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Big Ideas

How to Navigate Dysfunction at the Office  

The title pretty much says it all.

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and one of the founders of the Stanford He is also the world’s leading authority on dysfunction in the workplace. We sat down with him in Palo Alto to discuss his new book, The Asshole Survival Guide.

The Asshole Survival Guide is the second volume of your research on the subject. Can you give us a brief synopsis of vol. 1? What is the “No Asshole Rule?”

There is a rule, and also a lot of sub-rules, but it basically comes down to this: Don’t hire a**holes. These are people whose behavior damages their fellow workers, fellow human beings, and ultimately themselves. They are the jerks and bullies and two-faced backstabbers who make you feel oppressed, humiliated, disrespected, or belittled. We all have stories about these people, but my original motivation was actually more positive: What does it take to build a truly civilized workplace?

That’s what led me to the new book, The Asshole Survival Guide. Given that you are likely to encounter one of these unpleasant people sooner or later, what can be done about them? I analyze the roots of their behavior and offer some strategies for dealing with them.

What can be done about them?

First, keep your distance. A surprising amount of research indicates that the easiest solution is also the most effective: The closer you sit to a toxic personality, the more likely you are to be infected. Bad behavior is contagious. Even an extra 10 feet can help. Second, slow the rhythm. I did a study once of telephone bill collectors who had to deal with abusive behaviors every day. The most effective ones had mastered the art of introducing long pauses before answering. Wait as long as you can before replying to hostile e-mails; find ways to postpone meetings. Third, look in the mirror. This is not so easy, but make sure there’s nothing in your own behavior that might be provoking others to behave in aggressive, insulting, or demeaning ways.

Most of the business books I’ve read talk about the secrets of visionary leaders, the “seven habits” of successful entrepreneurs, and so on. You talk about a**holes. How did you come to be so interested in this view of business?

I remember my father coming home one day and describing some guy at work and punctuating his story with, “What an a**hole!” How many times have we all heard that—and remarked at how perfectly it captures the essence of an interaction? What triggered my initial essay was the daily experience of my wife, who was managing partner in a law firm: She described her job as “a**hole management.”

My “legitimate” field of research is organizational dysfunction, and the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that these individuals are a major source not just of unpleasantness but of inefficiencies: They are bad for business. I’m not talking here about someone who loses his temper once in a while or who might just be having a bad day—I’m talking about “certified a**holes” whose behavior is an enduring personality characteristic.

The Asshole Survival Guide mixes charming anecdotes, case studies, earnest how-to advice, and some very hard-headed behavioral science. Was it hard to bring these voices into alignment?

Not really. I’ve been a professor for more than thirty years and the thought of writing one more peer-reviewed article for some academic journal was starting to demoralize me. The “research” for this book was actually pretty easy because my readers basically did it for me. In the ten years since The No Asshole Rule was published I’ve received something like eight thousand e-mails from people who wrote to tell me their stories, ask for advice, or just vent. True, there’s a lot of storytelling in the book, but it’s grounded in a pretty wide-ranging scientific literature.

Although you draw upon scholars at universities around the world, most of your focus is on the assholes in America. But is there a difference between American assholes and a**holes from other countries?

Good question, and it does point to the cultural specificity of certain behaviors. I’d prefer to say that we are at a moment, historically speaking, that could be called “peak a**hole.” All the well-documented forces that turn people into jerks are in place: power imbalance, sleep deprivation, people who are overworked, overcrowded, and in a hurry. What we can say is that largely on account of social media, asshole behavior and the ability to fight it are escalating in tandem.

You make it clear that your main concern is the workplace but that the principles you present are applicable to subway riders, sports events, even nonprofits, and more. Would you say that it’s also applicable to politics?

Well, I do have a section on how to deal with the narcissistic personality: “Narcissists crave constant praise and flattery; they desperately need to believe they are beloved. Although narcissists are often abusive and insulting, they are thin-skinned and don’t tolerate people who question their judgment.” I think I’ll leave it at that.

If you had to compress your decade of research into a single mantra, what would it be?

Easy: “Be slow to label others as a**holes, be quick to label yourself as one.”

More Posts by Barry Katz

Barry Katz is Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts, and Consulting Professor in the Design Group, Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Stanford University. He is the author of six books including, most recently, Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design.

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