Nine years ago, Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, published a book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The premise was pretty straightforward: don’t hire/surround yourself with assholes but, if you do, here’s how to survive.
As we move into the general election season, it’s a read that is well worth revisiting. While his observations go to corporate and organization settings, it doesn’t take much effort on the part of the concerned reader to apply them to the 2016 presidential election.
So, without any additional setup, let’s revisit his work …
Sutton starts with a given: assholes typically are bad for other employees who work for and with them, and for the company or organization that enables them to exist. Yep. What makes him great, however, is his position that yeah, sure, sometimes assholes even are successful – but life is too valuable and too short to put up with them.
(By the way, Sutton has written several other books and his blog, which makes for a fun and informative read, is at bobsutton.typepad.com/…)
Sutton also puts forth two tests to determine if that person in question is an asshole:
• Do people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person in question? In particular, does he make them feel worse about themselves?
• Does the person aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful and not at those who are more powerful?
Now, to be sure, Sutton recognizes that everyone acts in these ways from time to time. But he asserts that “certified assholes” have a different pattern.
“A person needs to display a persistent pattern, to have a history of episodes that end with one ‘target’ after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves,” he writes. “Psychologists make the distinction between states (fleeting feelings, thoughts, and actions) and traits (enduring personality characteristics) by looking for consistency across places and times – if someone consistently takes actions that leave a trail of victims in their wake, they deserve to be branded as certified assholes.”
Or, perhaps, in this presidential year, as a “branded” asshole.
Sutton also says there are a dozen everyday actions that assholes utilize. A few of them are worth citing.
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s “personal territory”
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
- Withering e-mail flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
Sounds like we just revisited the primary season. But don’t despair. Although Sutton doesn’t believe assholes always are avoidable, or can be eradicated, he does offer a survival guide of sorts to help us cope. A couple of his tips follow.
- Reframing: Change How You See Things. “Learning when and how to simply not give a damn isn’t the kind of advice you hear in most business books, but it can help you make the most of a lousy situation,” he writes.
- Develop Indifference and Emotional Detachment. Sutton writes: “Passion is an overrated virtue …, and indifference is an underrated virtue. As Walt Whitman said, ‘Detach whatever insults your soul.’ I think this is a lovely, compact summary or the virtues of developing indifference to demeaning jerks in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter.”
- Look for Small Wins. “If you can’t win the big war against the creeps, start looking for small battles that you can win, as the sense of control you gain will sustain your spirit,” Sutton advises. “And if one minor victory after another begins to pile up, who knows – you might start a movement … where the pro asshole rule is slowly but surely replaced by the no asshole rule.”
And I’ll add a final one. If you are writing about an asshole, don’t actually type out his name.