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Wednesday, November 15, 2020

Jerk-infested Waters

Bob Sutton’s new book, “The No Asshole Rule,” is one you will want to read. Witty, irreverent, and frequently spot-on, it is full of useful advice for anyone who has ever suffered from having to work with the kind of mean-spirited, aggressive, small-minded, obnoxious jerks who ruin the working day for everyone else. Just like us here at Slow Leadership, Bob’s objective is to help create a more civilized, less stressful, and more enjoyable workplace culture, free from the actions of those who are so blinded by short-term profit that they can’t see the mess they are making of everyone else’s life.

Bob Sutton’s forthcoming book, “The No Asshole Rule,” is an important one for every manager and recruiter to read. It clearly and patiently shows the havoc and misery caused in too many organizations by the presence of mean-spirited, bullying, obnoxious people—the assholes of the title—who get into positions of power or leadership. We’ve all suffered from such people, and everyone knows they are there, but it has taken Bob Sutton’s courage and sense of humor to bring the problem right out into the open and suggest some practical ways to deal with it. In many ways, Bob is singing the same song as Slow Leadership. His emphasis is on the individual assholes whose presence blights the workplace; ours is on the systems, assumptions, and outdated ideas that help institutionalize asshole-type behavior in the organization itself. We both believe that there is no reason why organizations should be such uncivilized places to work; or be so tainted by the kind of behavior no one would tolerate if it occurred anywhere else.

The title comes from a long-time rule in Bob’s faculty at Stanford that no new faculty member would be recruited—however productive or eminent—if he or she was suspected of being an asshole. Sticking to the rule ensured a harmonious, productive department, free of a great deal of the petty, useless, political infighting and mean-minded attitudes that disfigure much of the academic world. So . . that's number 1 point: the “No Asshole Rule” has been tried and it works.

Morally, ethically, and even simply on the basis of common humanity itself, anyone who tolerates such people is equally an asshole, and deserves nothing but our contempt. Yet just about anything, it seems, can be justified by bringing home the bacon.
As Bob makes clear, assholes are tolerated—even welcomed—in some businesses because they are seen as delivering results and profits. It’s another case of the end justifying the means. He documents a particularly nasty case where nine women reported sexual harassment; yet the man in question was merely removed from further criticism by being promoted. Instead of that prime example of what Bob calls a “Certified Asshole” being summarily ejected for his base, pathetic conduct (which is what he richly deserved), the women who complained were ignored and humiliated. Morally, ethically, and even simply on the basis of common humanity itself, anyone who tolerates such people is equally an asshole, and deserves nothing but our contempt. Yet just about anything, it seems, can be justified by bringing home the bacon.

Nearly all certified assholes are bullies who consistently brown-nose those above them and drop the brown stuff on those beneath.
Bob’s book provides some telling ideas. He helps define asshole behavior, distinguishing between someone who is just having a bad day, or making a temporary fool of him or herself (Haven’t we all done that?), and “Certified Assholes:” persistently mean-spirited, nasty, and destructive jerks for whom assholedom is a complete way of life. He suggests a simple test to diagnose assholes, based on exploring the difference between how someone treats those who are powerless versus the powerful. Nearly all certified assholes are bullies who consistently brown-nose those above them and drop the brown stuff on those beneath. He charts the damage done to individuals, the organizational culture, and actual performance by tolerating assholes. And he shows how to implement the no asshole rule, then enforce it, and keep it alive. He often hits nails squarely and resoundingly on the head like this:
Writing, displaying, and repeating words about treating people with respect, but allowing or encouraging the opposite behavior, is worse than useless. In addition to the well-documented damage inflicted when bullies run amok, an organization and its leaders are seen as hypocrites, which fuels cynicism and scorn.
As I said, we all have the potential to behave like assholes on occasion, so Bob’s book has a great section on how to stop your own “Inner Jerk” from coming out and spoiling your life. Sometimes it only takes coming into contact with a typical asshole Hamburger Manager—a high-energy, aggressive, mean, bullying type—to transform otherwise pleasant people into pale copies of the prevailing kind of alpha dog.

There’s a big part of the problem. The alpha dogs appear to be successful and revered, so others are tempted to do what they do. It takes courage to stand out against them. So if the alphas in your organization are graduated members of the Certified and Recognized Assholes Program (CRAP for short), which all too many are, it won’t be long before they are teaching others to behave like they do—and get away with it.

Imitation, as I have so often noted, is endemic throughout organizations, from top to bottom. So Bob’s chapter on how to survive nasty people and workplaces is likely to be a boon to nearly everyone. I particularly liked the injunction to look for small wins, and the advice on how to limit your exposure to certified assholes whenever you can.

It is clear that organizations that become jerk-infested waters don’t do so by chance. They have attitudes and criteria for success that are supportive of all the assholes who thrive there.
There isn’t a word like “asshole” that applies to the kind of organizational cultures and assumptions that foster and tolerate such obnoxious behavior. There ought to be. It is clear that organizations that become jerk-infested waters don’t do so by chance. They have attitudes and criteria for success that are supportive of all the assholes who thrive there. They tolerate abusive behavior in the cause of profit and short-term business advantage. They turn a blind eye when people are humiliated and abused, just so long as the abuser is “making the numbers” on a regular basis. They prize “the right type of person” (usually white, male, and with the same background and attitudes as the current ruling elite) over the right kind of behavior towards others. And they justify all of this nonsense on the spurious grounds that the business world is a rough place where “nice guys finish last.”

JerkFest symbolSo there ought to be a name you could use to identify such foul organizations—those rank, jerk-infested swamps where even the rats hold their noses. How about “JerkFests”—places where assholes proliferate and only another long-time, gold-plated, doctoral-level jerk could enjoy him or herself and find a home? In a JerkFest, Hamburger Management is normal and assholes rule. Perhaps there should be a symbol people could apply to the door posts to warn anyone entering what will be found inside; or major magazines could list the “100 Greatest JerkFests of 2006" in the way that they list the 100 richest people or most successful organizations.

I wonder how many would appear on both lists?

Get the book, read it, and fortify yourself. Better still, get a license and go asshole hunting. If ever a creature richly deserved extermination, this is one.


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2 Comments:

Aaron Kassover said...

In Sutton's blog, he gives us the Starbucks test for determining if you're an asshole. It goes like this:

"If you walk into a Starbucks and order a "decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n'-Low and one NutraSweet," ooh, you're a huge asshole."

I've never been so glad to be a simple non-fat latte guy!

10:47 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Sounds more like obsessive-compulsive disorder to me. But maybe that's also part of being an asshole.

Thanks for your comment, Aaron, as always.

1:23 PM  

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