The No Asshole Rule | Notes & Review

Posted on October 27, 2010


Robert Sutton. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus, 2007. (224 pages)

Chapter 1 What Assholes Do and Why You Know So Many

…the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behavior, excluding physical contact.

Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the “target” feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?


Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use

  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 e-mail 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

the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know. (25)

Chapter 2 The Damage Done: Why Every Workplace Needs the Rule

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. (27)

…nasty interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions—five times the punch—…so nasty people pack a lot more wallop than their more civilized counterparts. (30-31)

Chapter 3 How to Implement the Rule, Enforce It, and Keep It Alive

Make it public—by what you say and especially what you do. (57)

Weave the rule into hiring and firing policies. (64)

Apply the rule to customers and clients. (69)

Status and power differences: roots of many evils (71) …when the social distance between higher- and lower-status mammals in a group is reduced and steps are taken to keep the distance smaller, higher-status members are less likely to act like jerks. (75)

Focus on conversations and interactions (78) …small, seemingly trivial changes in how people think, talk, and act can add up to some mighty big effects in the end. (80)

Teach people how to fight (80) the only thing worse than too much confrontation is no confrontation at all. (81) …as we travel from moment to moment, and group to group, finding the sweet spot between being constructive enough and critical enough is tough, and as life is confusing and messy, we all will make mistakes along the way. (83)

Should it be “the One Asshole rule”? The lesson is that when we see someone break a known rule—like “don’t litter”—and no one else seems to be breaking it, that single “deviant act” sticks out, which makes the rule more vivid and powerful in our minds. But when we see a person break a rule and everyone else seems to be breaking it, we are even more likely to break the rule, too—because there is evidence that we can get away with it, or even are expected to break the espoused rule. (85) …when one or two “bad apples” are kept around—and perhaps rejected, punished, and shunned—everyone else is more conscientious about following the written or unwritten rules. (86)

Warning: Be slow to brand people. (87)

The upshot: enforce the rule by linking big policies to small decencies. (88) Having all the right business philosophies and management practices to support the no asshole rule is meaningless unless you treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way. (89)

THE TOP TEN STEPS: Enforcing the No Asshole Rule

  1. Say the rule, write it down, and act on it. But if you can’t or won’t follow the rule, it is better to say nothing at all—avoiding a false claim is the lesser of two evils. You don’t want to be known as a hypocrite and the leader of an organization that is filled with assholes.
  2. Assholes will hire other assholes. Keep your resident jerks out of the hiring process, or if you can’t, involve as many “civilized” people in interviews and decisions to offset this predilection of people to hire “jerks like me.”
  3. Get rid of assholes fast. Organizations usually wait too long to get rid of certified and incorrigible assholes, and once they do, the reaction is usually, “Why did we wait so long to do that?”
  4. Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees. Even if people do other things extraordinary well but persistently demean others, they ought to be treated as incompetent.
  5. Power breeds nastiness. Beware that given people—even seemingly nice and sensitive people—even a little power can turn them into big jerks.
  6. Embrace the power-performance paradox. Accept that your organization does have and should have a pecking order, but do everything you can to downplay and reduce unnecessary status differences among members. The result will be fewer assholes and, according to the best studies, better performance, too.
  7. Manage moments—not just practices, policies, and systems. Effective asshole management means focusing on and changing the little things that you and your people do—and big changes will follow. Reflect on what you do, watch how others respond to you and to one another, and work on “tweaking” what happens as you are interacting with the person in front of you right now.
  8. Model and teach constructive confrontation. Develop a culture where people know when to argue and when to stop fighting and, instead, gather more evidence, listen to other people, or stop whining and implement a decision (even if they still disagree with it). When the time is ripe to battle over ideas, follow Karl Weick’s advice: fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.
  9. Adopt the one asshole rule. Because people follow rules and norms better when there are rare occasional examples of bad behavior, no asshole rules might be most closely followed in organizations that permit one or two token jerks to hang around. These “reverse role models” remind everyone else of the wrong behavior.
  10. The bottom line: link big policies to small decencies. Effective asshole management happens when there is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle between the “big” things that organizations do and the little things that happen when people talk to one another and work together.

Chapter 4 How to stop your ‘inner jerk” from getting out

…being around people who look angry makes you feel angry. (97)

Don’t join the jerks—Leonardo Da Vinci got it right. (99)

Warning: Seeing coworkers as rivals and enemies is a dangerous game. (104)

…organizational life is nearly always a blend of cooperation and competition, and organizations that forbid extreme internal competition not only are more civilized, but perform better too—despite societal myths to the contrary. (104)

See yourself as others do. (111)

Face your past. (114) The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. (115)

Know thyself. (118) …to avoid acting like or becoming a known asshole, know thyself. (119)

“Jerk-O-Meter.” MIT (image) Our results show that a person’s speaking style and ‘tone of voice’ can predict objective outcomes (e.g., interest in a conversation or in going out on a date) with 75-85% accuracy. (121)

SELF-TEST: Are you a certified asshole? Signs that your inner jerk is rearing its ugly head

Instructions: indicate whether each statement is a true (T) or false (F) description of your typical feelings and interactions with the people at your workplace.

What are your Gut Reactions to People?

  1. you feel surrounded by incompetent idiots—and you can’t help letting them know the truth every now and then.
  2. You were a nice person until you started working with the current bunch of creeps.
  3. You don’t trust the people around you, and they don’t trust you.
  4. You see your coworkers as competitors.
  5. You believe that once of the best ways to “climb the ladder” is to push other people down or out of the way.
  6. You secretly enjoy watching other people suffer and squirm.
  7. You are often jealous of your colleagues and find it difficult to be genuinely pleased for them when they do well.
  8. You have a small list of close friends and a long list of enemies, and you are equally proud of both lists.

How do you treat other people?

  1. You sometimes just can’t contain your contempt toward the losers and jerks at your workplace.
  2. You find it useful to glare at, insult, and even occasionally holler at some of the idiots at your workplace—otherwise, they never seem to shape up.
  3. You take credit for the accomplishments of your team—why not? They would be nowhere without you.
  4. You enjoy lobbing “innocent” comments into meetings that serve no purpose other than to humiliate or cause discomfort to the person on the receiving end.
  5. You are quick to point out others’ mistakes.
  6. You don’t make mistakes. When something goes wrong, you always find some idiot to blame.
  7. You constantly interrupt people because, after all, what you have to say is more important.
  8. You are constantly buttering up your boss and other powerful people, and you expect the same treatment from your underlings.
  9. Your jokes and teasing can get a bit nasty at times, but you have to admit that they are pretty funny.
  10. You love your immediate team and they love you, but you are all at constant warfare with the rest of the organization. You treat everyone else like crap because, after all, if you’re not on my team, you either don’t matter or are the enemy.

How do people react to you?

  1. You notice that people seem to avoid eye contact when they talk to you—and they often become very nervous.
  2. You have the feeling that people are always very careful about what they say around you.
  3. People keep responding to your e-mail with hostile reactions, which often escalate into “flame wars” with these jerks.
  4. People seem hesitant to divulge personal information to you.
  5. People seem to stop having fun when you show up.
  6. People always seem to react to your arrival by announcing that they have to leave.

Scoring the test: add up the number of statements that you marked as true. This isn’t a scientifically validated test, but in my opinion: 0-5 true: you don’t sound like a certified asshole, unless you are fooling yourself. 5-15 true: you sound like a borderline certified asshole; perhaps the time has come to start changing your behavior before it gets worse. 15 or more true: You sound like a full-blown certified asshole to me; get help immediately. But please, don’t come to me for help, as I would rather not meet you.

Chapter 5 When Assholes Reign: tips for surviving nasty people and workplaces

Change how you see things

Hope for the best; expect the worst

Develop indifference and emotional detachment

Look for small wins

Limit your exposure

Build pockets of safety, support, and sanity

Fight and win the right small battles

Chapter 6 The Virtue of Assholes

It is naïve to assume that assholes always do more harm than good. So this chapter is devoted to the upside of assholes. Beware, however, that these ideas are volatile and dangerous: they provide the ammunition that deluded and destructive jerks can use to justify, and even glorify, their penchant for demeaning others. (157)

Gaining personal power and stature.

Intimidating and vanquishing rivals.

Motivating fear-driven performance and perfectionism.

Bringing unfair, clueless, and lazy people to their senses.

Chapter 7 The No Asshole Rule as a Way of Life

  1. A few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.
  2. Talking about the rule is nice, but following up on it is what really matters.
  3. The rule lives—or dies—in the little moments
  4. Should you keep a few assholes around?
  5. Enforcing the no asshole rule isn’t just management’s job.
  6. Embarrassment and pride are powerful motivators.
  7. Assholes are us.

— VIA —

Aside from the crassness of the language, there are some helpful perspectives in here. Many of the principles can be found in other books, but Sutton does a decent job in focusing in on the emotional behaviors.

I appreciate most of all how he sums it all up in a personal evaluation and an exhortation as a “way of life.”