Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunshine is the best disinfectant: Bob Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule" gets an age-old workplace problem out into the open

Bob Sutton's The No Asshole RuleImagine for a moment that your house is infested with termites. You are desperate to find someone who can rid your home of these destructive pests once and for all.

Now imagine as you call the pest control services listed in your local phone directory that strong social taboos forbid you from actually using the word "termite" to describe your problem. You have no choice but to resort to awkward euphemisms and embarrassed silences as you attempt to explain to the professionals that your home is infested with, er, you-know-what.

That's pretty much the problem that Bob Sutton confronts in his newly published book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

As a dispute resolution professional with a specialty in workplace consulting, I have read more books and articles than I can possibly count on dealing with difficult people. While many of them are excellent, none of them has fully delivered the goods when it comes to the most toxic workplace problem there is.

That's probably due to the fact that until now nobody has had the guts to name the problem for what it is. Thanks to Sutton, that's all changed.

As Sutton explains in his introduction, no other word quite does the job:

When I encounter a mean-spirited person, the first thing I think is: "Wow, what an asshole!"

I bet you do, too. You might call such people bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, or unconstrained egomaniacs, but for me at least, asshole best captures the fear and loathing that I have for these nasty people.
And judging from the overwhelmingly response Sutton's book has received, including the many people who have stepped forward to share stories of their own encounters with assholes (as well as from the excited reactions from the colleagues and friends to whom I introduced the book), Sutton's dead right. "Asshole" taps into associations, memories, and emotions that lesser synonyms simply can't.

(Which is why I have decided to use the word in both the title and body of this post. If I offend any of my readers, I apologize. It's not a failure of either imagination or vocabulary; authenticity demands it. Besides, if I followed the example of other writers and replaced letters in the offending word with asterisks--A******--you and I would both know what I meant, and neither one of us would be fooled. The word is still there, hidden behind its typographical fig leaf.)

Despite being a slim volume (only 210 pages in length), this book is crammed with useful information and ideas, along with numerous real-life anecdotes which bring the text to memorable life. Sutton describes the behavior that sets assholes apart from the rest of us, including one factor that is always present: assholes tend to target those with less power or status, and provides a test to determine whether you might be one, too.

Sutton also provides a list of factors by which readers can gauge the TCA--"Total Cost of Assholes"--in their own companies to reveal the high cost in financial and human capital that assholes pose. And he offers wise counsel for implementing and enforcing a "no asshole" rule, including smart hiring strategies, and has tips on keeping your own inner asshole in check.

Mediators in particular will appreciate Sutton's advice that organizations should "teach people how to fight". He is clear that organizations should not "replace assholes" with "conflict-averse wimps" and emphasizes that friction can be good for organizations--it's not the fact that you fight, it's how you fight that matters. So long as disagreement and argumentation is constructive not demeaning, organizations, people, and ideas can all thrive.

Sutton recounts the experiences of organizations in teaching their members how to fight fairly. And he makes no bones about how difficult an undertaking this can be, demanding constant vigilance and a commitment to rigorous self-reflection. He acknowledges how "messy and difficult it can be to fight with other people over ideas without acting like an asshole".

In fact, it is Sutton's self-honesty that stands among this book's greatest strengths. Throughout, Sutton is candid with readers as he recounts his struggles to confront and neutralize his own tendency to be an asshole--a struggle that any of us who are willing to admit that we can be assholes, too, can relate to.

This book is not without its flaws, although they are minor. The book is weakest when it offers advice to those who are targets of assholes. Victims of bullying behavior probably won't be helped by mantras like "look for small wins" and "hope for the best; expect the worst". And although Sutton does remind readers that quitting is always an option, it may not be possible for people in tough financial circumstances in a tight job market. Documenting the behavior, seeking help from human resources or higher level management, building a coalition with others who are affected to seek change as a group, and getting legal advice from an employment lawyer may be more realistic and productive courses of action for victims to pursue.

It's also disappointing to see an entire chapter devoted to "The Virtues of Assholes"--these schmucks don't need any encouragement. (And I can't help but wonder whether the successful assholes he describes might have achieved even greater success had they used their powers--ambition, determination, vision--for good not evil.)

These minor quibbles aside, this book is an outstanding contribution to the large body of work on building effective workplaces. Its courage and honesty in confronting a problem that no one seems to want to name set it apart. Anyone who cares about building a civilized workplace--human resources professionals, workplace consultants, mediators, and others--will find value in its pages.

Even if they have to hide the cover in a plain brown wrapper.