The No Asshole Rule (Robert Sutton)

One of the few joys of long haul travel for business is time to browse that staple of airports everywhere, the bookshop. During a few hour stopover at Dallas Fort Worth airport recently, a couple of new paperbacks ended up in my hand luggage ready to help with the sixteen hour flight back to Australia. Though neither of the books actually made an appearance during the flight, I’ve managed to get through one of them since I got home, in the shape of The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton.

The author makes a distinction between “temporary assholes ” (people who are having a bad day or a bad moment) and “certified assholes” (persistently nasty and destructive jerks) and details the kinds of behaviours and damage done by them (not only to their direct victims, but also to bystanders, themselves and their organizations). He recommends implementing a “no asshole” rule and enforcing it, by “linking big policies to small decencies” (e.g. hiring and firing policies).

Tips for surviving nasty people and workplaces are also provided here: look for small wins, limit exposure, build pockets of safety, support & sanity, and fight & win the right small battles.

Robert also acknowledges the virtues of assholes, with Steve Jobs being used as a classic example of motivating fear-driven performance and perfectionism. These virtues are dangerous though given that the “weight of evidence shows that assholes, especially certified assholes, do far more harm than good”.

He also encourages us to look at ourselves and encourages us to find ways to “stop your “inner jerk” getting out”. I liked this mantra: “be slow to label others as assholes, but quick to label yourself”.

A couple of quotes sum up most of what this book is all about for me:

We all die in the end, and despite whatever “rational” virtues assholes may enjoy, I prefer to avoid spending my days working with mean-spirited jerks and will continue to question why so many of us tolerate, justify, and glorify so much demeaning behaviour from so many people

We are all given only so many hours here on Earth. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could travel through our lives without encountering people who bring us down with their demeaning remarks and actions?

This book is aimed at weeding out those folks and at teaching them when they stripped others of their esteem and dignity. If you are truly tired of living in Jerk City – if you don’t want every day to feel like a walk down Asshole Avenue – well, it’s your job to help build and shape a civilized workplace. Sure, you already know that. But isn’t it time to do something about it?

I’ve only worked for two employers in my twenty-odd years in the IT business and, after having read some of the stories in this book, I consider myself pretty lucky not to have encountered too much in the way of asshole behaviour. There have been a number of “temporary assholes” along the way, but I can only think of two “certified assholes” that have unfortunately crossed my path.

One was a manager who definitely went on the certification course and was only removed after a group of people were brave enough to “out” their awful behaviour (sadly, this person continues to be a people manager in a different company.) The other was a developer on a team for which I was the only tester and he let it be known that if I raised another bug against his work, he’d be waiting for me in the car park to exact his revenge. At the time, this was both amusing and of course somewhat frightening – and management did a good job of making sure he wasn’t with us too much longer.

While my own experiences are overwhelmingly positive in the IT industry, it’s obvious that many people (especially females) have a really hard time and at least some of the terrible behaviours are being publicly called out (e.g. the recent Uber stories). Closer to home, my good friend Paul Seaman recently wrote a blog post, The Standard You Walk Past , in which he clearly details the actions of what Sutton would deem a “certified asshole”.

We all deserve a safe and comfortable workplace, so it’s contingent on us to call out asshole behaviour whenever we see it (and that includes anyone who works with me!). This simple statement from the book says it all: “treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way”. That’s something we can all do to help make our workplaces and the world at large just that little bit better for everyone.

6 thoughts on “The No Asshole Rule (Robert Sutton)

  1. robertday154

    I would have thought that in any organisation, a developer who made a direct threat against a colleague wasn’t just “(not) with us too much longer” but was actually summarily dismissed on the spot. In UK employment law, that would most definitely be classed as “gross misconduct” and there are rarely any mitigations for that sort of conduct.

    Of course, these days, many employees – and a surprising number of employers – don’t know their rights and obligations under employment law. Certainly in the UK, this can be put down in a large part to the marginalisation of trade unions since the 1980s; and even if you are one of those who consider that unions were too powerful back in the 1970s, the pendulum has without doubt swung back the other way.

    You don’t say if Sutton’s book covers corporate assholery, the situation where an organisation either adopts asshole-type behaviour, or through inattention (or a lack of challenge at the formative stage) allows assholery to become embedded in their customs and practices. I was a union representative in a minor UK Government department in the Nineties and Noughties; the biggest case I had to deal with was an instance where a SysAdmin was dismissed for supposedly reading the emails in a managed mailbox he was required to monitor. A colleague raised this with the IT manager, expecting said manager to have a quiet word with the person involved and find out what his side of the story was before either issuing a warning or understanding the explanation. Instead, through a lack of proper training and a rigid adherence to procedure, the IT manager initiated a full-blown disciplinary process starting with the accused being removed from the premises and immediately suspended pending dismissal. The whole thing was compounded by rigid adherence to process being observed by all parties in the management chain. The fact that none of the other players understood the detail of exactly how the mailbox management was to be done, or had ever seen or used the application used to manage it, counted for very little. The whole thing was an appalling mess, caused by one line manager acting as a ‘temporary asshole’ (to use Sutton’s terminology) but amplified by the rest of the management and disciplinary chain allowing themselves the temporary luxury of giving in to their corporate ‘certified asshole’ side.

  2. therockertester Post author

    Thanks for your reply, Robert. The book does talk about corporate assholery to some extent, in that it recommends the adoption and enforcement of a “no asshole” rule right from the top down. It also suggests “linking big policies to small decencies”, in terms of policies around hiring and firing for example. It’s that notion of treating everyone the right way – in every interaction – that stuck with me.

  3. robertday154

    The ” notion of treating everyone the right way – in every interaction ” is certainly the ideal, and it would stop a lot of the minor issues that arise in the workplace escalating into big arguments and disputes.

    The sort of corporate assholery I’m thinking of is more the sort of situation where instructions have come down from a high level in the organisation that are either deliberately assholey or (possibly worse) seem sensible when discussed at high level but turn assholey when they are implemented at the workface. Whether that happens depends on how sensible the middle and first-line managers are, or how much life experience they’ve got.

    I keep finding myself coming back to the Milgram Experiment, the 1950s social psychology experiment where people did bad things because an authority figure told them to. So much assholery (of both corporate and personal sorts) seems to refer back to that.

  4. Pingback: Five Blogs – 13 September 2017 – 5blogs

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