Earlier this week, I was teaching a class on evidence-based management to a group of electronics executives in the AEA/Stanford Executive Institute. I talked a bit about the no asshole rule in class. This provoked a rowdy conversation during the session, which restarted with a smaller group after the class officially ended. The best story was told to us by a software executive named Bill (his real name, but I’ll omit other details), who described the asshole management technique used by Marge (also her real name), his former boss at the company. Bill described how Marge uses a four-point system (ranging from 0 to 3) to rate the degree to which a person is acting like an asshole.
Bill told and showed us how, in the middle of a meeting, Marge would sometimes point at someone, and hold up three fingers to communicate that (at least for the moment) he or she was being too nasty and needed to calm down, and how –- because Marge was so well-respected and they all understood the system -- such signals had an instant and powerful effects.
Well, since we had this discussion with Bill in Thursday, I've exchanged pretty detailed e-mails with Marge and Bill, and she has given me permission to share her system with others. And as you will see, Marge has a very sophisticated system, and there are times when she believes that being more rather less of an asshole is necessary. Unfortunately, I think she is right.
In her own words, this is Marge’s scale:
0 = You are a very nice person, and very passive. No one can say a word against you, and would never think to call you an asshole.
1 = You are a normal person who can occasionally assert yourself on an issue you are passionate about, but you handle yourself in a non-confrontational way in nearly all occasions.
2 = You can consistently assert yourself in a non-confrontational way and are occasionally an asshole, but you feel horrible about it afterwards, and you may or may not apologize (but you probably will have to confess your remorse to someone).
3 = You can consistently be an asshole and you either do not recognize this or you simply enjoy it.
Your rating fluctuates and you can use this rating to manage people to different effect. For example, at [our company] Marge has signaled to me in meetings that I was meeting a 2.5 or a 3, which indicated to me that I should tone things down. (I was usually around a 1, for the record, which was considered acceptable) Others have been labeled a 0.5 or lower, and were told they needed to manage their average rating up closer to 1.
Marge and Bill added that she originated this system in her old company where, often, she had to signal to her people that more nastiness was required to avoid being trampled by others because it was not a nice place. In Marge’s words:
The system originated at another Silicon Valley company that had a far more confrontational and abrasive culture. Political survival demanded that people be consistently a 2.0 and sometimes a 2.5. I had a number of 0.5's on my team and we were all concerned that we were getting battered and beaten by teams that consisted of 3.0's.
I couldn’t make up stuff this good if I tried.
- This system fascinates me because it helps me understand why the word “asshole” rather than the milder “bully” or “jerk” is so important to use: This is the word that people actually use to think about, talk about, and in Marge’s case, manage this behavior. The other words may mean nearly the same thing, but simply lack the emotional punch that goes with it.
- It shows that the degree to which people are, and need to be, assholes are heavily determined by the organization they live in. If the culture is really nasty, you may need to do it to survive, and even if you don’t want to do it, I would add, it is a disease you will probably catch from your colleagues.
- I wish that being an asshole was never necessary, but as I discuss in my chapter on “The Virtues of Assholes,” there are times when it is necessary for survival, and even desirable, at least in the short-term.
- If you work in a place that is knee-deep in assholes, and you don’t want to turn into one or feel forced to act like one every day, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get out. Note that Marge is at a nice place now, and uses her system to help calm people down rather than to crank them-up. This lesson is consistent with what I’ve seen other places, and is one of the main points in my chapter on keeping the inner jerk that lurks in all of us from rearing its ugly head.
Finally, I want to thank Marge and Bill for telling me all about this system, letting me tell you about it, and for writing much of this blog.