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Bob Sutton’s ‘No Asshole Rule

post # 224 — October 26, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

Bob Sutton, for those of you who don’t know him, is a Stanford professor who has written some superb business books (including the co-authored Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense.)

He has a new (200-page) book coming out in February called “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t”.

Many of you may be aware of his themes, because Bob has a terrific blog and has been talking about the topics of his new book in a number of posts.

As you would expect from Bob, it’s a terrific book — a true ‘must read.’

The theme is clear from the title, but the chapter that really got me was “How to Stop Your ‘Inner Jerk’ From Getting Out.” In other words, how to stop being an asshole yourself.

Bob notes that we all act as assholes sometimes. “Most of us, even the most ‘naturally” kind and mentally healthy, can turn caustic and cruel under the wrong conditions,” he writes. He also points out that “once you unleash disdain, anger and contempt or someone unleashes it on you, it spreads like wildfire. …If you join a group filled with jerks, odds are you will catch their disease.”

Bob covers a lot of territory in his book. What assholes do, and why you know so many. Why every workplace needs the “no asshole” rule. How to keep the rule alive. Tips for surviving nasty people and workplaces. And, to be fair, the virtues of assholes.

Without a doubt, this book will make you think. I’m just sorry you’ll have to wait until February to get it.

In the interim, let me try to start a dialogue based on Bob’s ideas.

I don’t think I’ve ever been the type of asshole who transgresses Bob’s two tests ( first, making other people feel humiliated, de-energized and belittled and second, aiming venom at people who are less powerful than me.)

But there are other ways of being the primary asshole in the room without going that far.

Not in Bob’s sense of the truly nasty person, but nevertheless saying or doing inappropriate things. Bob’s book says that past performance is a good predictor of future performance and one of the good ways to avoid being an asshole in the future is to figure out when and why you have been one in the past.

So, under what circumstances have you found (past tense, of corse) that you yourself ended up being the asshole?

Here’s the beginnings of my list:

I have been the asshole when:

  1. I got overexcited and overenthused on a topic (I lose my sense of proportion , just keep trying to make my point and don’t let people finish their sentences)
  2. I got tired
  3. Three things went wrong in a row. Two I can handle, but make it three and I lose it.
  4. I was asked to do more than one thing at a time. I’m not a multitasker, and I get shirty when people interrupt my concentration.
  5. I got criticized too directly (I reacted badly)
  6. I felt like I’m not being treated with respect
  7. I was trying too hard to ‘show off.’

Anyone else wanna play this game?

Under what circumstances do you become the asshole?


Carl A. Singer said:

Perhaps all replies to this one should be anonymous.

I thought of responding to your question with something like …. “When I get up in the morning”

I think, truthfully, it is most often in response to someone else’s behavior.

The other day I was in a deli having lunch with my boss. Someone at a nearby table saw a friend and motioned him over — the two were standing about six inches from my ear and having a very loud conversation — After a minute or so, I turned around in my chair and firmly spoke at them “Am I disturbing your lunch!” — clearly I could have been civil (“Excuse me please ….”) but perhaps my (New York) environment is rubbing off on me. Then again, they did move away — so perhaps I can talk myself into believing that my behavior was justified.

Not to overanalyze but we might speak of the situational (as above) when we know we could have handled things differently in constrast to those (fortunately few) among the people we interact with who consistently behave in such a manner.

posted on October 26, 2006

Alexei Ghertescu said:

- When smb. starts to criticize my favourite football (I mean european football) team (I know myself waht kind of losers they are, no need to remind me of this). You are from England, David, so maybe you understand me…


Maybe I return to your question in a more serious manner a bit later…

posted on October 26, 2006

Kent Blumberg said:

I think most of my bad moments occur when I have been too quick to read the wrong motivations into someone else’s behavior. That usually happens when I am in a hurry, or tired, or so consumed by my own agenda that I can’t see where the other person is coming from.

posted on October 26, 2006

MG said:

Being treated disrespectfully always does the job. I think a certain amount of give- and get is permissible; the trouble has arisen when I’ve misinterpreted what’s going on and then overreacted.

My worst-ever lapses, however, were back in my Army days when I occasionally allowed myself to become a lightning rod and passed on some other asshole’s vile behaviour to the troops. There’s no excuse for that. The less of a come-back your team has, the more careful you have to be not to treat them badly. That generally means you just have to square your shoulders and take twice as much crap from whoever’s dishing it out . . . and then sit quietly for a while before getting back to the job.

Sometimes I’ve been caught cross-wise in an unfamiliar situation outside my cultural experience, but I find a sincere apology (and no repeats) will usually get me off that particular hook.

posted on October 26, 2006

Ted Harro said:

Just ignore me when I think I have a valid or valuable point. It works every time (to my chagrin).

posted on October 27, 2006

Tom "Bald Dog" Varjan said:

I believe I can be an arsehole when people in North America (especially magazine editors) criticise my “bad English”, which is basically garden variety British English. Maybe I should change, but having learnt English in Britain and having lived there for 10 amazing years, British English also has a sentimental value to me and refuse to replace it with the local English.

And one thing that our teachers beat into us is how to respond when people criticise out funny English. And of course what is funny in Britain, can be easily perceived as cynical in Canada or the US.

The other day I answered the phone at the client’s premises during some project work. I told the caller that the person she was looking for was downstairs outside having a fag.

In a fraction of a second all eyes at the office stared at me and the caller sounded rather disturbed.

I know what fag means here, but in my British English it means cigarette, so I keep using it. And that sometimes makes me feel like an arsehole, but then I realise that I can’t be an arsehole just because other have limited understanding of certain English words.

And for the same reason I therefore never use the word “fannypack”. While it’s normal in North America, the mere usage of the word in a public area would make me blush so hard that my ears would instantly burn off.

And when I’m buying liquid paper, sometimes I still call it Tipex. And people look at me guessing if I need medical treatment.

posted on October 27, 2006

Peter Darling said:

Almost every time, it’s because I’m apprehensive about something. Or just plain afraid. Fear is what drives people to be jerks, almost always.

posted on October 31, 2006

Mel said:

I’m always an asshole about people using grammatically correct English (I was an English major in college), but attempt to berate, argue with or put me down without being grammatically correct, and I go there immediately.

posted on November 1, 2006

von von said:

Great topic, i have so many ways and means..Im in Oz and i suppose its the contractors that rip me and others off that gets me grrrr..i mean one works for a month solid then not get paid..man, try that on as a regular flavour, our govt has made it so easy to get burnt here its a joke. Im then challenged to remain upbeat, civil- to others..its hard..People in general have lost something that was there only two or three generations ago.. patience, even general happiness -its all over, – enter the age of the asshole, its coz we work too hard, too long,- for too little trying to afford houses that are too expensive, and at the same time trying to make our woman happy while they go without..Doesnt matter how cool or good looking you are, a`geek in a porche will/can take your woman nowa days. Which is why we all hated geeks as kids, we instinctively knew that one day they would take over the world and then subject us all to their terms and conditions.. chances are youre working for one right now, i reckon we need to slow down the business educated peoples on this earth – they are driving us to early graves and to each others throats.. Geeks are taking over and they havent been bought up right, theyve been tortured all their lives and they want payback..just look at that bill gates..got the lot and as interesting as cold toast..imagine his vision for our world..then add ten others just like him. That is why people are assholes everythings becoming too damn hard. merry christmas everyone

posted on December 14, 2006

marti said:

i’ve been an asshole when:

1. i’m tired

2. i’m hungry

3. i’ve been working hard to achieve an objective, and gotten no reward, or worse yet more hard work and no thanks.

4. i’ve tried to really impress someone, and failed

5. i’ve gotten interrupted when doing a task which requires a lot of concentration. some things i can multitask quite easily, but others ineffectively or not at all

6. my expectations were nowhere close to met. for example, i don’t expect malaysian drivers to be safe, so i roll with it when i get cut off coming into a toll booth. i do expect american drivers to be safe, though…so when i see someone going way too slow in the overtaking lane, it makes me come unglued.

posted on January 9, 2007

Alex said:

Thank you for this article. It has realy helped me!

posted on March 24, 2007

Prem Rao said:

I just came to know of Bob Sutton’s book. Hence the late response.

I find many people act like assholes when that is the behaviour expected of them by their bosses!!

If you work in an environment where assholes seemingly succeed, you will become one, too.

posted on April 22, 2007

UberBastard said:

Ever think, you’re an arsehole, just because you feel you’re right? Because your ego far surpasses your empathy for others? So far all the causes of jerk outbreak suggested have been reactionary. None of them are just singular actions that’ve come from your own thought process. Not all jerk outbreak can be boiled down to that time you hit yourself on the thumb with the hammer.

posted on May 9, 2008