Steven Shaw's Reviews > The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't

The No Asshole Rule by Robert I. Sutton
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Sep 16, 2010

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Read from September 16 to 19, 2010

There are a lot of assholes out there. I've run into a few more than my fair share — it seems to be par for the course when you're a contract programmer. Assholes make people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised and belittled. They tend to target their behaviour on those that are less powerful — so assholes in management have a larger area of destruction.

These assholes can poison your whole organisation, leading to a culture of fear, lower productivity, high staff turnover, general unhappiness and gnashing of teeth.

The assholes tend to think that their behaviour is justified because it helps to "get the job done". However, Sutton points out this is a kind of confirmation bias and usually "stuff gets done" despite the behaviour of the asshole - not because of it.

The best method of dealing with assholes is avoidance. Don't take on a job, contract or customer if you're going to have to live with assholes. If you find yourself in a den of assholes besides your best efforts then leave as soon as you can manage it. Sutton has some advice for putting up with assholes (for those who want or need to). These include "indifference" but that's not for me — I'm grateful that I'm financially independent enough not to have to go there. The other ideas are reframing and small wins which seem better coping mechanisms to me. You may find you need to take a break after suffering at the wrong end of an asshole.

Don't confuse the occasional asshole with the institutional one (Sutton calls this the temporary asshole and the certified asshole). Everyone blows up occasionally and let's their "inner asshole" out — particularly when under the thumb of an institutional asshole! Don't be too quick to label the strange or unusual as assholes. Sutton has a book on the topic: Wierd Ideas that Work. A good tip for preventing the inner-asshole from escaping is: argue like you're right, listen like you're wrong.

I don't believe that assholes are virtuous despite Sutton's reluctant chapter on it. One thing that makes sense is that being an asshole may be a short-cut to power and status — that is if the weaklings around them let them get away with it :). Who doesn't know one or two loud mouth, arrogant, self-professed experts that go on a power-grab and succeed because few resisted. Don't let it happen in your organisation — unless you're leaving to join or be the competition ;). If you have to put up with the odd asshole from time to time, whatever you do, do not promote them. Keep them in a box, try to reform them or get rid of them.

Remember: a few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch.
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