Robert Sutton on "The No Asshole Rule"

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Robert Sutton talks with Anne Strainchamps about his book, "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't." He tells her about when he first heard about the “No A-word” rule.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Robert Sutton: I possibly first heard about it going back to my father, who did use the word. He told me not to be one, back when I was four or five years old. But where I really started living it was in my academic department. My academic department is now called Management, Science and Engineering at Stanford. In an earlier incarnation we were a small, 12 person department, and there was a sort of magical moment when we were looking at the resume of a quite famous scholar and somebody said, “This guy’s brilliant, but we don’t want to hire him because he is, to use the word, a ‘jerk.’” We sort of started this conversation that we were going to have the “No A-hole Rule” in our department, and subsequently, probably for ten or twelve years we used that as the clear criteria, and I have to say, it made our department a much more civilized place to work. Also, there’s other companies that I’ve been involved with, although they don’t necessarily use the word, they apply it in what they do. Pixar’s one, and Google, they have a great saying… There was a woman named Shona Brown who was, for a long time, number four at Google and when I was writing the “No A-blank” book, she said, “It’s not efficient here to be a jerk, you just can’t get as much work done.” And there was this sort of lovely moment after I gave a talk right after my book came out there, when a woman walked up to me and said, “Actually, I’m a jerk. I’m a very difficult person. But I’ve learned I have to be nicer to people here than I usually am because otherwise I can’t get my work done.” So, she confirmed that, at least five or six years ago at Google, this notion that you couldn’t act like that otherwise you couldn’t get your work done. To me, that’s the highest level of the rule working.

Anne Strainchamps: To try to kind of pin this down a little bit, specifically, how do you recognize an “a-word?”

RS: There’s kind of two approaches. I would describe it even in the academic literature. There are people who make lists of all the bad behaviors, that people could take? And, in fact, there was one list by one academic who’d listed a hundred different bullying behaviors. Everything from ignoring people to insulting them, to actually physically hitting them. So, you could have a very long list. The way that I tend to define it, because it’s simpler, is it’s somebody who leaves you feeling demeaned and de-energized? That’s someone I would label is a “jerk.” And somebody who does that to everybody in different situations, I would call that person a “Certified Jerk.” Or, a “Certified A”.

AS: For example, tell me about some you’ve known. You must have worked with a few?

RS: Yes, I think we all have worked with a few. And I guess I should back up here slightly. The research on bullying and jerks is sort of fascinating, because—it depends on the survey, but—some 30 or 40 percent of Americans, maybe 15 percent, at any given time will say that they work with, or for, a “jerk.” But only about one half of one percent of us will admit to being “certified jerks” or to bullying others. So, there’s a lot of self-serving-ness here, so, I may have been a jerk and deserved it in some cases… And I also have to be careful because, remember, I’m tenured in an institution where I’m with people for a very long time? But yes, in various situations, I have worked with them. I should probably stick to clients, because my clients are a little bit more ephemeral, like, when I do work with companies. I think of one client in particular, because, in every interaction I had with him, in every interaction that I saw him have with other people… Well, he actually would complain—this was a professional services firm—that particular person wasn’t making enough money. Or, in my case, every interaction I had with him he would try to negotiate down the price. And he also would personally insult the person in every interaction? Also, he’d do this thing where he would stand over people and sort of grab them and sort of push them down? I thought he was pretty much the “full package.” And I remember sitting at dinner next to one of his colleagues and describing the effect of his leadership, and he said, “Well, when I first got here, this firm used to be a lovely blend of economics and humanity. And now it’s just all economics, all the time, and you are all just an object to make us all money otherwise we just toss you aside.” And I thought, that guy is sort of the complete package demonstrated as somebody who would be “certified”. In public life, if the current media reports are correct, I think that Lance Armstrong would be the leading one in our culture right now. I would put Donald Trump in the hall of fame. [laughter]

And it’s amazing to me how many people actually like him and admire him and maybe it does help him be successful, there might be situations where you’re successful… We could quickly move to the famous, or infamous, Steve Jobs. Jobs, even though clearly, many times could be a certified jerk… One of the advantages—and, I guess, disadvantages--of being in “the Valley” is I know a lot of people who worked closely with Steve Jobs and were close friends with him. And they would say, one of the great things about Steve is… Steve, although he could be quite nasty, he was actually pretty good about knowing how to turn it on and off?

It’s not like he was ‘all jerk, all the time”. It’s sort of like a complicated thing in life to identify them. But, to me, the diagnostic is, not a bad one is, people who deal with a person across different settings all say to me, “That guy…”, or “That woman,”—because plenty of women qualify—“is such a jerk, it’s just unbelievable.” I think they qualify. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard, just to throw out a woman’s name, clearly would qualify. I cannot use the person’s name but when my book was in galley form, a former HP executive who worked directly with her, I sent him the book and he sent me back a 3000-word email. I’m not joking, it was about 3,000 words, that compared Carly’s behavior to the various concepts in the book.

So, I want to make sure to be an equal opportunity labeler of “certified jerk.” And also, I’m very careful to only name public figures to protect us legally.

AS: You know, some of the kinds of behavior you’ve described in people who are famously “certified A-words”, that’s so extreme. I mean, I’ve worked with some difficult people but nobody ever to that extreme. And I’m wondering, just how big a problem are these “certified jerks” in American workplaces, surely there can’t be that many of them?

RS: If you look at sort of, surveys, there’s some good national bullying surveys, and like I say, it looks like, what, say 10 to 12 percent of employees at any one time report they’re being bullied and usually they’re being bullied by their boss—although, not always. So, it sounds like, ten percent, at any one time would be a reasonable estimate? The other thing is, and it’s a good thing you brought this up because, you know, it’s great to tell the dramatic stories about people throwing things and screaming and spitting at people. One example of a famous news anchor who flicked a lit cigarette at one employee’s head. Those things sound great on air, but when you look at some of the most insidious jerks, especially people with power, some of the things they do are much more subtle than that.

AS: Like what?

RS: They’ll glare at people. Treating people as if they’re invisible is one of the most upsetting things that upset people. So, you just sort of like, talk only to the highest-status person in the room and everyone else is treated as invisible. Little, subtle interruptions, bits of undermining, backstabbing…Things like that.

AS: Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve done those things!

RS: We’ve all done those things. It’s part of the human condition, I don’t think that there’s any stopping it. That’s the other thing that I like to say, is that, when you read the research on bullying and stuff, or stories like, “well there’s those people out there who are jerks and then there’s me.” Most of us aren’t very good at seeing what jerks we are and I hate to be one of the first to raise my hand but anybody who knows me well knows I can have my moments where I can certainly be demeaning and leave people de-energized and I try to stop it. And now, when I do it, I sometimes get reminded that I wrote a book about this and I’m breaking my own rule by some of my closer friends… So, this notion that, I’ll use the word “A**holes R’ Us.” I think, is a reasonable motto that most of us have to assume that we’re capable of doing it to others. The other thing I would say is, it isn’t all bad. There’s sometimes when leaving people demeaned and de-energized is maybe necessary and strategic, and in small doses, with proper precautions, so, I’m not completely opposed to it.

AS: So, if you find yourself one of the 10 percent, with a toxic or bullying boss and your company doesn’t seem to have a “no a-word rule,” what do you do?

RS: To me, there’s sort of a hierarchy of things? It’s sort of like being in a destructive relationship. If you’re in a situation where every day you go to work, your boss makes you feel like dirt, demeans, de-energizes you, it’s a bad situation for you, the best thing to do is get out. There’s a lot of evidence, from the bullying literature that, if you can just get out of the situation, that’s the best thing you can do. Short of that, sort of going down the hierarchy, I talk about things like, “if you can’t do that, maybe can you fight back against that person?” So, the two things that I sort of recommend there is, number one, document. Whether you’re talking about a lawsuit or reporting to your human resources department, the first thing they’re going to say is, “What documentation do you have of the behavior?” Save the emails, write notes after the interactions. The other thing, and there’s new research that supports this, if you have a bullying boss in a dysfunctional organization, if you try to fight back by yourself, you’re in trouble because they just think that you’re nuts or your powerless. To the extent that you can form a “posse,” a group of similar “victims,” to keep notes, you’ll be in better shape. One of my favorite examples, there was a woman who worked as an animal control officer and they had a very abusive boss. She went and complained to her boss’ boss and nothing happened. Then, she put together, let’s call them “The A-hole Diaries.”

Her and her co-workers literally put together this documentation, went to the boss’ boss, and their boss—who was a woman, by the way—was gone within 24 hours. So, this idea of having a posse and documentation is important. And, the other thing that I tend to advise is, when you’re in a situation where you can’t quite escape, then, finding little ways to avoid contact… One woman I talked to, she was actually a CEO and she had an incredibly abusive board member. What she told me she used to do was, to avoid interaction with him directly, she would do only phone calls with him, whenever possible, and she would mute the phone calls and do her fingernails. And every now and then, take it off of mute and say, “Yes, I understand.” So she didn’t actually have to have the contact with him? Finding some little way to detach from people. The final thing that I tend to recommend is, although we live in a world where people talk about passion and caring and all that sort of stuff? That’s wonderful if you have a boss or a workplace that deserves your passion and your efforts, but sometimes, in life, we get stuck in situations where we just have to tune out and emotionally detach and just not care and get through it. I use the analogy of, about three years ago I bought a ticket for LA and I was in the middle seat of the very last row, next to the bathrooms in this huge airplane with the lines around you all the time, and I’m pretty large myself, and I’m surrounded by two very large people. So, I just pretended I wasn’t there for the four hours from Chicago to San Francisco. Sometimes in life you’ve just got to do the emotional detachment and not care to get through until, hopefully you can get to another place.

I guess, my hierarchy is: Learn to detach. Fight back, but if you can, possibly, get out. Because, and there’s a lot of evidence with bad bosses, for example, people who quit bad bosses are much happier and much more successful. Bad bosses do lots of damage.