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)?