One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about workplace assholes, bully bosses, toxic teammates, and a host of other terms used to describe mean-spirited creeps in the workplace, is that first impressions can be deceiving. There are so many people who, once you get to know them, are kind and helpful. But they come across as assholes because they have a gruff exterior or perhaps lack social skills. As I wrote in The No Asshole Rule:

“A few years back, I was talking to Peter McDonald, one of IDEO’s veteran engineers. He was talking about several of the gruffer people at IDEO, people who are known in some corners as being jerks. Peter then went on to say that IDEO was actually quite effective at keeping jerks out of the company, but newcomers sometimes mistake people who are gruff, outspoken, and insist on applying high standards to their own work and everyone else’s for being demeaning, nasty people. Peter went on to say ‘whenever I’ve worked with a person who was supposed to be an asshole, I always found out that it was a bad rap, each turned out to be OK once I got to know them better.’”

Peter’s comment implies many lessons about why it is important to be slow to label people as assholes, bullies, or whatever. First, the no asshole rule is not an argument for populating organizations with doormats or wimps, or for avoiding conflict.

The best organizations have bosses who give people honest and constructive feedback. And the best organizations encourage constructive conflict over ideas. There are times when the targets of such feedback or those involved in conflict get their feelings hurt (and there are people who are overly sensitive to criticism). But the best organizations teach people how to accept and to give constructive feedback and how to fight constructively (which includes learning to have “strong opinions, weakly held”).

Second, people with gruff exteriors sometimes turn out to be what I call “porcupines with hearts of gold.” I have had quite a few people who – like Peter McDonald - have written me about a boss or co-worker with rough or even downright rude exteriors who have turned out to be great people underneath.

In this vein, when I gave a talk about workplace assholes at Google about a year ago, an audience member described how some his favorite people at Google had “A bad user interface, but a great operating system,” and how once you got past the unpleasant exterior, there was a lovely human-being in there.

Third, and finally, it is important to avoid labeling people “jerks,” “assholes,” or bullies too quickly because these emotionally loaded words can spark aggression from otherwise civilized people. Along these lines, one of the most fascinating experiments I’ve ever read showed (especially among men raised in the southern United States) that when a trained confederate passing by in a narrow hall bumped into a study participant and called him an “asshole,” the person who was bumped often responded with loud and threatening verbal aggression. So calling a person an asshole can be an effective way to turn him or her into an asshole, at least temporarily.

I would be curious about the tactics that readers use to avoid labeling people as “toxic” too quickly and ideas that readers have about how to tell the difference between “a porcupine with a heart of gold” and an authentic certified asshole.

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