I just got off the phone with executives from an unnamed large company who are thinking about implementing a "no jerk rule." I am, of course, a big fan of this idea. And there are organizations that have such rules and the implement them effectively, such as Baird, the financial services firm.
But I think they were a bit taken aback by how vehement I was about the dangers of just plastering the words everywhere, and not following it with the real work of implementing The No Asshole Rule (and, of course, this applies to any other norm in the organization... we wrote a lot about this in The Knowing-Doing Gap). I wanted to know if the reward and prestige systems already supported the rule, and if not, how they were going to change things. I wanted to know if the senior executives already modeled the right behavior, and if not, was something being done to make sure they changed their behavior. I wanted to know if there were known assholes in visible positions, and if there were, was something going to be done to change their behavior or send them packing --to signal that the words were not hollow.
As with all norms, the espoused beliefs don't mean much unless they are backed by what people do -- especially during the little moments. Google is an interesting case in point. Although they are imperfect like every human organization, it remains a civilized place because, as one senior executive explained to me years ago, "it isn't efficient to be an asshole here." That is a sign to me that the norm is working, and all the strategy and product stuff aside, it is impressive they seem to have sustained this norm despite their size and the relentless performance pressures.
To return to the dangers of hollow rhetoric: It is especially destructive when it comes to the no jerk or or no asshole rule. When organizations say it, but don't do it, when it does not constrain and describe how people act -- and no serious efforts are being made to begin implementing the norm -- the result is that double-whammy: Leaders are seen as both assholes and hypocrites.