes answer. Although this is not a scientifically valid test, in my opinion the results can be interpreted as follows: 0 to 5 yes: you don’t look like a certified asshole if you didn’t fake the answers. 5 to 15 yes: you are on the verge of becoming a certified asshole; perhaps it’s time to start changing your behavior before it gets worse. 15 or more yes: you are the ultimate certified asshole; seek help immediately. But please don’t come to me for this, as I am not anxious to get to know you.
Book review: “Don’t Work with Assholes. And what to do if they’re all around you.”
Professor of Management at Stanford. Co-founder of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) and the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design. He holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan. Advisor to McKinsey and lecturer at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
That’s how our book was translated. Let me soften my tone and ask, “Do you think you’re a jerk at times?” Can you identify moments when, in retrospect, you behaved like a jerk? I apologize for the copious use of the word “jerk,” a book I read was to blame. In it, Sutton describes what makes a jerk a jerk, and gives advice on how to stop acting like a jerk!
➊ What makes a jerk? Sutton refers to an assessment by Bennett Tepper, who studied psychological violence in the workplace and introduced a useful definition for jerk behavior: “a persistent display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior to the exclusion of physical contact.”
➋ Take the jerk test. In the book, Sutton suggests two ways to test whether a person is a jerk or not.
- First, after talking to the alleged jerk, whether the person feels oppressed, humiliated, or belittled by the other person. In other words, does the victim become a worse judge of himself as a result?
- Second, notice who the person is directing his anger toward, people above or below him?
➌ “Handle with care!?” . I love how Sutton cites studies that show how constructive arguments instead of ideas contribute to effectiveness. In other words, interacting effectively with others doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have constructive debate.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson talks a lot about how best to create a psychologically safe workspace. A strong sense of fear among employees or people who are uncomfortable speaking out can be a sign that employees do not feel completely psychologically safe.
➍ What to do when confronted with a jerk? “Small victories” – Studies have shown that feeling in control of even the smallest aspect of your destiny can have a big impact on your well-being. Psychologist Carl Weick argues that the pursuit of “small victories” is often a more comforting and ultimately more effective strategy than the pursuit of “big victories.”
In the case of contact with a jerk, Sutton suggests looking for small ways to reduce interaction with him or other ways to master a sense of control.
A messy list of everyday behaviors that jerks do:
■ Personal insults.
■ Invasion of “personal space.”
■ Unwanted physical contact
■ Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
■ Using sarcastic jokes and teasing to insult the person
■ Fading flames of e-mail
■ Using their position and status to humiliate their victims
■ Publicly telling people off
■ Dirty looks
Treating people like animals
How much money do you spend on assholes or factors to consider when calculating your organization’s total costs.
■ Damage to victims and witnesses . For example, distraction from tasks, decreased psychological safety, and loss of motivation.
● Grief of credentialed jerks . Victims may retaliate and this can cause long-term career damage.
● Consequences to management . Time spent placating, calming, counseling, or punishing jerks. Time spent “cooling the fervor” of injured employees and dealing with burnout.
● Costs of legal services and human resource management . Anger management and other training to correct jerks. Litigation costs for internal and external consultants and health insurance costs.
● When assholes rule . Negative impact on the organization, reduced innovation and creativity, reduced “discretionary” effort and dysfunctional internal collaboration.
“We’re all assholes” is one of the final comments in Sutton’s book. If you want to create an environment free of them, start with yourself. A good friend of mine once advised me to think, “How does this apply to me?” Every time I judge someone. That means preventing your “inner jerk” from coming out or avoiding working in places with a lot of jerks.
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