Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The No-Asshole Rule

I am currently reading a book with the above title, and I highly recommend it to readers of this blog. It is about the importance of civility in the workplace and the deleterious effect that bullying has on the bottom line (as well as the wellbeing of people at work). As a member of a very contentious profession (an accurate description whether I classify myself as an attorney or as an academic), I can attest to the significance of the lessons in this book. When a culture of bullying develops, it is contagious and ultimately leads to greater turnover (because people hate working with and for assholes, no matter how brilliant) and to less productivity at work (because few employees are willing to go the extra mile for someone who is abusive and unappreciative). Originating with an article published in the Harvard Business Review, the author -- Robert Sutton -- carefully and engagingly outlines the degree to which businesses assume, without evidence, that bullies who are skilled at their jobs or otherwise talented are worth the sorrow and destruction they leave in their wake.

It is, of course, not surprising that a business would put profits above "feelings." What is perhaps surprising is that bullies undermine productivity, no matter how personally productive they are. An organization (or team) thrives when a large number of people (including those who work under the top-tier) invest emotionally in a place, stick around, and care about the group's work product. Sutton defines "certified" (as opposed to temporary) assholes as those who chronically behave as though they are the only worthwhile professionals around, surrounded as they are by useless idiots, and as though once they have reached the top, they owe it to themselves to crack the whip and keep the underlings in line.

To figure out whether a person is what Sutton calls a "Certified Asshole," one must examine the impact that the person has on those surrounding him -- if people tend to feel worse about themselves after interacting with this person and if arguments with this person inevitably devolve into personal humiliation, it is likely that there is a CAH on the premises. Sutton emphasizes that he does not believe people should avoid conflict (conflict is crucial to productivity and growth) but simply that they should handle conflict constructively, make their best arguments, listen to others (something that CAH's are particularly bad at doing), and finally commit to whatever decision is arrived at. Sutton provides several examples of companies that have adopted no asshole policies (including Google and The Men's Warehouse).

I am interested in hearing what readers' immediate reactions are to the notion that workplaces enforce a civility norm of this sort. Does it threaten freedom of expression? Does it remove the most creative (but troubled) souls from our midst? Does it feel like it will threaten the bottom line (even though, based on Sutton's research, it does not actually threaten the bottom line)?


Tam said...

Having worked for one myself, I agree with Sutton's argument that CAHs have to go. I think it's important to point out, as you and Sutton do, the distinction between constructively confronting a difference of opinion and what a CAH does.

I found that it wasn't possible, in many situations, to constructively address the faults of the CAH's position without impugning her ability and ego, due to her arrogant posturing. (My case was particularly bad, though, because this person was of fairly low intellectual wattage, so ego issues aside, she was incapable of understanding reason anyway.)

For what it's worth, though, I read somewhere that Bill Gates is sort of a CAH himself. He's been known to curse at people in meetings, and to tell them things like "do you want me to just do [your job] over the weekend?" But the article I read also said that he'll actually back down and listen if the person actually stands his ground and doesn't crumble. So maybe he's not a CAH by Sutton's definition. Maybe Gates's approach - and his subordinates' knowledge that he'll listen if you make a good point - is actually productive? At the same time, I can't imagine that it hasn't also turned one or two good employees away from the company, or made them underproductive.

yonatan said...

What is surprising in all of this is that many CAHs end up so high up hierarchies. It's not just Gates - rumor is that Steve Jobs, lord of everything cool in high-tech, is a CAH; one only has to follow the Charney v. Sullivan & Cromwell litigation to realize that M&A top brass (at least at S&C) are probably, by and large, CAHs. So, the real question is not whether workplaces should impose a CAH-free policy, but how come so many of these assholes get so high up the ladder? another question, of course, is how come the market does not weed them out - if Sutton is correct, what is the market failure that allows CAHs to thrive in corporate America?

One possibility is that CAHs do not start out as such, i.e. that this is an acquired "quality" that comes with rank, or that blooms at a certain age. Another, I guess, is that - as you suggested - CAHs have some sot of added value, i.e. are super-creative or super-intelligent; if that is the case, however, than isn't Sutton's study flawed?

Caleb said...

Just a pet theory, but it seems like sometimes CAHs are best at externalizing the costs of functioning in society than other - more "normal" - people. It's often a lot of work for everyone else to deal with one.

In a competitive workplace, it may be that externalizing social costs can create a competitive advantage for a CAH (on the idea that he doesn't have to spend time smoothing ruffled feathers or figuring out how to deal with a team - they have to do so for him).

If so, a CAH can get ahead by handicapping his opponents. Add that to some modicum of skill, and he can probably rise pretty far.

Larry said...

Based on my experience in working for 4 different small litigation shops, the managing partners have all been certified assholes, ranging from intermittently CAH-ish, to frequently CAH-ish, and the trait seems to coincide with the successful type-A personality the managing partners had. It made me wonder whether you really had to be an asshole in order to run a profitable firm. If we're talking coworkers, staff, or junior partners, then those who are CAHs are absolutely toxic to the work environment. It's interesting that in one instance, if you held your ground against the managing partner, or knocked him on his heels so to speak, he backed off, but you had to figure that out. I don't know that imposing a code of civility on those personality types would have affected their success or creativity, since they still have that hard-charging disposition. Have the research to back up the thesis that imposing civility does not impact the bottom line is very encouraging.

Benjam said...

Well, I am the Asshole at my job. I get away with it because I own the place, but that is just half of the story. The other half is that trying to run a real estate firm in NYC tends to require an asshole at the top. At the very least, it brings out those qualities. I could go on about the pressures, the responsibilities, the employees who take advantage, the demanding clients, the intense disloyalties. It would sound like a sob story and its no excuse. The problem is that if I have 7 good hours where I'm leading the team properly with a 30 minute spasm of assholism, people remember the bad 30 minutes.

At one point, I had 10 employees and we conducted about 50 closings per week. That brought me to my worst. I was never proud of my record but all my employees assured me that even at my worst, I was WAY better than any of the other bosses they had worked for. Maybe I was way better, but I was STILL an asshole. If you saw me in an academic setting, or with my family, you wouldnt peg me for a CAH. It is simply a matter of pressure. Bottom line? Handling pressure is difficult. The ability to handle pressure with grace is a skill which is often acquired through repeated failure.

Viscus said...


You have balls for admitting this. Self-awareness is the first step to self-improvement.

I have been pretty lucky with supervisors, I guess. Then again, I have an agressive personality, and I would not hesitate to argue with a supervisor, or call them out if they act as a CAH. When it comes to this sort of thing, I have an agressive "the devil may care" attitude.

I think so far I have gotten lucky as far as supervisors. I am sure that I would clash with and possible be fired by a CAH who could not handle a confrontation arising from their assholishness.

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