I admit it. I agreed to write this review because I wanted to see how many times I’d get the word in print. Now you admit it. You’ve been one. An asshole, that is. Get that feigned look of shock off your face.
Those stinker emails you fire off when things don’t go according to plan? The passive-aggressive behaviour of sending a note of appreciation one second and an admonition another? That look of annoyance in meetings that basically tells everyone else they’re incompetent? Yup, you’re the asshole at work.
But there’s help, thanks to management guru Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In 180 pages filled with case studies and examples that will surely ring familiar, Sutton asks those in the position of hiring and firing to add one requirement to skill sets and job descriptions: no asshole-like behaviour. That means no belittling people, no dirty looks, no sarcastic jokes with double meaning, no email flames. It means no personal insults, two-faced attacks or uninvited physical contact.
Nice people, Sutton purports, create nice companies and nice places to work. If you’re still not sure who the assholes are (or if you are the one making life miserable for everyone else), the book offers a simple two-part test: “After talking to the alleged asshole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?” And then: “Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at people who are more powerful?” Some of the examples in the book are bound to make some of us (yes, after taking a longer test later in the book, I discovered I was just one answer short of asshole-dom) feel better.
Scott Rudin, a Hollywood producer known for being a tough boss, went through at least 119 personal assistants in five years; one was fired for bringing him the wrong breakfast muffin. And in an example with very recent repercussions, the author describes management woes at computer giant Dell, where founder Michael Dell’s subordinates saw him as remote, impatient and unappreciative.
Chief executive Kevin Rollins, meanwhile, was described as overly critical, opinionated and a poor listener. The two alpha males were made aware of the culture of fear and frustration they were creating and hustled to fix it. They worked with human resources to change the profile of the ideal manager, focusing on finding people who really listened. Rollins got himself a Curious George stuffed animal to remind himself to be open to others’ ideas. (Not sure how well the monkey did Rollins; earlier this year, he was relieved of his CEO duties, now taken over by Dell.) To be sure, Sutton reluctantly includes a chapter on the virtues of assholes, including renowned business leaders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Disney’s Michael Eisner. “Leadership research shows that subtle nasty moves like glaring and condescending comments, explicit moves like insults or put-downs, and even physical intimidation can be effective paths to power.” Effective, perhaps, but lonely, too.
Most of the book’s premise rests on getting what you want without being an asshole, that subordinates often want to please nice bosses and will call out sick a whole lot less if a smile greets them instead of a scowl. Sutton’s book has relevance to fast-growing workplaces in India attempting to marry myriad work ethics and generations. It is slightly thin on tangible solutions beyond just taking a few deep breaths before clicking “send” and trying to employ as many nice people as possible. Still, his book is a refreshing response to the old rule that nice guys finish last.