How to Work With Assholes (Without Being One Yourself)

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The author of The Asshole Survival Guide knows what to do.

If you paid close attention (or even distant attention, really), you would have noticed that 2017 was rife with a not-so-new breed of person – someone we’ve all undoubtedly encountered in various facets of our lives, often in the workplace: the asshole. The inundation of deplorable workplace role models worldwide has contributed to a global asshole epidemic, which is problematic for more than one reason.

Unfortunately, there are no definitive parameters to identify an asshole, and their often-subtle behaviours can be hard to label (and even harder to resolve), particularly in the workplace. Fortunately, the experts are here to help us navigate the murky waters of workplace bullying.

Enter Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and author of straight-shooting books The No Asshole Rule and recently released The Asshole Survival Guide. He discusses how assholes aren’t just an office nuisance, but a serious and costly threat to corporate success and employee health.

When people are stressed, exhausted, feel threatened or experience an imbalance in power or a wealth gap, they will tend to treat people worse than when they are not.

Defining this breed as someone who, “Leaves people feeling demeaned, de-energised, and disrespected,” Sutton uses in-depth research and analysis to show how managers can eliminate mean-spirited and unproductive behaviour for an asshole-free, productive workplace.

Why are there so many more assholes in the workplace than ever?

Unfortunately, the list of things that cause people to be nasty at work – and elsewhere – is quite long. While no individual is exempt from turning even a little nasty given the wrong circumstances, there are a few factors that can exacerbate these behaviours. When people are stressed, exhausted, feel threatened or experience an imbalance in power or a wealth gap, they will tend to treat people worse than when they are not.

Research also shows that technology has increased the problem, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact. And because technology has created the expectation for things to happen faster, and at all hours of the day, hurriedness and sleep deprivation have become major factors.

Another issue that’s opening the floodgates for ubiquitous assholism is our societal role models. From Uber and Hollywood to the current US president, and everything in between, there have been some extreme examples of workplace bullying recently.

Is being an asshole a learnt behaviour? Can assholes unlearn their ways?

There may be a small genetic component for assholism, but there are also lots of incidents where people have been downright nasty, but later learnt to be more civilised and self-aware. Being nasty isn’t natural or inherent; it’s often very situational. In the long run, people who treat each other with civility generally do better in all aspects of life.

We’re truly living in the era of asshole ousting, thanks to movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. Do you think it’s a problem that needs to get worse before it gets better?

My focus is more is on the lower-level, everyday, ‘legal’ assholism, because sexual assault and harassment are clearly against the law. Treating people like dirt, as if they’re invisible, insulting them, teasing them – the subtler behaviours are harder to get rid of.

Why does nasty behaviour spread a lot faster than nice behaviour?

There’s a famous article called, ‘Bad is Stronger Than Good’, where academics reviewed many variations of bad behaviour, punishments, and bad moods. It showed over and over again that bad behaviour of all kinds spreads faster than good. These evolutionary psychologists argue that the reason bad anything spreads quickly, is that when we’re threatened we tend to notice and respond to it more quickly than when something good happens, because that’s adaptive from a survival standpoint.

Research also shows that technology has increased the problem, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact.

This research goes on to show that even a ‘single exposure’ to negative behaviour, such as receipt of an insulting email, can turn a person into a ‘carrier’ of nastiness. The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.

Do you have a favourite coping mechanism for employees working with assholes?

If someone finds themselves in a situation that has left them feeling demeaned and de-energised, the most important thing I recommend is to depersonalise the bullying to the extent where it won’t touch your soul. I call this ‘reframing’.

Another tactic I recommend is ‘time travel’ or ‘temporal distancing’, where you’re facing somebody who is making you feel bad in the moment, but you reframe the moment to think about it like it’s tonight and you’re looking back at it. The idea of emotional distancing and engaging in time travel is very effective, because the more personal things may seem, the more difficult they are to process.

How do you know when to stand up for yourself and call someone out on being an asshole?

There is always a risk in calling out an asshole, and there a few different things to keep in mind. One is to recognise how much power you have in the situation and to gauge your response from that. The second thing is how strong your evidence is, objectively. The third thing is how many people you have to support your claim to call out the asshole. If a whole bunch of people identify the person as having engaged in bad behaviour, then it’s a sign that it isn’t just you experiencing it.

Is there any one industry where the asshole is movement particularly evident?

There are some industries where it is worse than others. Hollywood, tech, and fashion are examples where workplace bullying is somewhat worse than others, because they tend to have the same characteristics – there’s big power differences between the top and the bottom of the company, and there is extreme performance pressure.

Why do you think the profanity in your title provoked such a strong response in people?

These days I think the title of my book seems mild! In 2007, the word ‘asshole’ seemed to be upsetting, now it’s routine. The reason I insisted on using the word ‘asshole’, is because there’s increasing evidence that people who swear are seen as more trustworthy, and that the occasional swear word is more effective than milder terms. But, for me, it was also a personal thing: that, when I see somebody treating somebody else like dirt, I think: what an asshole.

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