Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule”, Essay Example
In his book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” author Robert I. Sutton tackles the issue of, as the title makes clear, “assholes” in the workplace. Sutton’s book covers the subject in a brief yet thorough and engaging manner. He begins by defining what an “asshole” is in the context of the workplace, then moves on to examine how such assholes can damage an organization and how they can best be dealt with. By effectively applying Sutton’s “no asshole rule,” he argues, organizations can make the workplace a better, happier, and most of all more effective environment in which to work.
Sutton divides his book into a series of chapters that deal with several key ways to identify workplace assholes and ways to avoid allowing them to cause damage to the organization. In the opening chapter he discusses the sorts of behaviors that are exhibited by assholes, and draws a distinction between “temporary assholes” –which all of us can be at times- and the “certified asshole” that is truly damaging to an organization. Sutton offers readers two “tests” that can be used to identify assholes; these tests are both subjective and objective. The first test is more personal; Sutton asks readers if they feel “oppressed,” “de-energized,” or otherwise are left feeling badly on routine basis after dealing with a particular individual. On a broader level, the second test asks readers to consider the manner in which an individual treats other people, and to note whether the individual in question tends to reserve his or her negative, demeaning, and abusive behavior only for those who hold less-powerful positions within the organization. Any individual who scores highly –or, depending on how one looks at it- scores poorly on such tests is what Sutton calls an “asshole.”
Without detailing here every example Sutton points to, it is helpful to understand the nature of the personality types and power positions to which he refers. One notable example is John Bolton, who was a George W. Bush-era nominee for U.N. Ambassador. Bolton has a widely-known reputation as an asshole, and there are countless anecdotes circulating publicly about his boorish and abusive behavior. Sutton recounts several such anecdotes offered by a woman who had the misfortune of working with Bolton; she describes, among other things, how Bolton followed her around a hotel berating her and how their interactions were marked by his constant verbal tirades and insults. The woman in question held a position that was lower than Bolton’s, and Sutton makes a point of noting that Bolton was the type who would “kiss up and kick down.” Bolton might be comfortable verbally castigating subordinates, asserts Sutton, but he would likely never treat his superiors in such a manner.
Sutton offers readers a simple rule for assessing people in nearly any context: “The difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.” This goes to the heart of Sutton’s thesis; the true asshole, and the one who can and often will cause damage to organizational function and efficiency, is most often going to be the type who lords his or her power over others. Given that nearly any form of organization is at least somewhat hierarchical in structure, Sutton’s advice, while seemingly simple and direct, is also worth keeping in mind for anyone who wishes to see their organization reach its full potential.
In the second chapter, Sutton makes what is perhaps his strongest and most compelling argument. No one needs to read a book to know that dealing with assholes is no fun; Sutton makes the case that it is also financially costly and can cause lasting damage to an organization. While dealing with assholes at work in any context can be disheartening, Sutton reserves his greatest ire for those who hold positions of significant authority, such as senior managers, CEOs, professional sports coaches, and other leaders of exalted positions. At all levels, though, assholes can cause serious damage to an organization. The upshot of dealing with these assholes can lead to decreased employee satisfaction, high turnover (in one example, Sutton cites the CEO who burned through hundreds of assistants in a few short years), decreased productivity, and can even increase the rates of company theft.
Sutton uses a variety of evidence to support his claims, from research findings to various anecdotes and personal accounts. One study examined the aftermath of a major snowstorm; the departments with the most positive managers and the happiest employees also showed the lowest rates of absenteeism as the snow blanketed the city. Other tales include stories of CEOs, studio heads, and other industry leaders whose negative behavior proved costly to their organizations. Sutton describes a number of scenarios in which the behavior of workplace assholes became known to the public, and ended up damaging organizational reputations. Such damage can be costly, as in the case where one company’s stock plummeted after a nasty internal email sent by a CEO to a subordinate became public and the company’s stock plummeted on the news. Sutton notes that the CEO in question privately and publicly apologized for his behavior, and the stock soon recovered. While the outcome of this particular situation proved to be short-lived, Sutton’s point about the potential damage caused by assholes is well-taken.
In what is both an amusing and effective presentation, Sutton describes the “TCA,” or “Total Cost of Assholes” for organizations. In this section, Sutton summarizes the costs associated with factors such as turnover, decreased productivity, and other potential costs produced when organizations have to “manage assholes.” One example he provides discusses an interview in which he was told that a particular organization had just completed such a TCA assessment over a certain individual in their organization. After adding up the costs of cleaning up the asshole’s messes –including payment for anger management counseling- the TCA for this one individual was $160,000. It makes no difference what sort of organization it is, or how much profit it generates; $160,000 is a lot of money. Even an individual who earns well for an organization is likely not going to be cost effective if his or her TCA is that high.
As Sutton moves on to his discussion about how organizations can best deal with, and more importantly, avoid hiring, assholes, the book moves into what can best be described as “common sense” advice. In short, Sutton’s suggestions can be summed up as “be nice.” As simple as that sounds, however, there is often a significant discrepancy between what is obviously the right approach and the real-world manifestations of company policies and organizational culture. It is not enough, Sutton argues, to write up and post company guidelines about how individuals within an organization should treat each other; if such advice is not followed, it is useless.
To make his case, Sutton details the inner organizational workings of several different companies. He notes that Google, whose corporate motto is “don’t be evil,” recognizes that allowing assholes to behave like assholes is simply not efficient. Google stresses this in their hiring policies, and does not allow individuals to routinely get away with negative behavior. Other organizations with similar approaches that are covered in this section are the airline Jet Blue and the mass retailer Costco. In fact, Sutton reserves particular praise for Costco’s CEO, noting that he takes a significantly lower salary than do many CEOs at similar levels, and that he spends an inordinate amount of time visiting the company’s stores and interacting with employees of all levels. His lower-than-usual salary, notes Sutton, is offset by increases in the company’s stock prices, which benefits the CEO and employees alike.
Sutton again returns to his discussion of inequities in power positions between individuals within organizations, and notes the importance of not allowing such inequities to tarnish relationships. While there will always be those who earn more than others, or who wield more power than others, it is important to ensure that individuals treat each other with respect, and that this ideal is woven into the fabric of organizational culture. Here, Sutton turns to a discussion about self-management, and how individuals must also police their own behavior. Mutual respect must be both offered and accepted at all levels for an organization to function at its best. Sutton gives readers the opportunity to assess their own capacity to be assholes, and warns that it is not enough to expect positive behavior from others.
No organization is ever going to be entirely devoid of assholes, of course, and Sutton offers a number of coping strategies for those who may feel trapped in situations where they have to deal with negative individuals. Again, most of this advice is of the common-sense variety, and largely consists of ways to remind oneself of the value that can be found both externally and internally despite the problems caused by assholes. Sutton even admits –somewhat hesitantly- that there can be some value in assholes. These individuals are often those who also have the drive to succeed, and when properly channeled, their behavior can benefit the organization as well. The trick for any organization is to find ways to minimize the damage and maximize the benefits of these assholes for the entire organization.
Sutton is hardly the only author who has sought to identify people within organizations by types or categories. Michael Lipsky coined the term “street level bureaucrats” to describe those who hold positions that involve the actual implementation of organizational policy. These SLBs can be police officers, DMV employees, and any others who are tasked with interaction with the public and effectively enacting and manifesting the policies developed higher up the food chain. SLBs often get a bad reputation, as they are at the front line of dealing with the people who are most affected by the rules, regulations, and policies written by those who do not actually have to enforce them.
For anyone who has ever had any sort of position dealing with the public –even if they do not qualify as street level bureaucrats- it is well-known just how difficult such a position can be. I spent a fair amount of time working as a server in a restaurant, and I can personally attest to the fact that dealing with the public can be enormously challenging. I was fortunate enough, however, to work in an organization that did not allow assholes to flourish at the employee level; the assholes I had to deal with were almost always members of the public, who can be rude, demeaning, and nasty. Unfortunately, in the hospitality business, the mentality that “the customer is always right” does prevail; that is simply the nature of the game.
What made the situation tolerable was that it helped to foster a siege mentality among the employees, from management all the way down to the dishwashers in the back of the house. We could not afford to allow any assholes to last very long there, as they would alienate their fellow employees and potentially drive away customers. And because we all had to brace ourselves against the potential negative behavior of customers, we had a tendency to bond together and to form a collegial atmosphere that included after-hours socializing in which we gathered to blow off steam. I consider myself fortunate to have worked in that organization, and to have made friends during that time with whom I still am friends today. That does not mean that I never had to work with any assholes (and it also does not mean that I never acted like an asshole myself); it does mean, however, that I learned to value the sorts of lessons that Sutton offers in his book. I found his insights to be both amusing and entertaining, and I hope to carry the lessons I learned from the book with me as I do my best to deal with assholes and to avoid being one myself.
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