The Asshole Trade-Off


The Asshole in the Room

It is dangerous to mix metaphors*, but I’m going to do it anyway. The asshole in the workplace has long been (and still are to a large degree) the elephant in the room.
There is a lot of attention for employee engagement, 360 degree feedback, coaching and development replacing conventional performance management and so on. But few dare to mention that some people at work are simply insensitive douchebags. You can do what you like to improve engagement, give constructive feedback or help employees to grow. If they have to work with assholes it’ll have little effect.

The No Asshole Rule

Few people or are more expert in the field of the workplace asshole than Bob Sutton, a professor of Management Science at Stanford University. And none have done more than he has to put assholes on the agenda, so to speak.
In 2007 he published The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t – probably still, 10 years on, the management book with the most straight-talking title. He doesn’t apologize in the least for using a term that might offend some sensitive folk. Euphemisms like “jerk” and “bully” just don’t capture the true effect of such people.
The book advocates keeping assholes out of the workplace. Simply don’t recruit them, or, if they’re there already, get rid of them. People choose to be assholes, and there is no good reason to tolerate them in the workplace. When I first read the book I thought it was pretty clear that the No Asshole Rule was a straightforward solution to the problem of assholes at work.


Life is not so simple, of course. Sure, some people are just obnoxious and selfish, and have no regard for the effect of their behaviour on others. Some might even enjoy annoying those around them, or treat them like dirt because they believe it’s going to help them progress. Losing such people does not just deliver a net benefit, it has no discernible downside.
But sometimes assholes do force trade-offs. Imagine that one of the stars in a professional services firm brings in business worth millions of pounds, but is also a patent asshole. Getting rid of them would put a big dent in the revenue. How much should a company be willing to sacrifice to enforce a strict ‘No Assholes’ rule?
And there is an even more problematic group of assholes. Maybe some people are not just productive assholes. What if their productivity is a direct result of their being an asshole?

Ritchie Blackmore & Steve Jobs

This thought occurred to me when I was watching The Ritchie Blackmore Story, about the legendary guitarist with Deep Purple and Rainbow. A very single-minded guy, he determined at an early age that he was going to become the best guitar player he could be. More relevantly, he had a reputation for unceremoniously firing musicians from the band who didn’t meet his standards. He was notoriously bad-tempered, and showed little or no regard to other people’s feelings. His practical jokes include almost blowing up the stage at California Jam in 1974 and causing damage worth $10,000 to a camera. (This was just to upstage rival band Emerson, Lake and Palmer.) One day, Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet once appeared on stage with short-cropped hair (instead of the customary flowing locks for metal band members). Blackmore admits to having been sorely tempted to “put his guitar across [Bonnet’s] head”.
Top scores in the asshole stakes. But perhaps it was precisely by being an asshole that he could make sure the people in his band were there because they were good, not because they were nice guys. Maybe he was able to entertain his fans better than if he had been a nice, even-tempered dude like Cliff Richard. He was in a band not for the girls, for the money, or for fame, but for the music. And the music was very probably a lot better because he was an asshole. Is that worth the trade-off?
Seeing Ritchie Blackmore as a creative asshole also made me think of Steve Jobs. He was the visionary behind superb products, but was widely regarded as an asshole. Would Apple have been able to produce the MacBook Air, the iPhone or the iPad had he been a regular, friendly guy?

Assholes are unavoidable

The ‘No Asshole’ rule is an excellent aspirational guideline, but often it cannot be applied categorically. The real world is a matter of trade-offs, and assholes are generally no exception. Sometimes the benefit they bring outweighs their assholery. Sometimes their assholery is even essential for that benefit.
It looks like Bob Sutton’s new book actually reflects that recognition. The Title ‘The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt’ – implicitly concedes that we have to accept that assholes at work are an unavoidable fact of life.
But while we may need to accept assholes, that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to take assholery lying down. I’m sure Professor Sutton’s new book will help us not just survive, but thrive, even when there are assholes around. I certainly look forward to reading it.
*: I am using the word ‘asshole’ metaphorically – people are not literally assholes 🙂