Oswald Letter

Don’t Be An %#*hole!

A colleague recently suggested I read the book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Maybe I should have asked what his motives were in suggesting that I read this particular book. I didn’t. Some things you just don’t want to know!

The book was a New York Times bestseller, so plenty of people have read it. I’d say it has some good lessons for everyone. But, what amazed me were some of the stories the author, Robert I. Sutton, told about assholes in the workplace.

There’s the story of Scott Rudin who the Wall Street Journal estimated went through 250 personal assistants in a five-year period. Rudin claimed only 119 during the period, but admitted that his estimate excluded assistants who lasted less than two weeks!

Sutton also relays a story taken from Brutal Bosses and Their Prey in which a boss stood in a subordinate’s doorway so that everyone in the central work area could see and hear him. He held his employee’s work in his hand and told him it was inadequate. As the boss did so, he crumpled the papers one by one dropping them on the floor. He then said loudly, “Garbage in, garbage out. You give me garbage; now you clean it up.” The employee did so, embarrassed as his coworkers watched him, a 36-year-old man, stoop before his boss to pick up the crumpled pieces of paper.

It amazes me these people really exist! A guy who, by his own admission, averages a new assistant every two weeks for five years? Really? A boss who balls up the work of his employee, tosses in on the floor, and then requires the employee to bend down at his feet to pick it up – -all while his coworkers look on?! Who are these people?

It reminds me of the line from the movie Hook in which Dustin Hoffman plays the infamous Captain Hook and Robin Williams stars as Peter “Pan” Banning. Peter’s daughter says to him about Captain Hook, “He’s just a mean old man without a mommy.” Don’t these people have mothers?

That brings me to what Sutton calls the “fundamental lesson that runs through this book.” It’s “the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.” That works for me.

Many people are good at “kissing up” but very capable of “kicking down.” But the true leaders treat everyone the same — with respect. Here are some lessons on respect and creating a better workplace I took from the book:

  1. To become a better organization, reduce the differences between the highest- and lowest-status members of your enterprise. Get rid of the executive restrooms, preferred parking places, and other status symbols that divide people into classes.
  2. “Fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.” It’s OK to defend your ideas, but you also need to listen to the other side. You might just find out there’s a better solution. But you’ll never know about it unless you listen.
  3. At Intel, they have a motto: “Disagree and then commit.” Again, debate the ideas but once the decision has been made to move forward in a certain way, people need to get behind it. Second-guessing, complaining, and arguing dooms a decision to failure because there isn’t sufficient energy and commitment behind it.
  4. Nearly all human beings have “distorted, and often inflated, beliefs about how they treat, affect, and are seen by others.” Really try to find out how others see you and contrast that with your own beliefs. Some of it might be hard to hear, but you can learn from it.

Sutton offers a self-test to help you determine whether you’re a certified asshole. It’s worth taking, but I think most of us will have a hard time self-diagnosing because of what I said above. We have distorted, often inflated, beliefs about how we affect others. We just don’t want to admit that we just might be an asshole.

I must admit, after 25 years in business, I’ve seen very few certifiable assholes. There have been people I don’t care for very much, but few that meet Sutton’s definition of offenders who consistently make people who are less powerful feel worse about themselves. And I’ve never worked with anyone who can compare to some of those represented in the book. Sure, everyone is capable of acting out from time to time, but I just haven’t seen much blatant disregard for other human beings as is portrayed in Sutton’s book. I’m thankful for that!