Sunday, February 18, 2007

The "No Asshole Rule": A Question of Ethnocentricity

"Every organization needs the no asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance, and themselves... The effects of assholes are so devastating because they sap people of their energy and esteem mostly through the accumulated effects of small, demeaning acts, not so much through one or two dramatic episodes." (Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule, pp 27,29)
Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule is a book every manager should read, and indeed everyone should read. Those of us who enjoy healthy work environments tend to forget that others don't have the same luxury, and spend most of their lives surrounded by bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants -- assholes, in other words, who should be fired without second thought.

Sutton stresses at the outset that he doesn't advocate recruiting wimps: "I am a firm believer in the virtues of conflict, even noisy arguments... My focus is squarely on screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power." (pp 16-17) He further acknowledges that everyone acts like an asshole from time to time, and he himself has been an offender. It's the "certified assholes" he has in his sights.

The certified asshole, then, is "one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves" (p 11). You can find out if you're a certified asshole by taking the author's test, found either in the book (pp 124-126) or online here. (I'm apparently clean: I got 4 asshole points out of 24; according to Sutton's grading, under 5 means you're okay.)

Sutton then lists "the dirty dozen" everyday tactics used by assholes (p 10):
1. Personal insults
2. Invading one's "personal territory"
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
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
He believes that more companies and organizations should enforce a "no asshole rule", and fire employees who make their colleagues' lives miserable through repeated use of any of the above.

Speaking personally, I'm inclined to agree with Sutton. I have no tolerance for assholes, and count myself fortunate to have worked with few of them. Those I've had the misfortune to know were damaging to people in ways they may never understand. I would support the implementation of the no asshole rule in almost any work environment. But at the same time, something about the "dirty dozen" list gives me pause: most of these tactics are not only acceptable, but expected, of people in honor-shame cultures. Is there an ethnocentric bias here that needs to be addressed?

In Asian and Middle-Eastern (and other) cultures, insults are fine and frequent arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and "treating others as if they are invisible" a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. What constitutes being an asshole in one culture can be honorable in another, and not nearly as psychologically damaging.

Sutton seems aware of the ethnocentricity behind his rule. In the middle of the book he not only brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, but honor-shame subcultures -- like that of the southern United States:
"People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)... [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor." (pp 116-117)
He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:
"Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who 'accidentally' bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult." (p 117)
In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East -- or from an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States -- "you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning" (p 118). The implication seems to be that people from honor-shame cultures, or subcultures, are inherent assholes (or at least have strong asshole-leanings), even if Sutton doesn't spell things out this harshly.

But this should be clarified: "assholes", as defined by Sutton, do a lot more damage in guilt-based cultures than shame-based ones. In the latter, people are conditioned to defend themselves constantly and forcefully against abuse, and they aren't psychologically wounded by the kind of things presumed in the no asshole rule. "Asshole" is thus a misnomer for such people, even if their behavior should not be excused in a western work environment.

We're not done with Sutton's book yet. In the next post we will look at his interesting complement to the no asshole rule -- the one asshole rule. Ponder the following until then: Was Paul right about a little bit of yeast leavening the whole batch of dough (I Cor 5:6)? Or can the opposite be true?

UPDATE: See Bob Sutton's blogpost and comments underneath, where a librarian named Daphne Chang objects to some of my remarks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even worse than running into this at work is experiencing it in a church congregation.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently resigned as an officer and board member of an all-volunteer nonprofit exactly because of this kind of behavior from the founding members.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article. Annoying behaviors at my work are: 1. bragging, 2. talking on and on,usually griping about something, 3. invading other people's work space, and 4. butting in and taking over projects, though not invited or welcome.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been intrigued by the problem of how to avoid accepting a new job in a jerk-infested organization, and I think I've found an excellent and unique way to avoid this costly and painful problem.

I just finished developing a website called that allows people to rate their current or former boss so that people who are considering a job change can search for bosses at potential workplaces and can receive reports detailing the ratings that each boss has received.

Bob Sutton, author of the best-selling book The No Asshole Rule, has called eBossWatch "fantastic, a great idea." I hope this helps some of you avoid jerk-infested workplaces.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sutton is missing the point when he says the techniques of an honor culture don't work here. What he should be saying is that we need to be MORE of an honor culture.

Our military produces leaders much more effectively and regularly than civilian life because it understands the uses of hard authority and is not afraid to use them.

Look at his examples of honor cultures. Asia - beating us out economically, the Mideast - who have us buffaloed militarily, and the Southern US - the backbone of our military culture. We NEED what these people have to teach.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well coming from being a temp to permanent employee in a very combative, two-faced work place, I am choosing not to work for this employer, no amount of money can make me deal with these types of people (woman), I would rather lose everything than spend my life with these folks, you spend more time @ your work place than your home, why would you do something so stupid as to put yourself through misery every day of your life and also think about this too, you drive there everyday. It's a bizzare thought! Talk about torture....

Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for this article. working in a small company there is one person here that is a total "asshole" 1. talks for long periods of time on the phone to her kids, I'm a mom too but these types of conversations are meant for home at the dinner table 2. loves to point out what I'm doing wrong 3. back stabber 4. thinks she owns the company and she is contract and I've been here from the beginning 5. butts into everyone conversations 6. grills you for information about your personal life.. as you can tell I have zero respect for her and keep my dealings with her to as little as possible and put my headphones on when she starts talking to her kids...I wish management could see what the rest of us see, she is a total time waster and busybody

Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:44 P.M. EDT

Yes, I had my share of office jerks and a-hole bosses. Now that I am retired and live in "senior housing" my work experience is mild in comparison. Nothing but gossips/liars/head cases/busy bodies here. Do not move into senior housing or place anyone you know into one. This is my 2nd senior housing and here I thought I escape all the drama.


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