Book excerpt from The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton, PhD. Excerpt reprinted with permission from publisher.
Chapter 1: What Workplace Assholes Do and Why You Know So Many
Who deserves to be branded as an asshole? Many of us use the term indiscriminately, applying it to anyone who annoys us, gets in our way, or happens to be enjoying greater success than us at the moment. But a precise definition is useful if you want to implement the no asshole rule. It can help you distinguish between those colleagues and customers you simply don’t like from those who deserve the label. It can help you distinguish people who are having a bad day or a bad moment (“temporary assholes”) from persistently nasty and destructive jerks (“certified assholes”). And a good definition can help you explain to others why your coworker, boss, or customer deserves the label-or come to grips with why others say you are an asshole (at least behind your back) and why you might have earned it
Researchers such as Bennett Tepper who write about psychological abuse in the workplace define it as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact.” That definition is useful as far as it goes. But it isn’t detailed enough for understanding what assholes do and their effects on others. An experience I had as a young assistant professor is instructive for understanding how assholes are defined in this little book. When I arrived at Stanford as a twenty-nine-year-old researcher, I was an inexperienced, ineffective, and extremely nervous teacher. I got poor teaching evaluations in my first year on the job, and I deserved them. I worked to become more effective in the classroom and was delighted to win the best-teacher award in my department (by student vote) at the graduation ceremony at the end of my third year at Stanford.
But my delight lasted only minutes. It evaporated when a jealous colleague ran up to me immediately after the graduating students marched out and gave me a big hug. She secretly and expertly extracted every ounce of joy I was experiencing by whispering in my ear in a condescending tone (while sporting a broad smile for public consumption), “Well, Bob, now that you have satisfied the babies here on campus, perhaps you can settle down and do some real work.”
This painful memory demonstrates the two tests that I use for spotting whether a person is acting like an asshole:
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?
I can assure you that after that interaction with my colleague-which lasted less than a minute-I felt worse about myself. I went from feeling the happiest I’d ever been about my work performance to worrying that my teaching award would be taken as a sign that I wasn’t serious enough about research (the main standard used for evaluating Stanford professors). This episode also demonstrates that although some assholes do their damage through open rage and arrogance, it isn’t always that way. People who loudly insult and belittle their underlings and rivals are easier to catch and discipline. Two-faced backstabbers like my colleague, those who have enough skill and emotional control to save their dirty work for moments when they can’t get caught, are tougher to stop-even though they may do as much damage as a raging maniac.
There are many other actions-sociologists call them interaction moves or simply moves-that assholes use to demean and deflate their victims. I’ve listed twelve common moves, a dirty dozen, to illustrate the range of these subtle and not subtle behaviors used by assholes. I suspect that you can add many more moves that you’ve seen, been subjected to, or done to others. I hear and read about new mean-spirited moves nearly every day. Whether we are talking about personal insults, status slaps (quick moves that bat down social standing and pride), shaming or “status degradation” rituals, “jokes” that are insult delivery systems, or treating people as if they are invisible, these and hundreds of other moves are similar in that they can leave targets feeling attacked and diminished, even if only momentarily. These are the means that assholes use to do their dirty work.
The Dirty Dozen: Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s “personal territory”
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
- Withering e-mail flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
The not so sweet thing that my colleague whispered in my ear also helps demonstrate the difference between a temporary asshole and a certified asshole. It isn’t fair to call someone a certified asshole based on a single episode like this one; we can only call the person a temporary asshole. So while I would describe the colleague in my story as being a temporary asshole, we would need more information before labeling her as a certified asshole. Nearly all of us act like assholes at times; I plead guilty to multiple offenses. I once became angry with a staff member who I (wrongly) believed was trying to take an office away from our group. I sent an insulting e-mail to her and a copy to her boss, other faculty members, and her subordinates. She told me, “You made me cry.” I later apologized to her. And although I don’t demean one person after another day in and day out, I was guilty of being a jerk during that episode. (If you have never acted like an asshole even once in your life, please contact me immediately. I want to know how you’ve accomplished this superhuman feat.)
It is far harder to qualify as a certified asshole: a person needs to display a persistent pattern, to have a history of episodes that end with one “target” after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, deenergized, and generally worse about themselves.
Psychologists make the distinction between states (fleeting feelings, thoughts, and actions) and traits (enduring personality characteristics) by looking for consistency across places and times-if someone consistently takes actions that leave a trail of victims in their wake, they deserve to be branded as certified assholes.