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.