Thursday, July 22, 2010

Assholes at work

I’ve always assumed the best when encountering other people, and it takes me a long time to form an opinion so severe and critical that I could actually label someone “asshole.”  Although I’ll admit the word is in my vocabulary, there are few instances when I use it, nor would want to use it.  More often than not, my use of the word is in retrospect, a little like Monday-morning quarterbacking, when you look back on a situation, analyze it, and then realize that the negative consequences occurred simply because someone was acting like a total jerk. 

I had a brother-in-law like that who always seemed to take a contrary position in discussions just to antagonize and provoke.  He loved the verbal battle.  I had a colleague like that as well who all faculty members tried to avoid.  It seemed the faculty members of our small department would almost always see eye-to-eye, even agree to disagree at times, but got along with each other famously except when this one person would become involved.  It was as if a discordant ingredient was put into a recipe that seemed to spoil the overall flavor, texture, or appearance.  Without it, no problem; with it, yuck! 

It seems as if this world is more full of assholes today than in the past.  I’m talking here about people who quickly, and often thoughtlessly, throw out personal insults, invade our personal space, make uninvited physical contact, use verbal and nonverbal means to threaten and intimidate, use unwanted sarcastic jokes, offer-up withering e-mail flames, inject rude interruptions into conversations, appear two-faced—one face cordial and accommodating, the other face condemning, vilifying, and attacking—ready to give dirty looks (in Hawaii they call it “stink-eye”) at a moment’s displeasure, and treating others as if they are invisible. 

For this list, and for stimulating this essay, I am indebted to Robert I. Sutton and his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Warner Business Books, 2007).  My list of characteristics, above, comes from his list of “Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use” (p. 10).  I have avoided using quotation marks throughout most of this essay for ease of reading, but I acknowledge my dependence on this terrific book that is well worth reading. 

The best way I have found to successfully deal with assholes is to avoid them, or, in a business, get rid of them.  Sometimes it is a matter of proceeding with the first approach— avoidance—until the second takes place—departure.  Looking back, in all cases that I can recall, this was exactly the procedure that took place. 

In talking with my father-in-law, a former department chairperson, one faculty member was not only an asshole, continued to provoke and display his negative personality on a daily basis, affected everyone’s demeanor and morale, became known throughout the profession and university for just what he was, and — to everyone’s delight and amusement — ended up taking a faculty position at a university in Australia.  Out of sight, out of mind!  (The trail of negative memories and stories, however, paved a muddy and treacherous course of recollections well beyond his presence in this country.) 

My problem with Sutton’s top ten steps, “Enforcing the No Asshole Rule,” is simple.  It is difficult to detect assholes, because they are so good at disguising themselves before people who do not know them.  So often, when you meet for the first time a person who has been labeled an asshole, recognized as an asshole, and roundly supported as an asshole by people you respect and admire, you are astounded at what you discover.  Here, you think, is one of the most cordial, friendly, warm, genial, affable, amiable, pleasant, polite, warmhearted, and good-natured people on the face of the earth!  The critics must be wrong! 

The key, I’m afraid, is to base your judgment on that of those who are credible and whom you trust and respect.  What other recourse do you have?  In an organization, Sutton claims, assholes hire other assholes, so get rid of them fast.  Treat them as incompetent employees.  Remember power breeds nastiness.  “Beware that giving people — even seemingly nice and sensitive people — even a little power can turn them into big jerks” (p. 90), says Sutton.  In dealing with them, you must develop a culture in which people know how to argue and when to stop fighting.  Often, it means gathering more evidence, listening to other people, and implementing decisions even when the asshole disagrees with them. 

Although it is important to emphasize — in business, education, or even in small meetings — that treating people with respect rather than contempt makes good sense, it doesn’t always register with those for whom the words should resonate the loudest.  The resonation falls on deaf ears — or rebounds with no purpose or direction within an empty head, if it makes it that far — especially when things are going badly! 

When you have to hunker down and take it, here are some of the suggestions Sutton makes for surviving nasty people.  First, reframe the situation to escape the source of stress and reduce the damage being done to you.  Above all, avoid self-blame, hope for the best while expecting the worst, and develop indifference and emotional detachment.  Second, look for and celebrate small wins.  “The advantage of taking small actions is that they bring about noticeable and typically successful changes” (p. 140), says Sutton.  “Using a small-wins strategy can enhance your feelings of control, make things around you a little better, and maybe — just maybe — chip away at the vile and vicious culture in which you are trapped and start making it a bit better” (p. 147).  Third, limit your exposure to dampen the damage that assholes do.  Fourth, build pockets of safety, support, and sanity.  When you can hide, hangout with decent people, or engage supportive family and friends in constructive, positive, and helpful conversations, often these social networks can buffer you against the stress of working with an asshole. 

One problem with assholes is the residual effect they can have on your mind, mentality, and memory.  Just writing this essay, for example, brings back memories I would rather not entertain.  Forgiving and forgetting is a great thought, but sometimes doesn’t serve to purge such experiences.  Although Sutton discusses both revenge and calling their bluff, I have seldom seen these tactics work well.  There are some tactics that work and that are discussed above, and they may be all you have.  Fortunately, assholes make up a small percentage of the population!  


At the, Robert Sutton writes, “The No Asshole Rule: Part 1,” where, in his own words, “I thought it would be fun to introduce the book to Huffington Post readers by sharing 13 of the most fascinating and funny things that have happened so far [since his book was published]. The first six are in this post the other seven in my next post.” 

At Bob Sutton’s own website, he offers an essay, “Updated Tips for Victims of Workplace Assholes,” which he introduces with the paragraph, “I’ve talked a lot here about methods for enduring abusive bosses and co-workers.  Some of these tips come from your comments and e-mails, some from the No Asshole Rule, and some from academic research. I thought it would be useful to list some of the most effective methods in one place. I update this list every few months, so please keep your suggestions coming!”  He gives six or seven tips then includes numerous comments from messages he receives at the website. 


Copyright July, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

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