Saturday, April 28, 2012

The No Asshole Rule

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't is a book based on author Robert Sutton's article in the Harvard Business Review - one of the anual "Breakthrough Ideas" of 2003 (the book was published in 2007).  

Sutton spends a lot of time setting up the premise - there are a lot of assholes out there, and they make workplaces miserable - from decreased moral, high use of sick time, decreased productivity to mental collapse.  It's bad.  Why're are there so many assholes?  I don't know.  His premise is simple: try not to hire assholes.  

His use of the word "asshole" is partly strategic, part cop-out.  He uses the term humorously, and, it IS fairly amusing to the see this mostly harmless curse word in every other sentence.  An asshole, by Sutton's definition, is someone who consistently acts like a jerk, "who belittles and demeans others in the workplace independently of gender, race or religious beliefs."  That's important - treating someone differently based on gender, race or religious beliefs (as well as sexual orientation) is illegal.  Being as asshole isn't.  So, when Sutton talks about managers removing "assholes" (by his definition), it's not entirely clear what he means.  As far as I know, you can't fire someone for being a jerk.  

As a hiring manager myself, I think I do a good job of finding people I want to work with (ie, NOT assholes), but, I must admit, I was more interested in this part of the title: Surviving One That Isn't.  I wasn't at all surprised to see that Sutton works in academia (also where I am).  I think most people would agree there are a disproportionate number of unpleasant folks in academia.  Just about daily I think about this old adage - Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.  Sutton returns again and again to the "simple" solution if you're in an office populated by a-holes: just leave.  Well, sure, easy for him to say - but, that's pretty terrible advice in a bad economy (and not so great in a good one.)  His more "practical" advice is not much more helpful: Lower your expectations, "learn to feel and practice indifference and emotional detachment", "look for small wins" and "limit your exposure."  I frankly, do not want to to treat my work with indifference and emotional detachment - it's a part of my life - half of my waking day.  There's gotta be another answer, but it isn't in this book.*

I wouldn't really recommend this book to anyone, unless you enjoy reading shocking statistics and horrifying stories that may or may not be worse than your own.  He calls out a lot of people by name - some are well known, like Bobby Knight, other's less well - but I think all a matter of public record.  I'm thinking about passive-aggressively leaving the book laying around on my desk at work, but, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that Clueless People Are Clueless (it's true, there's a study and everything.)  One time at work this brochure went to everyone in the office that said to be aware if your behavior caused other people to, for example, back away, or avoid eye contact, or to cross their arms, etc, and I had a laugh with a friend about how many people it defined to a T, and then we got really sad because we realized it would take nothing less than a lightening bolt from the sky for someone to read that paper and say, "My God!  This is ME!  I need to change my evil ways immediately!"  

*Actually, there was one small bit of advice that I did like.  Sutton quotes a woman who uses advice from a white-water rafting instructor - if you fall out the boat, rely on your life vest - lay back with your feet in front of you and use your legs to bounce off the rocks.  In nasty meetings, the woman would literally stick her feet out under the table and imagine she was gently pushing off the offensive actions around the table. That's a nice visual I can work with!  

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