Admitting You’re an Asshole is the First Step

I have just finished reading The No Asshole Rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD. Dr. Sutton uses 2 questions to test whether someone fits the description:

  1. After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  2. Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

I was surprised to find that when I applied this test to various people I have worked with over the years that they fit the description more than I would had thought. I recognized many former co-workers in the stories that Dr.Sutton shares in the book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Research shows that assholes are everywhere.

Bad for business

The main point to take away from the book is that assholes are bad for business. Organizations are much more productive when they are not wasting energy dealing with these people. To start with 20-30% of an organization’s workforce is likely to leave the job to get away from the jerk. That doesn’t include the time spent dealing with, recovering from an attack by, or avoiding the person. There is also the opportunity costs that are lost when the employees in an organization spend more time covering their asses than doing their work or coming up with new ideas. In short, organizations can’t afford to hire assholes.

What about me

For the individual, the message of the book is that we all potentially meet Dr. Sutton’s criteria, some of us may temporary assholes, while others are permanent. Sutton’s advice to avoid falling into this category is to “treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” It sounds easy, but as Dr. Sutton points out, assholishness is a communicable disease. When you work with assholes, it is easy to start acting like one. If behaving like an insensitive jerk is rewarded, the temptation will be strong to act like one. And if the people around you are acting that way, then it can look normal. It is important to keep on your guard, so that you don’t join their ranks. You can check to see if you are a “Certified Asshole”.


Framing is one technique that Dr. Sutton offers to avoid becoming an asshole. To not catch the disease, Sutton suggests that you resist the urge to frame situations as “I win, you lose”. The book gives examples of how framing a situation in a certain way can influence the outcome. When people are told that they are in a competition, they are more like to act like competitive jerks. Another example that Sutton gives is an experiment where one group was told that they were playing the “Community Game” and the other was told it was playing the “Wall Street Game”. People who were playing the “Community Game” were noticeably more cooperative.

This got me thinking about past jobs and people who were always trying to make the library “run more like a business”. I started to think about how does this frame impact how people work together? Why are these people interested in the re-framing the workplace? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of business processes that libraries should adopt. And there may even be aspects of running the library that should be framed in business terms. But I think most of “be more business-like” crowd want to bring competition into the workplace. I’m sure that many would not even dispute that. The problem is that we are not in competition, especially not with one another, and, as Dr. Sutton points out, competition in the workplace breeds assholes.

So, why do some people want to frame the library as a business? They could really believe that there is something to be gained by being more business-like. In fact, there could. But as I read The No Asshole Rule I couldn’t help thinking that many of these people were trying to frame the workplace in way that would benefit them. That these people were trying to spread their poison. Maybe I am being too hard on them. Maybe they came from places that were more business-like or just lousy with assholes. But most of these people never have a real plan for bringing business processes to the library. Too often, they seem to want to create a workplace where it is OK to belittle and harangue their co-workers when they don’t get what they want.

The No Asshole Rule

Life is too short to spend it with assholes. Life is also too short to be an asshole. Dr. Sutton’s book is plea to implement a No Asshole Rule, where they are not allowed in the workplace or if they are in the workplace, that they are contained. We can’t control what other people do, but we can enforce the rule by not being one ourselves. We can also work to keep them from being hired. If they are already in the workplace, we can punish their behavior and to isolate them. But if you are dealing with them in your workplace, there may be little you can do beyond trying to not be one yourself.


One thought on “Admitting You’re an Asshole is the First Step

  1. I just Googled “admitting you’re an asshole” and came here. I’ve read the book review on Amazon for this work by Sutton. I don’t know what to say about the book or its main premise. Maybe he’s addressing the symptoms and not the cause though? My point being that almost ALL workplaces copy the military hierarchical pyramid scheme: the chain of command goes from the very top CEO down to the lowest level admin assistant. When there is greed for money and big profits coming from the person above you (as is the dominant theme of all businesses), this is a fecund arrangement for creating asshole-ish behavior. In fact, the higher up the corporate chain of command you go, the more likely you will encounter a total asshole. It makes sense because the more greedy, driven, and power-hungry you are, the more likely you will be a corporate manager. If you are nice and accommodating, depending on the work environment you may be seen as a loser, a doormat, etc. Which sucks and is unfair. What I’m saying is that our free market, capitalist, corporate system naturally, and inherently begets assholes, and fosters an “asshole mentality” in all of us. Think about it: look at the GOP, look at Republicans: their colloquial slogan is “got mine, fuck you”. That’s very assholish, isn’t it? Look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney…each of these CEOs/corporate moguls were super-sized assholes. Think about it: Apple Computer, which has more accumulated billions than most nation states, got to that point by a man, Steve Jobs who was an infamous asshole to work with. To sum up my point: trying to get rid of assholes in a profit hungry, top-down quasi military chain of command work environment such as we have is impossible because the social dynamics tend to create them and even promote them.

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