Arseholes beware!

Dear colleagues,

What do you call people whose obnoxious behaviour makes others miserable at work? Bullies? Jerks? Bastards? How about arseholes?

Management writer Robert I. Sutton decided to tackle the subject of bullying at work and wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review in which he referred repeatedly to "assholes" - "asshole" being the US version of "arsehole". The reader response was overwhelming and favourable, with many correspondents telling Sutton stories about objectionable people they had to deal with.

So Sutton embarked on a book on the topic. He says he never really enjoyed writing a book until this one. He just had to mention the title - The no asshole rule - and people would tell him more anecdotes. The subtitle is Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn't (New York: Business Plus, 2007).

Lots of people have strong opinions about - and antagonism towards - the arseholes their midst, but are they talking about the same thing? Sutton clarifies his meaning by using two tests.

"Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the 'target' feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him- or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?" (p. 9)

Sutton recommends that workplaces have a rule against arseholes. Arseholes shouldn't be hired and, if they are, they should be gotten rid of. If that's not possible, then their behaviour should be named and condemned. This sounds good, but can be very difficult.

Arseholes, according to Sutton, can be conniving. Because they often flatter their superiors, they are able to rise in the system and appoint others like themselves, leading to a toxic workplace in which abuse is standard practice.

Bullies are the most common sort of arseholes, and much of The no asshole rule is an exposition of standard findings about bullying at work. Bullying damages morale, causes the loss of productive employees, and undermines creativity and cooperation. All in all, it costs organisations a huge amount of money, not to mention ruining the lives of   targets.

For several decades, I've listened to whistleblowers tell their stories. Not surprisingly, many of them are bullied. This led me to read and review numerous books on bullying. The writing in this area is pretty depressing. The stories of bullied workers are demoralising, and success stories are rare. A common recommendation is to leave.

Managers sometimes set up rules and grievance procedures for dealing with bullying. The trouble is that these hardly ever work - they often give only the appearance of official concern.

Compared to other books on bullying, The no asshole rule is fun to read. This is due to Sutton's irreverent language and style, his focus on solutions at the organisational level, and his personal stories.

Sutton is aware that calling someone an arsehole is essentialising, and that actually there are only arsehole behaviours. He calls someone an arsehole who regularly behaves like one. He recognises that everyone can behave badly at times, and describes several situations in which he behaved like an arsehole. The first step in opposing arseholes is to stop your own nasty behaviour. Sutton has a whole chapter on this, including advice on avoiding "asshole poisoning", namely becoming one yourself, because "asshole poisoning is a contagious disease that anyone can catch" (p. 99).

Sutton describes several workplaces that enforce a "no arsehole rule". Bad behaviour is officially condemned. Recruitment takes collegiality into account.

However, there are plenty of workplaces in which arseholes thrive and multiply, so the easiest way to survive is to become one yourself. Not nice. Bullying can become a collective phenomenon, and targets can be provoked until they react angrily and discredit themselves. So Sutton has a chapter titled "When assholes reign: tips for surviving nasty people and workplaces". Among his suggestions are reframing the way you look at the situation, developing a detached emotional attitude (set your passion aside), limiting your exposure to arseholes, seeking pockets of safety and winning small struggles.

This is all very practical, because it rests on developing mental and interpersonal skills for survival rather than relying on senior managers to fix the problem. Unfortunately, they hardly ever do, and sometimes they are the problem themselves, especially by setting the tone for entire organisations.

Sutton tells about some spectacular arseholes, of whom Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is paramount. But this leads Sutton into a chapter he initially didn't want to write, on the virtues of arseholes. They can succeed by rising up the system and intimidating rivals, and they can inspire top performance through fear. Sutton lists five key lessons for being an effective arsehole, but then lists seven "delusions of effectiveness" that arseholes often suffer. Whatever benefits arseholes bring to the workplace, Sutton thinks we are better off without them.

In case you think this isn't relevant to you, Sutton says "the no asshole rules works best when everyone involved in the organization steps in to enforce it when necessary" - management, workers and customers alike (p. 183).

Can the no arsehole rule be applied in universities? Compared to a private company, it's not as easy to avoid hiring arseholes, because selection is supposed to be on merit, and not as easy to get rid of them. In my experience, though, academic recruitment does look at collegiality, and senior management can take steps to transfer or push out those they don't want. The issue is more about willingness than having the power to act.

Following Sutton's recommendation, academics, general staff and students need to be involved in acting against bad behaviour. And don't forget about dealing with your own.

27 January 2011

I thank Bryce Fraser, Marisa Gonçalves, Hanh Nguyen and Deborah Osborne for valuable feedback on drafts.

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