The Most Reliable Ways to Become a Workplace Jerk

People, I am delighted to introduce Robert Sutton, he of Stanford University and No Asshole Rule fame.

Here is what I want to say about the man. He wrote the book on workplace assholes. I think he considers himself a bit of a recovered—or recovering—asshole.

Yet from personal experience I know the man is a true and total gentleman; also a workplace wise man and all-around superb source.

And now….Robert Sutton:

“One of the main themes of The No Asshole Rule is that, although there are some people who act like assholes wherever they go (I call them certified assholes), all of us are capable of turning into demeaning creeps under the wrong conditions. That is why I say “assholes are us” and urge people (and I tell myself) to try to avoid situations that will turn them into jerks. For starters, one of the most compelling and frightening academic literatures I know is on something called “emotional contagion.” It turns out that – regardless of personality traits – people will (automatically and mindlessly) start feeling and displaying the emotions expressed by the people around them. And, over time, they will start becoming like the people they live with and work with.

I confess that I’ve caught asshole positioning before. As I write in Chapter 4 The No Asshole Rule:

‘Unfortunately, I learned this lesson after joining a group led by a renowned management guru. It was during the height of the boom in Silicon Valley, a time when arrogance, selfishness, and the unstated belief that “if you can’t get rich now, you must not be very smart” rippled throughout the region. Our little group met several Sundays in a row to talk about starting a business strategy website. About seven or eight people attended these meetings, but the bad behavior was confined to only four of us – the guru, two other management experts, and me. We each vied to establish our position as the alpha male. We also did nearly all the talking; the women and younger men at the meeting rarely spoke, and when they tried, we ignored or interrupted them and went back to our pathetic game of status jousting.

There was a veneer of civility, but it barely masked our intense and obnoxious one-upmanship. We were allegedly coming up with ideas for the company (which never got off the ground), and instead, we spent the meetings showing off our knowledge, bragging about our accomplishments, and using interruptions and rapid-fire talk to battle for air time. One management consultant that I know describes meetings like these as “like watching apes in the zoo throwing feces to assert dominance.”

That pretty much sums up what we did. I felt like an asshole at the end of each meeting and that feeling was well-deserved. My wife Marina pointed out that, when I came home from each gathering, I acted like an overbearing and pompous jerk at home too. As she put it, I was suffering from a bad case of “testosterone poisoning.” I eventually came to my senses and realized — to put another way — that I had caught and fueled an epidemic of “asshole poisoning.” So I quit the group.’ (pp. 97-99)

Perhaps you are stronger person than me, and could have avoided turning into a jerk in these meetings. But a large body of research suggests that nearly all of us human-being suffer from the same disease. The upshot is that, if you want to avoid acting like an asshole, treat it like a contagious disease. Avoid joining companies and workgroups were asshole poisoning runs rampant. And as I learned from that experience with management guru (and my wife), if you find that you’ve joined a den of assholes and are acting just like them, the best thing to do is to leave the scene as quickly as possible.

Next time: How power turns people into selfish jerks.”