are you part of the problem?


….appears on the back of Bob Sutton’s forthcoming book, The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t. He asks us to ask ourselves, am I an asshole, and if so, what should I be doing about it? This question ties in with another central theme of book. Why are there so many of these ultra-jerks in the workplace and what can sensible people do to deal with them? Sutton’s book succeeds because it continually draws on relevant social science and organizational research to inform the problem. Because of that, we begin to see workplace assholes in a new light (hopefully). Yes, they may be people with personality issues, but assholes tend to be that way because organizations create opportunities for that kind of behavior. Stamping out assholes requires better screening processes, but it’s still a problem not likely to go away, at least until people stop organizing in hierarchies. Recognizing the permanence of workplace assholes, Sutton offers personal control tactics to help us deal with those assholes who just won’t go away.

When I first picked up this book, I have to admit that I saw it as a great gimmick. If you want to sell books, create a title worth remembering. “Asshole” is laconic enough to grab browsers’ attention. But Sutton chose the word for its ethnographic legitimacy as well. Facing the possibility of being seen as vulgar, Bob justifies his choice by saying that “censored and watered-down variations like ‘the no-jerk rule’ or ‘the no bully rule’ simply didn’t have the same ring of authenticity or emotional appeal” (pg. 3). When you describe someone as an asshole, there’s no doubt what kind of person he or she is.

Nevertheless, Sutton provides an operational definition that takes this book beyond the anectdotal. An asshole is someone in the workplace who passes these two tests:

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 people who are more powerful?

It is this last element – power – that brings the sociological and organizational dynamics of asshole-ness into play. Rather than seeing it as a mere personality issue, we see that being an asshole also derives from the workplace context. Workplaces inherently place people in powerful positions that not only allow, but sometimes facilitate, behavior that oppresses, humiliates, and de-energizes. This insight is one of the most important of the book because it alerts the reader (whether professional manager or academic) that they may be caught up in the asshole problem (perhaps without even knowing it).

Drawing on a vast literature on workplace dynamics, Sutton demonstrates how organizational structures contribute to the asshole problem. He references Deborah Gruenfeld‘s research on how power changes the way people interact with others. People in positions of power tend to be more inconsiderate towards others and act more rudely.

In one experiment, student groups of three discussed a long list of contentious social issues (things like abortion and pollution). One member was (randomly assigned) to the higher power position of evaluating the recommendations made by the other two members. After thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. The more “powerful” students were more likely to take a second cookie, chew with their mouths open, and get crumbs on their faces and the table (pg. 72).

Basically, power corrupts. He also discusses how asshole-ness can be contagious. Once a workplace becomes infected with a few assholes, other people (who started out on the nice side) become transformed into aggressive, pushy jerks. This makes it all the more important that we become very self-aware and learn how to control our behavior so that we don’t become part of the problem. Without this final component, the book would have been a nice thought-exercise. But Sutton goes further, offering a list of informed tips about the best ways to survive workplaces plagued with assholes (without becoming one yourself).

Because Sutton draws so extensively on social science to back up his claims, the tips are more than just a list of nice ideas. Sutton is clearly pushing the “evidence-based management” agenda in this book by seeking best practices that are grounded in sound science. Fortunately, Sutton is also a good writer and has a nice sense-of-humor, which makes the book an enjoyable read.

My overall assessment is that this book is interesting (and entertaining!) in the tradition of other popular books that rely on a social science-framework, such as The Wisdom of Crowds or Irrational Exuberance. My litmus test for how good a book is the number of times I find myself thinking about recommending the book to someone I know while I read it. This book certainly passes the test for me. It’s a book I’ll recommend to my family members and to my colleagues. In particular, I thought that it is a nice fit for a leadership course. But the book might also fit in courses about organizational behavior (more generally) and human relations. Finally, for our sociology readers, I think the book could be used in an undergrad complex organizations class, as a demonstration for how organizational research can be applied to a real world setting.


Written by brayden king

October 6, 2006 at 6:02 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Nice to see that the post-surgery drugs have worn off! Sutton’s work is a nice example of how personality psychology can really inform structural analyses. I wonder how much Sutton cited the literature on personality that focusses on aggression and obsessive personalities.


    Fabio Rojas

    October 6, 2006 at 8:13 pm

  2. Fabio: I think the point (or?) is that situational matters (context and power) “make” people jerks, rather than it being a characteristic of the individual. Of course, the argument has to “turn” at some point – not all people in positions of power are jerks – so there must be some kind of latent propensity. This of course ties into a large person-situation debate in Org Behavior, and the argument (as Brayden describes it) seems to squarely land on the situation side.



    October 6, 2006 at 8:39 pm

  3. I see your point teppo, but I don’t agree that org structures – unless they are extreme – make you an a$$hole, but they rather exacerbate the tendencies that people have. Too much personality research indicates that personality is stable across contexts, especially after the age of 25 or so.

    So my regression equation is:

    a$$$ = B1 personality + B2 work unit structure + error

    Or if you were an HLM freak, you would add:

    B2 = G1 org structure + error
    G1 = T1 industry effects + error

    Can Sutton help me determine if B1>0 or if it’s all B2, G1 and T1?


    Fabio Rojas

    October 6, 2006 at 9:04 pm

  4. I am roughly with you. Note however that the predominant argument (implicit assumption of much of the field) however in org theory is that organizations are “strong situations” – the relevant piece worth reading is (this is the ethos that the a$$$ argument also implicitly seems to build on) –

    Davis-Blake, A., & Pfeffer, J. 1989. Just a mirage: The search for dispositional effects in organizational research. Academy of Management Review, 14: 385-400.

    So, most of the variance gets implicitly assigned to higher levels (power, situation, context, self-fulfilling prophecy or attribution).  Hmm, this is what you get with academics – we’ll overanalyze anything!



    October 6, 2006 at 9:10 pm

  5. I thought that, given the last discussion on creativity, the properly specified model was:

    a$$$ = B1 personality + B2 work unit structure + B3 (personality x work unit structure) + error

    with the main effects properly centered of course, so that A=0.

    The hypothesis then is that B1=0 (i.e. p>0.05), B2=0, B3>0.



    October 6, 2006 at 10:17 pm

  6. You do this (somehow), and, where would the variance lie (if you could decompose levels)? I think you would find the strongest effects at the lowest levels – i.e. personality. The problem of course is teasing it all out, the confounds – jerks may self-select into (or create) certain work units and structures etc



    October 6, 2006 at 11:12 pm

  7. Teppo: ” jerks may self-select into (or create) certain work units and structures etc”

    Obviously, you need a two stage model, perhaps a heckman model (please, let’s restrain our impish impulses here) will do the job. My claim is that the selection portion of the model will suck up most of a$$ variable, with little left for workplace effects.

    I think we need to put a parental warning on this thread because of strong language.


    Fabio Rojas

    October 7, 2006 at 6:29 pm

  8. […] It may also interest them to take the following test to measure potential leaders (adapted from orgtheory): […]


  9. […] Bob Sutton has a long post reviewing his experiences (with media, fans, blogs etc) over the past year with his bestselling book on “jerks” in the workplace (sorry, we are trying to keep things semi-clean here).  Brayden also gets a hat tip from Bob for his early review of the book. […]


  10. […] it in your face. * Here’s the rest of the 24-question online “arse test.” * And, here’s Brayden’s complimentary review of the book. « […]


  11. Unquestionably believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed to be at the internet the easiest thing to remember of. I say to you, I certainly get irked at the same time as other folks consider concerns that they plainly don’t understand about. You managed to hit the nail upon the highest and also outlined out the whole thing without having side effect , folks can take a signal. Will probably be back to get more. Thanks



    February 5, 2012 at 8:39 pm

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