The no asshole rule

Although you would expect civilized behavior to be the standard in Western European corporate life, it is amazing how often people end up in abusive and intimidating situations at work. I captured some of the unpleasant incidents that I personally experienced in short case studies. The students of the ‘Taking the stage’ curriculum that we ran in 2010-2011 with the IBM Benelux Women in Technology initiative could use these cases in role play excercises with executives. This proved to be an effective way to learn how to deal with violence and intimidation at work. 

Obviously it would be much better if there were no need for such exercises – bullying and intimidation does after all not only negatively affect the victim of the bullying; it is known to have a negative effect on the performance of whole departments and organisations as well! Bullying kills empowerment, creativity and open collaboration and stops the best ideas from being brought up – bullied people prefer to keep silent rather than being openly humiliated in front of their peers! 

A good book on this topic is “The no asshole rule” by Robert I. Sutton (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_No_Asshole_Rule). The author explains in clear language and underpinned with examples from research in the industry how devastating “Asshole” behavior is for business. This devastating effect is measured in the “TCA (total cost of assholes)” of an organisation and its consequences are failed retention and recruitment, lost clients, time spent on the wrong activities and many other costs.

Robert Sutton on purpose uses the term “Asshole” in stead of a less offending term such as “jerk” to stress the severity of the issue. In his book he differentiates between people who incidentally display “asshole” behaviour and “certified assholes”. People who structurally make you feel belittled, oppressed, humiliated and de-energized and who only choose subordinates as their victims while they are nice to their superiors are likely to deserve the title “asshole”.  The book includes a self-test for “asshole” behavior. 

The book shows based on examples and experiments that this type of behavior is a function of company culture and of “framing”. Split a group of people into two subgroups, one of which is told that they are playing the “community game” and the other is told that they are playing the “wall street game” and see what happens. This type of experiment is based on the prisoner’s dilemma. Three outcomes are possible : if everybody plays fair everybody gets rewarded; if everybody engages in unfair competition, nobody gets rewarded; if some play fair and others compete, the jerks win big and the good ones loose big.

A good example of the devastating effect that such a mismatch in “framing” can have in real life is given by a situation that I heard about couple of months ago. An experienced female IT architect had prepared a package for a promotion board. The preparations had cost her several months of meticulous data mining. The end result was a solid, fact-based package that met all formal criteria. Being trained in a technical profession and having participated in IT architect certification boards for the past two decades, she was “framed” for “strict but fair” community play.

What she had not taken into account and was insufficiently prepared for was that the members of this board were framed otherwise. They were not interested in the facts that she was presenting to them. They had not read all the materials that she had sent them two weeks in advance and they did not really pay attention to the presentation that she had rehearsed five times with different audiences and now delivered fluently. The question and answer session after the presentation served only one purpose, namely to justify the premeditated decision that this technical lady would not pass this board because in this part of the organisation only commercial people under age 45 have a chance of being promoted.

The question if these board members were doing their company a favour can be answered with a simple and strong “NO”. The corporate policy of the company is to encourage diversity and to treasure wild ducks – they have a program to help female technical leaders on their career path. The reason this company has these policies and programs is because they want to retain existing technical talent and be an attractive workplace for young technical talent. Yet due to their federated organisation structure in which local organisations are given a high degree of autonomy to take their own decisions, company policy is not always adhered to locally.

The best advise to people suffering from structural bullying is to switch jobs. However it is not always possible to quit a job that you have invested in for years and that pays well. Robert Sutton gives usefull hints and tips how to survive a hostile work environment. He discusses the strategy used by Ruth, one of the examples in the book, that is derived from river rafting – when you fall overboard the only way to survive is to “float feet first”, rely on you life vest, go with the flow and use your feet to bounce off rocks. 

An important ingredient of this survival strategy is to learn to master “emotional detachment” and stop blaming yourself. This is very unnatural for driven and motivated technical specialists. It is not aligned with popular management theories about passion to foster a “high performance culture”, but it is the only thing that works when “assholes reign”. 

With every page turned in this interesting book, I have gained new insights that help me survive my day job and I can strongly recommend it to everyone who recognizes the type of behaviours and the situations described. 

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