Updated: Dec 8, 2020
I used to work with an asshole. You might be imagining something like this photo: a person loudly shouting, aggressively swearing, and wagging their finger in other people's faces.
But that's not how this asshole operated. He never yelled or invaded other's personal space. Yet he was still an asshole.
He was divisive, often pitting people in the team against each other. He used sarcasm and 'jokes' to deliver real insults. He created cliques within teams and very clearly had favourites. He demeaned people's ideas, undermined decisions, and was a blamer.
And the result was devastating for our team. Many of the victims of this asshole had to take mental health leave and access support services to help them through his reign. Good people and talent left not only the team but the whole organisation. Innovation and creativity within the team suffered. The team fractured and the culture shifted. Nothing good came from this asshole's behaviours.
Unfortunately, dealing with assholes at work is an experience many of us will have in common. It's so common that Robert Sutton wrote a book about it: The No Asshole Rule.
Sutton proposes two steps for detecting assholes: first, identify people who persistently leave others feeling demeaned and de-energised; second, look to see if their victims usually have less power and social standing than their tormentors. These tests imply an even more fundamental lesson that runs through this book: the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.
Robert Sutton defines the problem: Assholes. AND the environment that allows them to flourish. He challenges all workplaces to adopt the No Asshole Rule (NAR) because it's entirely attainable and it's something everyone has a part in.
What do assholes do?
Assholes at work come in all shapes and sizes. But there are some everyday actions that they employ. Sutton defines these as the 'dirty dozen': personal insults, invading one's 'personal territory', uninvited physical contact, threats and intimidation (both verbal and nonverbal), 'sarcastic jokes' and 'teasing' used as insult delivery systems, withering email flames, status slaps intended to humiliate their victims, public shaming or status degradation rituals, rude interruptions, two-faced attacks, dirty looks, and treating people as if they are invisible.
Too many of us have stories of these tactics being deployed in our workplaces. Their effect is unequivocally negative. And negative interactions have a five fold stronger effect on moods than positive interactions, (which is something we can remember for all our relationships).
Steps for enforcing the No Asshole rule
Sutton's book provides 10 tips for organisations to enforce the NAR. I've focused in on two of these tips (the full list is at the bottom of this blog).
Lift your standard
Say the rule, write it down, and act on it. But if you can't or won't follow the rule, it is better to say nothing at all.
The NAR has to be alive in not only what you say, but what you actually do. This needs to be real. And part of walking the talk is being very clear about what behaviours are and are not acceptable. We all have a role in this.
Australian Lieutenant General David Morrison once proclaimed the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
How true is this? Remember that asshole I mentioned at the beginning of the blog?
I'd love to tell you that I recognised the behaviours, stood up for my colleagues and called him out. In reality, I didn't. I shifted my focus, made excuses, and thought of all the reasons I didn't want to be involved. None of that helped my teammates.
All this did was help foster an environment where these poor behaviours could happen. By the time I did get involved the damage was done.
If you see something, say something. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain when we let asshole behaviours run un-checked.
Learn to fight
Model and teach constructive confrontation. Develop a culture where people know when to argue and when to stop fighting and, instead, gather more evidence, listen to other people, or stop whining and implement a decision (even if they still disagree with it)
Enforcing the NAR doesn't mean being conflict-averse or shying away from strong positions. Intel preaches the only thing worse than too much confrontation is no confrontation at all.
But the conflict needs to be constructive - focusing on the tasks or ideas rather than personality or relationship issues. Assholes can quickly turn intellectual conflict into a personal attack.
Constructive conflict is needed in every team. But this isn't easy. We know how complex giving good feedback can be. This piece of advice from Karl Weick can come in handy when you do need to battle over ideas: fight as if you are right, listen as if you are wrong.
Organisations and teams can help themselves by teaching their people how to constructively fight. Something we each do today is have the courage and integrity to call out if you notice asshole behaviours coming into workplace conflicts (demeaning comments, sarcasm, personal attacks, etc.) Back to Morrison's wisdom; the things you let go/ignore, you're condoning. And how awful for the victim of the asshole?
Wait, am I the asshole?
Everyone has the power to be a temporary asshole. Anyone having a bad day or bad moment be like this. A certified asshole is a persistently nasty and destructive jerk. How can we stop our own 'inner jerks' from coming out?
Avoid asshole poisoning
The biggest piece of advice to stop your asshole-ness from rearing its ugly head is to stay away from the assholes in the first place.
Sutton acknowledges that most of us, even the most 'naturally' kind and mentally healthy, can turn caustic and cruel under the wrong conditions. Human emotions, including anger, contempt, and fear, are remarkably contagious.
I'm taken back to my fourth grade classroom, where this motivational poster was on the wall: Attitudes are contagious...Is yours worth catching?
Leonardo de Vinci once said, It is much easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.
Being an asshole can be contagious in the wrong environment. And while you might think it won't rub off on you, the research shows that's incorrect. Avoid and stay away as much as you can.
Here are some other ways to stop our own inner jerk:
Don't see co-workers as rivals, competition or enemies. It breeds poor behaviour that results in a win/lose mindset instead of cooperation and collaboration.
See yourself as others do; and be honest with that self-reflection. Would you want to be around you?
Know thyself. To keep your inner-asshole from getting out, you need to be aware of places and people that will turn you into an asshole. You have to be aware of how seeing life as a bitter winner-takes-all contest can turn you into an instant jerk, and of how others see you even if it doesn't reflect your true intentions.
Assholes hurt all of us. Don't be one. And don't tolerate other's being one either.
If we all collectively lift our standard, learn to fight, and stop our own inner jerks we can create more civilised and happy workplaces. And that helps all of us.
Sutton's 10 Tips Enforcing the No Asshole rule
Sutton's book provides 10 tips for organisations to enforce the NAR. Here's a one line summary of each:
Say the rule, write it down, and act on it. But, only if you really mean it.
Assholes will hire other assholes.
Get rid of assholes fast.
Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees.
Be aware that power can breed nastiness.
Embrace the power-performance paradox.
Manage moments - not just practices, policies, and systems.
Model and teach constructive confrontation.
Adopt the one asshole rule.*
The bottom line: link big policies to small decencies.
*Some context for #9 because it's counter-intuitive: Decades of research on how human groups react to 'deviant' members implies that having one or two assholes around may be better than having none at all...The lesson is that when we see someone break a known rule - like 'Don't litter' - and no one else seems to be breaking it, that single 'deviant act' sticks out, which makes the rule more vivid and powerful in our minds.