That is the message
that Diego of Metacool fame sent to
alert people at IDEO that my talk was
starting. I gave my first talk on The
No Asshole Rule there last week to 75 or so people, which included people who work at IDEO, and a bunch of "friends of IDEO" like family members and people from other companies.
As Tom Kelley (author of The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation) and I were discussing before the talk started, developing a talk about a book that holds the audience and makes sense usually requires multiple iterations –-just because you write a book doesn’t mean you can give a good talk about it. I was lucky to have such a smart and forgiving audience for my first talk, as they were supportive but kept oh so politely pushing the ideas further.
I got dozens of great suggestions and strange ideas. Several themes stick in my mind. The first – which my host Scott Underwood and others raised several times – is that there is an important difference between people who are “intentional” and “unintentional” assholes. The consensus seemed to be that more forgiveness, patience, and understanding is in order when people travel through life in a clueless state, and need help learning how they make other’s feel. The consensus also was, in contrast, that certified assholes who demean others on purpose, and who do it because they believe it enables them get ahead at other’s expense, or to simply feel superior to others, deserve little if any sympathy -- and that such bullies ought to be punished and banished. This sounds right to me.
The second theme was about the definition of “asshole.” We had a lot of discussion how these creeps are similar or different from “narcissists,” “jerks,” “bitches,” “bullies” and other labels for people who often leave a trail of damaged people in their wakes. I was a psychology major for 11 years, but I confess, I wasn’t always able to explain exactly why – from a purely logical perspective – I liked the word “asshole” best. I’ve been fretting about this, and I am taking at least temporary comfort in two thoughts. The first is that The No Asshole Rule –- although evidence-based in many ways –- was really motivated by my first and deepest reaction to people who treat me badly and make me feel worse about myself and de-energized. I don’t think “Wow, what a bully” or “Wow, what a narcissist.” I think “Wow, what an asshole.” I am clearly not alone in this initial sentiment. I don’t think that Diego’s announcement would have been nearly as interesting –- or as funny –- if it was “Narcissist talk in the now in café.” So, in large part, I wrote the book to find ways to reduce how often and deeply that gut reaction happens in every workplace – including my own.
My other thought is that –- although researchers in the behavioral sciences pretend that they can come up with precise definitions of human traits and actions –- what humans do is so messy and varied that there are always grey areas and overlaps with other terms. I have no idea how to define “love” (although I think I know it when I feel it) and am not quite sure I can define the word “organization” either (even though I’ve spent much of my adult life studying and writing about them). I take some comfort that the opening pages of the classic 1958 book Organizations by James G. March and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, which acknowledged how hard it was to define the word “organization,” sidestepped the question, and provided a list of examples of organizations like the Red Cross and General Motors instead. It is the same thing with assholes: Drawing the firm dividing line between an “asshole” and a “non-asshole” isn’t easy, but I know one when I see one. And although I do offer a definition of workplace assholes, I also realize that the world is messy and that it will overlap with lots of other concepts.
No matter what concept I pick to describe these demeaning people, the definition will be flawed, like all social science concepts. So at least I’ve picked a term that feels right to me, and apparently, a lot of other people too.
The third theme was about my assertion that assholes tend to focus their demeaning actions on people with less rather than more power than themselves. People in the audience and at dinner pushed me on this to the point quite intelligently, and presented examples of assholes who were peers and even subordinates. I've been thinking about this a lot. I still believe that the ways a person treats powerless people is an excellent test of human character. And research on psychological abuse and bullies does show that the majority of workplace assholes operate through the “kick-down and kiss-up” approach.
BUT it also makes sense that, in organizations where there are lots of people with a medium amount of power (partnerships and academia come to mind, along with any organization that has a “flat” hierarchy), that the potential for “peer-on-peer” abuse rises. I am a huge fan of pushing control and decision-making authority down as low into the organization as possible (see Jeff Pfeffer’s Human Equation for evidence to support the business case), but the fact is that the more people you “empower,” the more potential there is for people to use their authority to inflict evil against each other– including teasing and putting-down others.
Finally, one person described an organization that he had worked at where, although management had the power –- in theory – to discipline and fire demeaning subordinates, they were simply too afraid of these “asshole underlings” to take them on. I guess the upshot is upshot is that, if you have the power to get rid of assholes, but don’t have the courage to use it, it is the same as having no power at all.