Sunday, October 29, 2017

REVIEW: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (nonfiction book) by Robert I. Sutton

The No Asshole Rule is a nonfiction book. I checked out a library copy.


In this book, Sutton 1) defines workplace assholes, 2) describes the damage they can do to their workplaces and to themselves, 3) outlines how workplaces can try to implement a “no asshole” rule, 4) describes how you can keep from being an asshole, 5) provides tips for dealing with workplace assholes if your workplace isn’t making a concentrated effort to keep them out or deal with their behavior in some way, 6) and describes some of the benefits of occasionally being an asshole and/or having one around. And probably a few other things I forgot to list.

Sutton’s workplace assholes are basically what other books call workplace bullies, although I agree with Sutton that “asshole” is probably a better word to use. I think the average adult would probably connect with it more.

I started reading this in the hope of learning more and better strategies for dealing with workplace assholes. Unfortunately, although this was an engaging read that I largely agreed with, it didn’t really give me what I’d hoped for.

It started off promisingly. I loved that, in his introduction, Sutton never once said that people dealing with workplace assholes should probably just quit. Quitting isn’t an option for a lot of people. Maybe you’re tied to a particular geographic area because of your family, spouse, kids, etc. and there are few or no similar jobs in the area. Maybe the job market is terrible. Maybe your finances are tight and you can’t afford the uncertainty of a job search or possibly having to move somewhere else. Maybe you prefer the “devil you know.” What it comes down to is that there are lots of reasons why people might not want or be able to leave a bad workplace situation. I was hopeful that Sutton would have some good suggestions.

I agreed with a lot of the stuff that came after that. Yes, people with good leaders are more likely to admit they've made mistakes - there’d be less fear that they’d be punished for them, so they could admit them and then try to rectify them instead of hiding them. Yes, workplace assholes tend to make more enemies than they know. Yes, their employees waste a lot of time complaining about them and trying to work around them. Yes, a workplace where assholes aren’t tolerated is more likely to run smoothly and have better morale.

There were a few examples that made me wince. There was one organization that went to the effort of determining the TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) for one particularly nasty high-performing employee. Although he was considered a high-performer, he’d also cost the company when his company-provided anger management courses and high assistant turnover were taken into account. The total amount he’d cost the company was determined to be around $160,000, although in reality it was probably higher than that if the effect he had on everyone who had to work with him was taken into account. Management sat him down and told him that $96,000 of this total would be taken out of his year-end bonus. I was incredulous. From the sounds of things, a demotion, an actual cut in pay rather than just his bonus, or possibly even firing him would have been more appropriate.

To be fair, Sutton also thought that the company went too easy on the guy. I wished that he’d been able to do some kind of follow up. It would have been nice to know if the guy’s bad behavior had continued and he’d eventually been fired, or if this apparent slap on the wrist had somehow managed to serve as a wake-up call for him.

There are other things that made me raise an eyebrow, though. At one point, Sutton talked about how Southwest Airlines strived to create an asshole-free workplace by hiring people who fit their culture. Specifically, employees needed to be warm and friendly to both passengers and fellow employees. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to be friends with their coworkers. In Sutton’s anecdote, one particular employee who felt this way was told that he might be happier elsewhere, and he eventually did get a job with another airline. This entire anecdote bothered me because it wasn’t really about a workplace asshole - it was just a guy for whom his job was just a job.

Also, as a book reviewer I took issue with another one of Sutton’s examples. Near the end of the book, Sutton talked about how workplace assholes will sometimes be nasty towards others in front of senior management because it can make them seem smarter than their targets and those around them who are quieter and kinder. In order to explain this, Sutton brought up an article in which perceptions of “nice” and “nasty” book reviews were compared. “Amabile found that negative and unkind people were seen as less likable but more intelligent, competent, and expert than those who expressed the same messages in kinder and gentler ways.” (161) I haven’t read the article in question, but I very much disliked the way Sutton made use of it. There’s a vast amount of difference between book reviews and people talking to colleagues in front of senior management.

The two chapters that seemed like they’d be the most helpful were Chapter 3, which discussed implementing a “no asshole” rule in your workplace, and Chapter 5, which included tips for individuals faced with workplace assholes. Chapter 3 was actually pretty decent...except that it required the entire workplace, but especially upper-level management, to be committed to an asshole-free workplace. Saying that your workplace is committed to open communication and friendliness is nice, but it means nothing if, say, employees are permitted to make biting remarks about each other in public with apparent impunity. And besides, what do you do if your workplace assholes are your upper-level management?

I was excited to see what sorts of suggestions Sutton would include in Chapter 5, but I was ultimately let down. He didn’t quite come out and say it (at least not until the last couple pages of the book), but it was clear that most of the suggestions were aimed at surviving your workplace until you could finally leave. The suggested strategies included things like: remember that the abuse isn’t your fault, lower your expectations (hope for the best but expect the worst), develop indifference and emotional detachment, try to limit your exposure to workplace assholes, build support networks in your workplace, and look for small ways to seize bits of control over your workplace life. There were a few helpful tips here and there, but most of them were things that people dealing with workplace assholes are probably already doing. Several of them were things that even Sutton admitted could potentially make the situation worse.

This wasn’t a bad book - it just didn’t have much of what I was looking for. If you’re currently dealing with a workplace asshole (or several of them) who’s above you on your organizational chart, I’d say it’s pretty safe to just skip to Chapter 5 and see if you can get anything helpful out of it. If you’re in a truly terrible situation and are in a position where getting a job somewhere else is a possibility for you, reading the whole book might give you the push you need. If you're upper-level management at an organization or if you supervise a lot of people, Chapter 3 could be very useful to you. In the end, though, don't expect this book to be some kind of magic bullet, and be prepared for some of it to be a bit contradictory.

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