Review – The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t

Our apologies to any readers out there with tender ears, but we’ll let the author speak for himself in this excerpt from his article in the Harvard Business Review:

There’s a simple practice that can make an organization better, but while many managers talk about it, few write it down. They enforce “no asshole” rules. I apologize for the crudeness of the term – you might prefer to call them tyrants, bullies, boors, cruel bastards, or destructive narcissists, and so do I, at times. Some behavioral scientists refer to them in terms of psychological abuse, which they define as “the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact.” But all that cold precision masks the fear and loathing these jerks leave in their wake. Somehow, when I see a mean-spirited person damaging others, no other term seems quite right.

– Robert I. Sutton
More Trouble Than They’re Worth
Breakthrough Articles for 2004 – HBR reprint R0402A

At some point in time, we all have worked with a person who is a mean-spirited jerk – who throws their weight or position around, and who uses fear to motivate, to manipulate, or to get his or her way. In short, we’ve all had the displeasure of working with an ‘asshole’.

noassholecoveramazonThe No Asshole Rule, Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving in One That Isn’t, by Robert Sutton, is a fast and fun read (or listen) about keeping assholes out of your workplace, recognizing our own individual tendencies toward asshole-ism and about how some people leverage their assholed-ness for power and results (yes, some people actually do get what they want by being real jerks).

Sutton has two simple criteria for determining if someone is an asshole. First, if the person on the receiving end “feels depressed, humiliated or de-energized or belittled” and secondly if the “alleged asshole aims the venom at people who are less powerful rather than people who are more powerful.”

In Sutton’s language there are also temporary assholes. These are people who are simply having a bed day, in contrast to certified assholes – people who are persistently nasty and destructive jerks. Sutton also has the obligatory asshole self-test in his book so that you can understand if you, yourself, are of the certified or temporary variety.

The book is sprinkled with examples of how awful people can be, and “revenge” stories that show the lengths ‘victims’ will go to in response. It also highlights success stories, such as Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, and successful counter-examples, such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. (See “Evil Genius” in Wired magazine for more…)

I think the most important question to discuss, particularly if you are and executive or business owner, is to what degree you are actually willing to condone assholes in your work place.

Sutton refers to a number of studies that describe the damage done to organizations by jerks. They undermine the productivity of a team or organization, cause good people to leave the workplace and in some instances, can put others at physical risk when allowed to continue.

Gary and I are frequently called in to help deal with employees who hold their organizations hostage through their nasty attitude and behavior. At times, these people are in what they perceive to be ‘key’ positions, by their productivity or specialized knowledge. These people are expert at pushing to the very limit of tolerance, using anything up to and including temper tantrums to get their way. What’s an organization to do??

Especially in this climate of reduced resources and economic challenges, business leaders must make the most of every employee to leverage the organization toward success. If you, like Sutton or Kelly, are interested in creating a great place to work where good talent is hired, invested in and grown for its incredible competitive advantage, then the ‘no asshole’ rule is a good one to adopt and keep at zero-tolerance.

© 2008 Ann Ralston and the respective copyright holders.


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