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.