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October 30, 2006

Book Review: The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton


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.


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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I'm pretty sure the Starbuck's rule was one of Bill Maher's "New Rules" sometime last year.


Indeed, I think it was.


Why is it that HBR published Sutton's article and it became very popular but HBSP rejected the book? May be it has something to do with being an a***hole on the inside versus announcing loudly one's status of a***holeage!

Explanatory notes:
1. Three stars in a***hole instead of two, as we spell the species differently over here in the UK
2. For the usage "a***holeage", a hat tip to Helen Fielding's innovative use of a similar term in Bridget Jones's Diary

The book and post are funny...
I wrote this about assholes a year ago and didn't do anything with it, so I'll post it in your comments.

Senior management recently promoted a coworker to Sr. Vice President. When I asked why he hadn’t told anyone he said, “In our corporate culture, title doesn’t mean anything.” I thought, doesn’t mean anything? So I started asking myself some questions. Since titles are nothing but words, maybe he meant in our corporate culture words don’t mean anything, but I’ll stick with titles in my examples. So a title could be anything, but it doesn’t mean anything, right? So Sr. Vice President is no different from Asshole? His resume could read Manager 1996-1998, Director 1998-2001, Vice-President 2001-2005, and Asshole 2006. If title is meaningless, instead of CEO I could use any label I’d like. We could introduce someone at a speaking engagement as the Asshole from Enron or maybe introduce someone on the Today Show as the Sr. Asshole from Tyco.

Why limit this idea to corporations? Why not the government? Replace Presidential Chief of Staff with Asshole, Vice President with Vice Asshole, or State Senator with Little Asshole. Since titles don’t matter, no should mind, right?

The scenario is this: you need to work with several jerks and a couple of assholes (if you don't, you won't eat).
You suffer the numbers 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 from the Sutton’s dirty-dozen list, but still manage to be as polite and calm as you can.
This people think that you are polite because you are harmless, or idiot. They don't respect you, they only fear more powerful people.
The entire process is hard and unpleasant, mistakes are made and none of them (the assholes) are going to acknowledge their responsibility, it's all your fault. They are able to make you doubt of yourself and you real value as a professional and a human being.
Like Dennis Hopper in Speed, I ask: "what do you do". What.
It happens to us almost all the time since we are living here. People base their judgement on appearances, money, the car you have (we don't), and then proceed to treat you accordingly.
Maybe I should not be such a sissy, I know. But it's a particularly depressing moment, don't you think?.
Anyway, it's much more fun to talk about assholes than finding them in your way (or living among them). Great post.
Develop indifference and emotional detachment. I will work really hard on that one :P

I enjoyed the article on asshole, and that reminds me something.
There is a foreign minister in Japan
named Mr. Asou.
It is not a common surname but I have several friends named as such.
Well in Japanese it has no problem whatsoever-buuut, in English if you pronounce the name Asou
it can sound otherwise.
Watch out- Mr. Asou would be a prime minister of Japan someday.
Case in point- anybody who thinks himself he is not an asshole, is an asshole.
We are just human after all.

Hiro asshole Hayashida

This is really a very interesting post. Everything makes sense and they should teach this stuff at the secondary schools of Kuwait. As majority of Kuwaitis are assholes by default. I'm talking facts here.....

If you believe that George Bush is an asshole then YOU ARE an asshole! I'm sure they must be the same people who order soy-lattes, or soy-anything.

Wow!! Great post..Makes one self-analyze their behavior. I love Starbucks..Venti coffee..w/1 cream and 1 equal..Not sure if I make this list with this order...

As of today, it seems that George W. Bush is showing an increase of 62.19839% (now at 1,210,000) in regards to appearing with the word asshole on Google. Lawyers on the other hand show a slight decrease, -2.72727 % or only 1,070,000. It will be interesting to see if all of this will have an impact on the (election)results next week and on just how many law suits will fly because of election fraud, tampering and mis-counting.

As a former WSJ reporter who now speaks and writes on communication I, too was impressed by Sutton's gutsy move re the title of his book, and noticed that his previous book is described as his "latest" on his Stanford bio. Here's to putting this new title right on top

BTW, you could do the shareholders of Microsoft a huge favor if you went up to Redmond and beat Gates and Ballmer over the head with these lists.

That company is fixated on beating their enemy of the month (Google, Apple, IBM, or anyone else who's making money), and in the meantime they're alienating their customers with stupid things like Windows "Genuine Advantage".


Guy, for what it's worth:

I missed you by several years when I went to work in Apple Worldwide Developer Relations (started in '02), and nobody there called you an asshole. Not in my earshot, at any rate.


When someone in business is talking about an "asshole", the connotation is almost always that we are talking about an unpleasant male co-worker or boss. There is different word that starts with the letter "C" that more accuratley identifies female offenders. Does the book address this important issue?

Guy, I wouldn't worry about Mark (see comments above).. he sounds like a real asshole to me!! Thanks for the laugh... always a pleasure. I will definitely limit my exposure to assholes and I am pleased to say that when at Starbucks I order a Grande Mild Blend.. obviously, I'm no asshole! I love the idea of coming up with an official Assholeocity ranking, akin to the infamous Bozocity scale... regard

Oh . . . I'm going to have a lot of fun with this one. Watch next week: http://www.gurubbq.com

One question is if there is a difference between asshole behavior and being an asshole. Guy, you say you've been an asshole a few times--I sure have, too--but, for example, I doubt we would generally accept someone saying "I've molested children a few times." We would say that person IS a child molester. I tend to think that some people are real assholes, either for their whole lives or for significant segments of their lives.

The book sounds great--but I fear real assholes (serial assholes, dyed-in-the-wool assholes, call them what you will) won't benefit from it. The people who will are people like you and me who feel that we sometimes lapse into asshole behavior. I guess that could make life at work a little more pleasant...

Still, my wife and I are already planning to have this book sent to a major asshole we used to work for.

The self-appointed asshole at my former start-up singlehandedly prevented us from being successful. Do not underestimate the toxic effect of having an asshole in a small company, especially a start-up.

Don't forget the 1 asshole rule... In any heated interaction there can only be one asshole.. If you look around and don't see any assholes, guess what, your it!

Hey Guy,

Thanks for the high praise - glad you enjoyed. I don't know how well this formatting will come through in the comments, but here's a semi-random list of folks, per your request (remember: for both linear and logarithmic AQ, lower is better).

Asshole Quotient (stated in thousandths)
Name Linear AQ Logarithmic AQ
Guy Kawasaki 18.8 739.8
George W Bush 9.1 749.6
Rush Limbaugh 41.9 799.6
Hilary Clinton 26.9 779.9
Bill Clinton 20.6 778.4
Tom Cruise 23.5 777.6
Russell Crowe 11.6 710.7
Carly Fiorina 8.1 664.3
Tony Blair 12.7 741.4
Osama Bin Laden 31.3 789.7

Some observations:

- Most popular people tend to cluster in the 700s (sort of like FICO credit scores -- correlation?) so the numbers after the hundreds column really do matter.

- The Clintons enjoy near-identical AQs

- Tom Cruise is going down much harder than Russell Crowe

- People really don't like Rush Limbaugh

- Your own numbers (to say nothing of Bob Sutton's, whom I didn't even check) are probably going to biased from here on out because of the use of the term in this post and those that mention it. C'est la vie.

As a matter of fair disclosure, my own stats show me to be a reasonably nice guy, clearly I need to offend more people:

Johnathan Nightingale 1.1 384.5

I can shorten the Asshole detection:
If you're in Starbucks, you're an asshole.

Buy less, buy local, make it yourself.
If you really want Change, keep it in your pocket. Your dollar is your only vote and the machines don't count.

I'm more of a jerk than an asshole (IMHO).

Guy - I have been reading Bob's blog and am thrilled you decided to weigh in on the topic. I am with Dacio on definitions. "Unintelligent" is a much worse offense as it implies the inability to ever get it. It fits in the same category with common sense and 'class' -- you either have them or you don't.

I think what Bob meant is to describe a behavior we sometimes get caught into. We forget ourselves and proceed to step outside our boundaries.

The other kind never, ever forgets themselves. They always act in a me-centered self-interest mode with no thought -- or care -- whatsoever to the impact they have on others. None. Period. That's entirely another conversation.

Of course, you realize that with this book review you're going to rank much higher in the "google test"...

Nice blog, just wanted to say Hi :)

I always thought of that! It's nice to see a book that clarifies my ideas!

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