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» Why Are There So Many? from Bob Sutton
An article containing some ideas from The No Asshole Rule appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly last week and was summarized in The Economist. This post is motivated by the question with which The Economist ends its little story: “If jerks cost firms so d... [Read More]

» ...and absolute power is even more fun from Johnnie Moore's Weblog
Bob Sutton reports some intriguing research which appears to support the notion that power corrupts. Two groups of people were given alternative preparatory tasks. One group were asked to think of a time when they had power over others; the... [Read More]

» Innov, already? from Johnnie Moore's Weblog
Here's a suggested experiment for managers: forget about innovation. Lots of people will be horrified at this suggestion, believing it's vital for senior managers to drive innovation in organisations. In my experience, pressure from on high to come up ... [Read More]

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Linda

This website is my stress reducer after dealing with my boss (who rates 17 out of 20 on the BRASS test) and also, dealing with the new responsibilities that I have as a new manager.

I think that when ever I am angry with the last "test", snide remark about my abilities, or just plain stupid decision that he has made that I have to deal with, I will instead focus on how I am letting his behavior effect my treatment of those that report to me.

As mentioned several times on this site, it is easy to become insensitive as a boss and not realize it, even when you are not an asshole. This is a danger even when working for a good boss. It is even more important to focus on avoiding this insensitivity when your are constantly dealing with an asshole.

Petra Taseva

"Are assholes born or made?"
I think everybody has a potential of being an asshole. But, having a different level of awareness,conscience,culture, moral value, makes people being assholes or being nice.

Either way, interesting topic.

Jon Abbas

This book is also available in Russian language.

Ron Gentile

Great topic. I've seen this in action too many times to count. I can also imagine that such a dynamic plays out in romantic relationships when one person has the power for some reason, e.g. he/she is the primary or sole breadwinner.

Murthy

Hi Professor Sutton, a fantastic topic indeed. I think its very important to separate the power hungry phenomenon from the asshole phenomenon. The latter is something that can be observed even amongst those without power - it has more to do with values, perspective, etc. The former is entirely an acquired effect.

My hypothesis is that the effect occurs when the position of power is established through some kind of "rite of passage" - for example, working crazy hours, perhaps paying large amounts of tuition and life balance in grad school, etc. Indeed, the times when I in my own life inadvertently felt "superior" to others, whether I deserved to or not, were times when I really really worked hard for something and felt like I had earned a position of accomplishment or power in a way that those who didn't/couldn't have earned. It isn't just the exclusivity of power, it is the dynamic of having made a very large personal investment and then feeling some sort of entitlement to a return on that investment.

I actually believe that power by itself is a very healthy concept. For example, I think its very important that the President of the United States is pampered, even in a bad economy - because he makes decisions that affect a lot of people and his job is not always fun. Unless we made it fun, no one would want the job. And for all the ills we say of the perks that businesspeople, lawyers, doctors enjoy, I'm sorta glad those perks exist, because these are all professions that take a lot of very specific non-commoditized skill and there should be incentives for people to go through the rigorous training.

The dysfunction occurs when those in power do not have the values and perspective to exercise it correctly - i.e they are assholes as people. So ultimately, I still believe it is not power that corrupts all, but that there are those who are simply more corruptible. What makes them corruptible, I think, is a different area of study.

Bob Sutton

RAE,

Thanks for your extremely thoughtful and detailed comments,and I want to second the emotion on Snakes in Suits, it is a very well-crafted and useful book.

Bob

RAE

This is a fascinating topic and unfortunate reality. Based on several employment experiences reporting to dysfunction organizational leaders (thus dysfunctional companies), I began researching leadership to try to understand the pattern and bizarre experiences. The question I have been seeking to answer is whether people with certain traits are more likely to become leaders or if the leadership position causes one to become ill. When I say ill, I do mean it. The leaders that I have encountered fit the diagnostic descriptions of DMS IV psychiatric disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathic and psychopathic personalities.

Your power perception makes a great deal of sense but I think it is much more complicated than that. These people are dangerous to others, not physically, but psychologically and legally. In extreme forms, they know no bounds. The leaders I have encountered have been very intelligent, held positions of high power, or were protected by those in high places. The prevalence of these troubled people abusing their power in the workplace is absolutely astounding to me. I also have begun to realize that the depth of the problem is only seen by some people. Most people see and experience these leaders' behavior but only recognize the symptoms and don't fully grasp the horror and gravity of their true problems. That is probably a good thing as that is how they remain employed. Readers interested in a recommended book on this topic can check out "SNAKES IN SUITS, When Psychopaths go to work", by Paul Babiak, Ph.D. & Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.

Tonny

Please blog about religion and assholes. I have a mean spirited, but mealy mouthed, female boss who is one of the most evil, bullying bosses I have ever worked for, but she sports a Bible quote on her wall and a sign that says "Mean People Need Not Apply."

She has destroyed careers when it suits her, she badmouths her enemies, who tend to be various people who work under her, she divides the staff into her pals and her targets and rewards her pals when they align with her in defaming the targets.

Did I mention that she is a control freak?


I think she's going to hell.

Anobi

It isn't just having power that can turn people into assholes - wanting power in daily relations can, too. "The Exception" by Christian Jungersen describes this brilliantly - how people supposedly acting to do good can be horribly mean to eachother. I cannot recommend it enough for this description - even though the book later on turns into a action novel.

dblwyo

Well as Stilgar points out the original meaning of the Fremen 'naib' is 'servant of the people'. :). We've known for a long-time what an L5 leader should do - otherwise why would Harun al-Rashid be famous for walking the streets of Baghdad ? But how to train leaders and inculcate that wisdom more frequently is an interesting problem.

If anyone's interested one of the best examples of a Level 6 leader who pursued great goals but enlisted the active support of extremely strong and wilful subordinates is in 'Team of Rivals'.

Closer to home the military seems to do a better job these days by creating great leaders at all levels by emphasing the responsibilities and trusts required for coherence in stressful situations. Perhaps some lessona and techniques that could be adopted in the private sector ?

Thanks for the pointers.

Bob Sutton

Maureen,

I think you have nailed it. We are capable of being demeaning and of being inconsiderate pigs. Being occasional or temporary assholes, the questions are:

1. Are we in a place where people feel safe -- even obligated -- to stop us.

2. Are we the kind of person who others feel safe to send the message to?

3. Are we the kind of person who can hear and learn from the message?

Wally Bock

There are three factors that make it hard to stay realistic, let alone humble, as you climb the ladder of success.

The Reality Distortion Field effect. The higher you go, the more people tell you want you want to hear instead of what you need to hear. Result: You only hear "news" that agrees with you.

The Ass-Kiss Factor. People will jump to do things to please you. "The wish of the commander has the effect of an order." Result: you smallest wishes are instantly gratified.

The Competitive Advantage. Most folks who climb high on the corporate ladder are competitive by nature. Often they're too competitive and need to win all the time, even when discussing things with subordinates. Result: people don't push hard, because you have power over them and you get the idea that you're always right.

Maureen Rogers

And, of course, a side effect of "asshole poisoning" is that the behavior of those vicitimized by it is also poisoned. Consider how us underlings respond to the overly optimistic, risk-taking, vodka-swilling, onion eating, etc asshole boss.We let him/her rant and rage, inwardly rolling our eyes, but we are not as likely to put our ideas, suggestions, warnings forth as strongly as we would if we were working for a non-asshole. Afterwards, we mutter, moan, or laugh about bad behavior, ignore or execute stupid orders, etc. But decisions and results are unlikely to be as effective as they would be if the head person were not an asshole.

(on the other hand, as you have often observed, even a non-asshole is capable of an occasional lapse - like cookie hogging and chewing with your mouth open - but with one of these occasional assholes, you can call them on their behavior, and the atmosphere is not poisoned.)

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