“Every organization needs the no asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves… The effects of assholes are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes.” (Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule, pp 27,29)
Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule is a book every manager should read, and indeed everyone should read. Those of us who enjoy healthy work environments tend to forget that others don’t have the same luxury, and spend most of their lives surrounded by bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants — assholes, in other words, who should be fired without second thought.
Sutton stresses at the outset that he doesn’t advocate recruiting wimps: “I am a firm believer in the virtues of conflict, even noisy arguments… My focus is squarely on screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power.” (pp 16-17) He further acknowledges that everyone acts like an asshole from time to time, and he himself has been an offender. It’s the “certified assholes” he has in his sights.
The certified asshole, then, is “one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves” (p 11). You can find out if you’re a certified asshole by taking the author’s test, found either in the book (pp 124-126) or online here. (I’m apparently clean: I got 4 asshole points out of 24; according to Sutton’s grading, under 5 means you’re okay.)
Sutton then lists “the dirty dozen” everyday tactics used by assholes (p 10):
1. Personal insults
2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering email flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they are invisible
He believes that more companies and organizations should enforce a “no asshole rule”, and fire employees who make their colleagues’ lives miserable through repeated use of any of the above.
Speaking personally, I’m inclined to agree with Sutton. I have no tolerance for assholes, and count myself fortunate to have worked with few of them. Those I’ve had the misfortune to know were damaging to people in ways they may never understand. I would support the implementation of the no asshole rule in almost any work environment. But at the same time, something about the “dirty dozen” list gives me pause: most of these tactics are not only acceptable, but expected, of people in honor-shame cultures. Is there an ethnocentric bias here that needs to be addressed?
In Asian and Middle-Eastern (and other) cultures, insults are fine and frequent arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and “treating others as if they are invisible” a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. What constitutes being an asshole in one culture can be honorable in another, and not nearly as psychologically damaging.
Sutton seems aware of the ethnocentricity behind his rule. In the middle of the book he not only brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, but honor-shame subcultures — like that of the southern United States:
“People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)… [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor.” (pp 116-117)
He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:
“Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult.” (p 117)
In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East — or from an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States — “you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning” (p 118). The implication seems to be that people from honor-shame cultures, or subcultures, are inherent assholes (or at least have strong asshole-leanings), even if Sutton doesn’t spell things out this harshly.
But this should be clarified: “assholes”, as defined by Sutton, do a lot more damage in guilt-based cultures than shame-based ones. In the latter, people are conditioned to defend themselves constantly and forcefully against abuse, and they aren’t psychologically wounded by the kind of things presumed in the no asshole rule. “Asshole” is thus a misnomer for such people, even if their behavior should not be excused in a western work environment.
We’re not done with Sutton’s book yet. In the next post we will look at his interesting complement to the no asshole rule — the one asshole rule. Ponder the following until then: Was Paul right about a little bit of yeast leavening the whole batch of dough (I Cor 5:6)? Or can the opposite be true?
UPDATE: See Bob Sutton’s blogpost and comments underneath, where a librarian named Daphne Chang objects to some of my remarks.