Robert Sutton is an author and a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology, and is the co-founder of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. He’s also co-founder and an active member of the new “d.school,” a multidisciplinary program that teaches and spreads “design thinking.”
Sutton’s books include Weird Ideas That Work, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense, The Knowing-Doing Gap, and The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.
In Sutton’s view, “asshole” behavior includes bullying, interpersonal aggression, emotional abuse, abusive supervision, petty tyranny, harassment, and incivility in the workplace. And he shows that such behavior affects the bottom line of a business through impaired organizational performance, including increased turnover, absenteeism, decreased commitment to work, and impaired individual performance.
We asked Sutton how we can cope with bad behavior in the workplace.
Interview Summary: Enforcing the No Asshole Rule –A Partial List
- Say the rule, write it down, and act on it
- Get rid of assholes fast
- Keep resident jerks out of the hiring process
- Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees
- Model and teach constructive confrontation.
Source: The No Asshole Rule, by Robert Sutton
Are you an asshole? Take the Test.
McLaughlin: What is the “No Asshole Rule,” and why do we need it?
Sutton: The “No Asshole Rule” doesn’t allow anyone to get away with demeaning, nasty, or disrespectful behavior toward others in the workplace. People who continually behave that way need serious reform or should be shown the door.
The rule is needed because too many organizations allow such behavior to persist. For example, surveys show that one out of two Americans has an abusive boss. And one out of five or six people is in work relationships where they feel persistently, emotionally abused.
Assholes have devastating cumulative effects partly because nasty interactions have far more impact on us than positive ones—five times the punch, according to recent research. And it takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole.
The behavior of assholes damages individual well-being and also impacts corporate profits, mostly because it reduces people’s commitment to the organization and drives out some of the best employees.
McLaughlin: Do you think this problem is getting better or worse?
Sutton: I don’t think it’s getting better or worse. But, at the moment, people are paying more attention to it.
In Europe, anti-bullying legislation has become a big deal. And in the US, people are starting to push for legislation in this area. I think one can make the case that those employers who allow assholes to get away with doing their dirty work should be liable for damages if they continue to permit it.
Also, when the labor market gets tight—as it is now—employers need to care more about talent. They have more incentive to consider how they treat employees.
McLaughlin: Why don’t organizations fire or reform their biggest abusers? Do they find some value in having jerks around?
Sutton: You could argue that some people might actually be worth it. That’s why I wrote the chapter on effective assholes or the virtues of assholes. From my perspective, though, managers and companies empower jerks for too long, especially if they’re effective, because they think that they’re worth the trouble.
In the book, there is a case of a very successful software salesperson with a reputation for flaming everybody and burning through assistants. When the company finally got mad at him and calculated the annual cost of this one offender, it was $160,000.
If you look at the research on bullying, the costs are sometimes surprisingly high. As I said, assholes can drive the good people out. They also damage the organization’s reputation. And they are more expensive than they tend to look.
But I worry that, if we focus only on economic and winning calculations, in the end we create a world where people are living in hell just to make a little more money.
McLaughlin: Don’t you think that, on some level, we all suspect that hugely successful people are assholes?
Sutton: Well, some evidence does suggest that if you want others to see you as powerful or brilliant in business, being a little nasty can help with that attribution, especially in a cutthroat environment.
That stereotype of effectiveness adds to the challenge of trying to convince assholes that it’s not in their financial or career best interests to act that way.
McLaughlin: Is there some kind of a twelve-step program to reform assholes?
Sutton: I don’t know whether there are twelve steps, but there are specific actions many executives take when they have a difficult employee. The first is to have a private conversation with the person and ask him or her to stop. Another point is that it’s very important from the organization’s perspective to document such cases and actions taken.
It’s also relevant to recognize the difference between clueless assholes and strategic assholes.
The clueless ones may think they are great, wonderful people. When they get feedback that colleagues or supervisors see them as demeaning, they are shocked.
In some ways, the clueless are easier to reform because awareness gets them working on the problem. Strategic assholes, on the other hand, believe that the way you get ahead is by stomping on everybody and showing how tough you are.
McLaughlin: Is there a particular organizational culture that encourages the growth of assholes?
Sutton: If an organization’s culture conveys support for the notion that the people who are nasty, overbearing, or sexist are effective and get ahead, then that organization will look for aggressive, edgy, nasty people. Otherwise, they would screen them out.
When you think about what breeds assholes, for me the big question is, what happens in your organization when somebody crosses the line? Do you look the other way as long as the person is performing well, or do something about it? Will you fire people for bad behavior?
One of the interesting people I interviewed for the book was the head of HR for Southwest and Jet Blue. She talked quite openly about the fact that they would hire and fire people for attitude in both companies. At Southwest, she said they always waited too long to get rid of problem people. Once they did, it felt so much better that they were always sorry they didn’t do it sooner.
This is basic HR stuff but the question is, are you giving tacit approval to bad behavior or are you putting a stop to it?
McLaughlin: Clients have a lot of leverage in consulting relationships. Any advice for how a service provider can work with an asshole client?
Sutton: Well, first you’ve got to make some policy decisions. For example, how much are you going to take from asshole clients? And then, how much are you going to charge them if you have to take a lot? I call that asshole taxes.
I’ve heard other people, from plumbers to lawyers, talk about how—informally—they charge such premiums. But there’s also the point of how explicit you’re going to be with your clients about how you expect them to treat you.
My experience with professional service firms is that it’s not always that simple. The more desperate service providers are for work, the more likely they are to pick clients who are difficult, unreasonably demanding, or who won’t pay.
McLaughlin: Any tips to help us avoid turning into assholes?
Sutton: The first thing is awareness that context is very powerful. No matter how good a person you are, if you’re surrounded by jerks, the odds are that you will turn into one too.
Emotions of all kinds are contagious. If the people you are working with are demeaning and nasty, it’s actually pretty hard to survive by being nice because you’ve got to defend yourself.
You also have to find somebody, or a network of people, who will tell you the truth when you’re being a jerk. For many of us, that kind of honesty is hard to find.
We also need to focus on accountability. Many consulting firms do all that stuff about 360 degree evaluations, where all the dirt comes up about somebody who’s a jerk and then you call him in, you tell him, but there’s no follow-up or plan to do anything. There’s no accountability for the person.
I’ve found out about a couple of consultants who help people with bullying problems. What they do is bring the person into a room and basically slap him around and try to scare the behavior out of him. But they don’t provide any resources or support. I think that’s worse than not doing anything at all. It’s like ripping off a scab without helping it heal.
So that’s my warning. But I do think self-awareness works and that’s why we all need friends and maybe even enemies that we have to listen to at times.
That’s one way consultants can be quite valuable—just by talking to people and giving them honest, objective feedback.
That old joke—that a consultant will take your watch to tell you what time it is—is meant as an insult, but I don’t think it should be. One of the advantages of consultants is that, sometimes, people are more likely to accept the advice of an outsider, even if it’s something they already know.
McLaughlin: Could you give some examples of companies that are good at handling or preventing bad behavior?
Sutton: My favorite case is Success Factors, an international software company that has grown like crazy. They require all new employees to sign their fourteen rules of engagement, one of which is that you won’t be an asshole.
Perkins Coie, a national law firm with headquarters in Seattle, has applied the “no jerk rule” for years, which has helped the firm to be named one of the “Top 100 Best Companies to Work for” five years in a row. The COO of Barclay’s Capital says, “Hotshots who alienate colleagues are told to change or leave. We have a ‘no jerk’ rule around here.”
You can find many other examples on my blog and in my entries on The Huffington Post blog.
McLaughlin: If you could give a consultant one piece of advice about working with an asshole client, what would it be?
Sutton: I guess my perspective is do you really need to do it? Can you avoid it in the first place? Of course, that’s not always possible. When consultants really need the work, they start taking on bad clients. They’ll say I know I shouldn’t do this, but they do it and then afterwards they say I shouldn’t have done it.
The research on managerial decision making shows that people often give others better advice than is reflected in their own behavior. If you could be your own client, what would you tell yourself about taking on a potential asshole?
People are much better at predicting the odds that somebody else will succeed or fail than the odds that they will succeed or fail. So we should all be wary of our tendency to be overly optimistic about our own prospects, especially the hope we can overcome the disadvantages of working with a jerk.
McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.
You can find out more from Sutton’s blog at http://bobsutton.typepad.com.
You might also be interested in our podcast, Robert Sutton: Good, Bad Bosses.