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October 30, 2006

Book Review: The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton

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You have to like an author who has the testicles (or ovaries) to walk away from Harvard Business School Press because it wouldn’t let him use the word “asshole” in his title. (HBS Press also turned me down once, but I digress...) Robert Sutton is the author who did this; he’s a professor at Stanford in the engineering school. While I am not a big fan of profanity, “asshole” is the only word that delivers the proper connotative meaning in some situations, so forgive me for using it in this posting.

I have an early copy of Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, and it’s the definitive guide to understanding, counteracting, and not becoming an asshole. I am qualified to make this judgment because (a) I’ve been an asshole a few times and (b) been a victim of assholes more than a few times.

The first step is to recognize who is an asshole. Sutton’s blog cites one method. It’s called the Starbucks Test It goes like this: If you hear someone at Starbucks order a “decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet,” you’re in the presence of an asshole. It’s unlikely that this petty combination is necessary—the person ordering is trying to flex her power because she’s an asshole.

A second method is to use Suttons’s dirty-dozen list of everyday asshole actions:

  1. Personal insults

  2. Invading one’s personal territory

  3. Uninvited personal contact

  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal

  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems

  6. Withering email flames

  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims

  8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals

  9. Rude interruptions

  10. Two-faced attacks

  11. Dirty looks

  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

A third method—albeit the least reliable, scientific, and fair but the most fun—is to search Google with a person’s name (or a profession) plus “asshole.” This yields some interesting results. For example, I am associated more with the word “asshole” than Terrell Owens.

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How To Avoid Being an Asshole

The first $64,000 question is, “How does one avoid being an asshole?” No big surprise, but I’ve compiled a top-ten list to summarize what Sutton says:

  1. Face your past. The past is a very good predictor of future behavior. For example, were you a bully in school? If your parents and siblings were assholes, you may have caught the disease. Knowing that you’re an asshole is first step towards change.

  2. Do not make people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled. If you find yourself having these effects, it’s time to change your behavior no matter what you think of yourself.

  3. Do not mistreat people who are less powerful than you. One of the sure signs of an asshole is treating people like clerks, flight attendants, and waiters in a degrading manner.

  4. Resist assholeholics from the start. The easiest time to avoid becoming an asshole is at the very beginning. Don’t think that you can do “what you have to” to fit in and can change later. It won’t happen.

  5. Walk away and stay away. Don’t be afraid to leave a bad situation. It’s unlikely you’ll change the assholes into good people; it’s much more likely that you’ll descend to their level.

  6. View acting like an asshole as a communicable disease. If you have any sense of decency, when you’re sick, you avoid contact to prevent spreading the disease. So if you act like an asshole, you’re not just impacting yourself; you’re also teaching other people that it’s okay to be an asshole.

  7. Focus on win-win. Children (young and old) think that the world is a zero-sum game. If another kid is playing with the fire truck, you can’t. As people get older they should realize that life doesn’t have to be a win-lose proposition--unless, that is, you’re an asshole.

  8. Focus on ways you are no better or even worse than others. Thinking that you’re smarter, faster, better looking, funnier, whatever than others turns people into assholes. Thinking that you’re no better or even worse keeps you humble.

  9. Focus on ways you are similar to people, not different. If you concentrate on how you and others have similar goals, desires, and passions, you’re bound to be less of an asshole. How can you treat people that are similar to you with disdain?

  10. Tell yourself, “I have enough stuff (money, toys, friends, cars, whatever).” Discontentment and envy is a major factor in becoming an asshole. If you’re happy, there’s no reason to stomp on others.

How to Deal With Assholes

Let’s say that you’re not an asshole, but you have to cope with assholes. What can you do? That’s the second $64,000 question that Sutton answers.

  1. Hope for the best, but expect the worst. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with assholes is that they disappoint you--making you wonder the very value of humans. Lowering your expectations can help reduce disappointment. Don’t solely lower your expectations, though, or you will slip into cynicism (and possibly turn into an asshole too.) Continue to hope for the best.

  2. Develop indifference and emotional detachment. Sutton may be the only author who has the insight and courage to recommend that being indifferent and detached may be a good thing in work environments. If it permits you to survive, then it is. In other words, don’t let the jerks get to you.

  3. Look for small wins. Small victories can keep you going. Most assholes pride themselves in total control and absolute domination. Any victory, no matter how small, can keep you going. Rest assured that small victories can lead to winning the war.

  4. Limit your exposure. You can do what you can to avoid meetings and interactions with assholes. This involves finding or building pockets of “safety, support, and sanity,” to use Sutton’s words. He cites an example of a nurse’s lounge as a refuge from an asshole doctor.

  5. Expose them. In Sutton’s blog he mentions Marge’s Asshole Management Metric. This refers to four-point system from 0 to 3. Marge, the boss, would point to people who were behaving like assholes and hold up one, two, or three fingers according to this code:

    • 1 = You are a normal person who can occasionally assert yourself on an issue you are passionate about, but you handle yourself in a non-confrontational way in nearly all occasions.

    • 2 = You can consistently assert yourself in a non-confrontational way and are occasionally an asshole, but you feel horrible about it afterwards, and you may or may not apologize (but you probably will have to confess your remorse to someone).

    • 3 = You can consistently be an asshole and you either do not recognize this or you simply enjoy it.

    By the way, 0 in her system means this:

    You are a very nice person, and very passive. No one can say a word against you and would never think to call you an asshole.

    If you are safe in your position, then calling assholes out is a good way to deal with them.

  6. De-escalate and re-educate. This strategy requires that the asshole you’re dealing with isn’t a “chronic,” “certified,” and “flagrant” asshole. It means meeting asshole behavior with calmness (instead of either similar behavior or fear) and trying to re-educate the person about how he’s behaving.

  7. Stand up to them. Funny thing about assholes: Standing up to them shouldn’t necessarily scare you. While I was an Apple employee, I was in a meeting with a highly placed Apple exec and Apple’s ad agency. The ad agency person showed the new television spots and said he’d give a copy to the Apple exec and me. The Apple exec told the agency person not to give one to me. I spoke up: “Are you saying you don’t trust me?” The Apple exec answered: “Yes.” To which I replied, “That’s okay because I don’t trust you either.” You know what? The sun rose the next day, and my family still loved me.



The book also explains how to implement a no-asshole rule in your company; how being an asshole can be a necessity, if not a virtue; and how to calculate the TCA (Total Cost of Assholes). I want you to buy the book, so I won’t reveal any details. (Another way to avoid being an asshole is to resist the temptation to steal other people’s thunder.)


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Comments

IMHO this is the most important item in the article:

"Do not mistreat people who are less powerful than you. One of the sure signs of an asshole is treating people like clerks, flight attendants, and waiters in a degrading manner."

my soft

Great article, thanks for posting.

Funny... Harvard Press turned down The Virtual Handshake as "too practical". We considered that a badge of honor.

I have been intrigued by the problem of how to avoid accepting a new job in a jerk-infested organization, and I think I've found an excellent and unique way to avoid this costly and painful problem.

I just finished developing a website called www.ebosswatch.com that allows people to rate their current or former boss so that people who are considering a job change can search for bosses at potential workplaces and can receive reports detailing the ratings that each boss has received.

Bob Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule, has called eBossWatch "fantastic, a great idea."

I loved this review Guy!
I read your review in October, and finally bought the book a couple of days ago at Chapters after being an asshole and reading 60% of the book in the store while drinking my venti half-bold half-decaf with double coffee cream and honey coffee from Starbucks.

Interestingly, a few days before reading this book, I had time to read Wikinomics. With the two reads fresh in my mind, I came to the conclusion that asshole behaviour is just another form of monopoly rent collection. (A monopoly rent is the price premium you can charge on a good or service just because you can, and because there are no viable competitors or substitutes available).

A lot of examples presented by Bob were just people being assholes because they had (or perceived they had) a monopoly on something. For example they may think they have a monopoly on products, service, ability to sell, ability to employ, ability to be your spouse, ability to evaluate your job performance, ability to advance your career, etc, etc. This explains why, for example IBM could get away with FUD (a form of corporate asshole-ism) in the 1970s, while it would be unthinkable for them to use FUD today for many of their products or markets.

Therfore, I argue, the presence of asshole-like behaviour presents a juicy opportunity to break a monopoly of some kind. It would be an interesting thought exercise to come up with a canonical orthogonal list of archetypical asshole behaviours, then list the kinds of monopolies associated with those behaviours, and then present techniques to break those monopolies. (I admit that I may be an asshole for using "canonical", "orthogonal", and "archetypical" in the same sentence).

If you or somebody is willing to put together a wiki or something to compile thoughts of people on how to characterize asshole behaviours, associated monopolies, and ways to break the monopolies, I'd be more than happy to contribute.

Cheers, Jay

P.S. If you miss hockey, you can still come up to Ottawa to watch. We still have at least 2 more home games left this season.

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

...."decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet,” you’re in the presence of an asshole....
That's very funny :) ... and I agree 100%

And here's an example of what I am talking about: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_17/b4031001.htm

Surviving assholes? Where's the book about surviving incompetent, legally over-protected, potbellied freeloaders who jump on someone else's good idea and complain about the fact they aren't celebrated for showing up and doing their jobs?

The Starbucks Test is as spurious and useless as the example it cites. I have never met a single soul who has that many criteria for ordering coffee. Many of my friends, all of whom are friends because they're not assholes, order specific kinds of coffee. So?

The ARSE rule, or whatchyoumaycallit, is just a catchy title for the most common sense "advice" tailored for a society as idiotically sensitive as America's. The problem with a canon of this nature is that a timid or lame-ass loser (a breed that is just as common in workplaces as "assholes" by the author's definition) may convenientnly label anyone whom he finds difficult to deal with "an asshole". This difficulty may not stem for the duh-obvious traits such as unwanted physical proximity or CCing of the world at large on sundry emails (do we really need a book to understand that these traits are, um, undesirable?) but from the laziness or incompetence of the loser in question.

Concepts such as "borderline asshole" allow the author to escape being held to his convenient discourses. It's time you over-protected whiners stopped complaining and got back to making the workplace a fun, collaborative place -- an activity that, I'm afraid it must be pointed out, will indeed require some labor and some measure of discomfort for your spoiled asses.

bought it, reading it, liking it. thanks!

Note: The character Chiun (as created by Warren Murphey and Ricahard Sapir) was North Korean from the town of Sinanju (folks claim it sounds like orange juice when pronounced) and found folks not from his village 'inferior' ...

As to the Starbucks' test - are you an asshole if you apologize before making a complicated order?

"A jerk is a know-it-all who doesn't know what he is talking about, whereas a know-it-all who does know what he is talking about is merely an asshole" (from "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior," Perigee, 1996*). Assholes are able to carve a wide path through the serenity in your lives, because you are so aghast, dumbfounded, and appalled by their outrageous behavior. Instead of reacting assertively, you stand transfixed like a deer in the headlights of a car. It takes almost all your self-restraint to keep your cool in the face of their audacity, which is why it is so difficult to "Just Say No" to assholes. They are the opposite of a good guy or gal [see: Top 10 Ways to Recognize a Mensch" at: http://markgoulston.com/articles/coachvillemensch.shtml).

1. They interrupt.

2. They don't take turns.

3. They take advantage of people who are down.

4. They gloat in victory.

5. They are sullen in defeat.

6. They are not fair.

7. They lack integrity.

8. They are the people you hope you won't grow up to be like.

9. They are the kind of person you wouldn't want your sister (or brother or child) to marry.

10. They are the kind of person you'll avoid, if you can break free of them.

(* We've come -- or perhaps deteriorated -- a long way since 1996 when my first book was published and this list was first published on the net. In both cases, I couldn't use the word "asshole," but the gap between it and the word I could use, "jerk", was wide enough for all the impact of what I was saying to fall through.

Some definitions:

Jerk - a "know it all" who doesn't know what he is talking about.

Asshole - a "know it all" who does know what he is talking about

Whiner - a screamer in sheep's clothing

Screamer - a whiner in creep's clothing

Nice guy - someone who is afraid to get angry and mince meat for someone who isn't

I can't wait to read this book. I work in an office that has a huge asshole and I can use any advice you can give me.

That thing about the white, chinese, and black people comes from a joke in an old book written by Sapir and Murphy in 1969, The Destroyer. The main character was Chiun, a chinese guy. He joked and said God did not bake the first person long enough, and he was white. Then, God baked the second one too long and he was black. And, Chuin said, since he was chinese, God baked the third one just right and he was oriental.

I wrote my first book "Odd Woman Out: Black Girl Abroad" and was accused of being an asshole for including some personal comments about my Taiwanese boss. I don't think that telling it how it is qualifies me as an asshole. The man looked me in my face and told me that he thought God made the best people first and the worse people last, White people, Chinese, everyone else then blacks. Come on! Now that's an asshole comment I think.

It would be nice to have a spellchecker there to remind people to check their spelling

I came upon this site while searching google "how to not be an asshole."

I am an asshole, and I'm realizing that I've been an asshole for a long time. For a long time I was a level 1 but over the past few months it has gotten much worse and I am definitely a level 2. Whenever I do an asshole-ish thing I realize it, get mad at myself about it, and try to apologize or 'make up for it later.' It was scary how well I could identify with the trademarks of an asshole, and even see how some of my friends act out the role of dealing with such people. I really hope I can stay objective and self aware so I can make some changes.

I really enjoyed reading the article Kawsaki, it definitely enhanced my perspective, and I look forward to reading Sutton's book.

Aaron

I started out doing a google search for my brother who is a Marine Colonel. We have what I thought was a rather unique name (I'm the only one in my city!)But guess there is a whole world of us out there (Starbuck).
Anyway, this came up in my search! No, my brother's not an asshole, and neither am I :-)
BUT I work with a world of assholes, and you are so right, there is no other word that captures the essence of their being more so, than ASSHOLE! I work in surgery in a hospital. Need I say more?
I am surrounded by arrogant asshole doctors who talk down to you, and don't acknowledge your existance in the room, unless you do something THEY feel is wrong, and high and mighty nurses who think they are goddesses, and then there is my boss - a world class asshole. I'm not even going to go there. So, I found this rather amusing to say the least, and I am going to buy this book. I have had bosses before in my life that were angels sent from heaven, so they do not have to be assholes to be efficient! And I have worked with doctors and nurses that were sugar sweet, so "assholiness" is not a prerequisite to the medical profession!
My question is.... if you know some assholes, should you give them a copy of this book annonymously? :-)
Thank you for my morning entertainment!

Here is the link to the transcript from the Bill Maher show for his rule -- the more complicated the Starbucks order, the bigger the asshole.

http://www.hbo.com/billmaher/new_rules/20050506.html

Someone asked why Harvard Business Review published an essay on the no asshole review, but declined to publish the book. Let me explain. There are two main parts to the story. First, the original essay in HBR in 2004 was called "More Trouble than They Are Worth," but did explicitly describe "the no asshole rule" and in fact used the term "asshole" 8 times. One of the funniest things was that they put it in their "breakthough ideas" section, even though it is of course an old idea. I believe that the "breakthrough" was for HBR, as I think it was the first time they printed the word "asshole" their rather serious publication.

Second, I wrote a proposal for a book called "The No Asshole Rule," which as you know will appear soon. Because my last book, Hard Facts, was published with Harvard Business School Press, I was obligated to show them the proposal first. They offered to publish the book but insisted it would need to be under a different, sanitized name... "no jerks" or something like that because -- and I am not joking -- it was "beneath me" as a Stanford professor and established scholar to publish a book with that crude title. Note this was a very nice conversation and they clearly wanted the book -- but I told them I wouldn't consider a dollar offer of any amount if they wouldn't make a contractual commitment to the title because in my view, all other labels were euphemisms. I also commented that a book called The No Asshole Rule -- while not beneath me -- probably was bad for the Harvard Business School Press brand, and if I ran the press, I would likely not publish a book with that title either, even though they are an excellent house (they really are, I've done two books with them and they are great).

So we sold the book to Warner. My editor, Rick Wolff was so excited about the book when he read the proposal that he got Warner to make a handsome advance offer to "take it off the table." When Rick called to "meet me" on the phone, he didn't start with any greeting of any kind. His first words were "I am the asshole who bought your book." Now that is my kind of editor! Also, as a sign of commitment to the title, Warner had "The No Asshole Rule" jacket cover done before I ever wrote word -- they like the title as much as I do and have been a great publisher.

The upshot is that Harvard Business School Press did refuse to publish a book called The No Asshole Rule, which was right for them (although they wanted the manuscript); and I walked away, which was right for me and for the book. I talk on my blog about why no other word is right in more detail. Check out my post on Why I Call Them Assholes.

Thanks,

Bob

P.S. And in response to another question, as I say on my original post about the Starbuck's asshole metric, my checking suggests that it came from Bill Maher's show, although apparently George Carlin often gets credit for it.

Guy, tell something about how it was to work with one of the biggest assholes, Steve Jobs.

Your asshole quotient is flawed. Johnatans first method is much more scientific.

While I don't appreciate profanity, I do really appreciate the simple wisdom of these "checklists". Thanks for sharing.

Great Blog!! I've spent the last 26 years working in Local Gov't and so have more exposure to assholiness than most other people I've met. A question, "Does the book give all the non-Govt people tips on spotting assholiness in people who have spent a lifetime camouflaging it behind a veneer of bureaucracy. Sure we all spot it in the clerk who answers the phone, but they're still learning. What about those who've been promoted to the lofty heights of bureaucracy? They won't be unmasked by the simple means outlined in this post.
Some of you may remember the classic documentary series from the BBC called "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister". It was disguised as a comedy series but anyone who works in Govt knows it as a documentary.
Sir Humphrey was obviously an asshole, but no-one who could do anything about it knew it. But what about Bernard Woolley - again an asshole, but much more able to conceal it even though being lower done in the bureaucracy.
It's probably impossible to work in Govt and not be an asshole to someone. So here's the real test for the book, can it help us find spot and deal with the Govt asshole, or better yet, provide help to us Govt assholes. Maybe we need to create a Govt Dept to develop strategies and policies to reduce the assholiness in Govt, or will this just mean we put more people defenceless people in harms way?

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