The Jerk in the Corner Office

What can we do about really terrible people?

Posted Oct 20, 2008

Last week I gave a talk on my campus about positive psychology in the workplace. I was pleased with how it went, although the questions were difficult. I am better at being conceptual than being practical, and some of those in attendance--staff members from different units--wanted to know what to do about those in their midst who were relentlessly negative, pessimistic, and mean. A tough but good question, and all I could do in response was to mutter something about killing them softly with kindness.

Afterwards, I saw a friend and mentioned my talk. I told her that I behaved well--no foul language--but that I had wished I could have answered the question about negative co-workers by talking about my recent conversations with the leaders of a company on the east coast. They all said exactly the same thing about the reason for the company's success and high morale: "We don't hire assholes." This is apparently a very explicit company policy, even if it is not written down in a procedure manual. I joked with them that it should become the official company motto and appear on the letterhead of their stationery, rendered of course in Latin: Non Rectum Intestinum.

I had deliberately censored myself during my campus talk because I did not think "asshole" would be an appropriate word for a self-identified positive psychologist to use in public. My friend laughed at me and said, "Too bad ... if you were more willing to use that word, you might have become a best-selling author." She then told me about a book by Robert Sutton titled The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. I confess I hadn't heard of it, but I immediately ordered it and read it with great interest this past weekend.

I assume many of you are familiar with the book, given its popularity. If not, the gist is simple to convey. Today's workplaces are filled with "bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, despots, and egomaniacs"--in short, assholes (p. 1). These folks usually direct their abuse at those over whom they have power. The cost--for the targets, for the workplaces, and even for the assholes themselves--is staggering. Sutton recounts one story of a company that decided to deduct from an employee's salary the financial costs incurred by his bad behavior: like anger management classes for him, legal fees to adjudicate complaints, time spent by senior management and HR professionals fretting over his misdeeds, and the cost of hiring and training a series of people who worked under him. The total in one year? $160,000! It would have been cheaper to fire him, but the point is made.

The book is a very good read, with memorable stories about actual people who perfectly fit the description used in the title, like the Hollywood producer who ran through 250 personal assistants in five years. (In fairness to the producer, he reportedly thought that the number was only 119!) But the book is more than entertaining. Suttons knows the research literature on workplace bullying and incivility, the sanitized labels for the topic that concerns him. He also knows a lot about psychology, and he bases a lot of his advice on what the research shows or implies.

Solutions are possible. First, don't hire these people, no matter how impressive their resumes. Second, don't keep them around, again no matter how impressive their objective performance indicators. Third, if you must keep them around, don't reward them Sutton recommends that jerks be treated as incompetent employees, with all that entails. Fourth, to the degree possible, minimize status, power, and pay differences among employees because larger discrepancies afford misbehavior among those so inclined.

In some cases, not all, confrontation may work because the difficult person may be clueless about his or her bad habits. In other cases, more drastic steps are needed, such as social isolation and censure. In all cases, it is important that a work organization avoid what Sutton calls asshole poisoning. Bad behavior is contagious, and if there enough of it going on, it will become part of the organizational culture and perpetuate itself.

If a workplace adopts a "no asshole rule," Sutton urges that it be enforced vigorously. In my favorite line of the book, he says, "If you can't or won't follow the rule, it is better to say nothing at all ... you don't want to be known as a hypocrite and the leader of an organization that is filled with assholes" (p. 89).

Nowhere in the book is positive psychology mentioned, and you may be wondering why I am writing about it in this blog entry. After all, one of the truisms of positive psychology is that to understand what it means to live life well, we need to study people who exemplify the good life. So what's my point?

Every truism has exceptions, and I think that attention to really terrible people--assholes--is instructive, if only because they can make the rest of us so unhappy. The absence of such people may not be enough to make us happy, but it would certainly make us less unhappy, and that's a starting point for the pursuit of a fulfilled life. As my colleague Marty Seligman is fond of saying, in order to raise flowers, you need to weed the garden.

But there are also some more specific positive psychology points contained in Sutton's book.

First is a caution not to be naïve, as positive psychologists are sometimes accused of being. "Passion is an overrated virtue in organizational life, and indifference is an underrated virtue. This conclusion clashes with most business books, which ballyhoo the magical power of deep and authentic passion ... All this talk about passion, commitment, and identification with an organization is absolutely correct if you are in a good job and treated with dignity and respect. But it is hypocritical nonsense to the millions of people who are trapped in jobs and companies where they feel oppressed and humiliated" (p. 136-137). For these people, Sutton recommends less passion and more detachment from their work.

Second is the importance of positive reframing in dealing with difficult people. In particular, an oppressed worker should look for small victories at work and relish those that occur. This strategy allows someone to maintain a sense of control until escape is possible.

Third is an interesting chapter, which Sutton says he included with reluctance, on the virtues of assholes. Even the worst among us have strengths, another positive psychology truism that becomes very compelling in this concrete discussion. These strengths may include gaining power and status, vanquishing competitors, bringing other people to their senses, and being left alone. But Sutton nonetheless believes that when assholes succeed, it is usually in spite of their style and not because of it. With tongue-in-cheek, he even suggests that his "no asshole rule" be supplanted by a "one asshole rule," meaning that workplaces should consider keeping one token creep around as a reminder to everyone else how not to behave.

Fourth is a suggestion by Sutton that one way to deal with assholes is to respond with consistent calmness, respect, and even kindness. I am reminded of Patrick Swayze's character Dalton in the movie "Roadhouse." Dalton is the űber-bouncer at a bar frequented by assholes, and he advises the other bouncers to "Be nice ... be nice ... be nice." The point is that someone who refuses to be contaminated by the style of a jerk may actually change the jerk. Perhaps my earlier idea about killing negative people softly with kindness was okay advice after all, although Sutton cautions that the eventual death may be slow in coming.

Sutton ends the book by telling his readers that "assholes are us," meaning that we are all part of the problem but also part of the solution. There is a slippery slope between what he calls temporary assholes and certified assholes and between certified assholes and those of the flaming variety. Wherever we fall along the continuum, we can start to have a better workplace by being the change we want to see. And we can also help by not tolerating the bad behavior of others. Ever. That's what a rule means.

Reference

Sutton, R. I. (2007). The no asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn't. New York: Business Plus.

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