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Al Sacco


My name is Al Sacco and I'm a writer with We recently assembled a handy guide to boss relations, and I thought I'd share with you and your readers. Though aimed mostly at the IT exec, the guide also includes valuable insights for non-tech staffers, including articles on how to tell your boss you're overworked, how to read his facial expressions--or anyone else's--and a piece on how to tell you're about to get fired.

Peter Blackmore

In my consultantcy practice I'm constantly running into a**holes in the ranks of management. What is very troubling, however, is that the incidence of assholes in management is growing at an alarming rate. In recent years I have been struggling to find a solution - or at least an explanation - to dealing with assholes.

The book "Antipatterns: Refactoring Software, Architectures, and Project in Crisis" (1998, Wiley) took a stab at the issue. Antipatterns are negative patterns of behaviour that result in failure. The failure could be software failure, project failure, organizational failure.
Management antipatterns "...describe how software projects are impaired by people issues, processes, resources, and external relationships." A personality type central to the management antipattern is that of the "Corncob": a difficult
person who causes problems through destructive behaviour throughout the enterprise. The authors ascribe avarice, pride, and narrow-mindedness as root causes of the Corncob's behaviour.
The trail of psychological and organizational destruction Corncobs leave in their wake is incredible; the amount of money wasted staggering. To characterize Corncob behaviour as "negative" seems ridiculous understatement; these people are sociopaths.

"Antipatterns" is one of a very few books that attempts to categorize and describe sociopathic behaviour in an organization, and to propose solutions. I have read many recent books in the popular press on conflict resolution, facilitation, negotiation, etc., but in these books there is always an underlying assumption that negative or destructive behaviour is unintentional, a result of stress, time pressure, or some other factor or mix of factors. Despite what these books assume, my personal experience is that there are people out there, in management positions, who are arrogant, duplicitous, selfish, manipulative, petty, narrow-minded, obsessively controlling - all the negative traits - and perhaps pardoxically combine these traits with a level of ignorance, irrationality, and incompetence that is truly incomprehensible. The personality traits of the Corncob appear inate, and cannot be ascribed to work-related factors.

What I find completely bewildering, however, is the fact that the majority of senior management cannot seem to recognize this destructive behaviour, often because they put themselves in the position of being supplied information by the Corncob him- or herself.
An extreme example, here in Canada, was the Radwanski affair. George Radwanski, former Privacy Commissioner, was eventually fired and charged after what was described as a "Reign of Terror" at Canada's Privacy Commission. His treatment of staff was both shocking and appalling. Amazingly, it took the combined courage of individual whistleblowers, an investigation by Canada's Auditor General, and a public mutiny by the entire staff to force senior public servants and legislators to step in an put a stop to it.
The willful blindness and reluctance to act on the part of senior management is the most troubling aspect of the Corncob phenomenon.

In an effort to understand this phenomenon I looked to the study of organizational behaviour and the practice of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology. I have admittedly only begun to look at these disciplines, but thus far I have been very disappointed to discover that I/O psychcology's major focus was on workers; the behaviour of management, and the consequences to the organization and its people, appear to be largely ignored. The underlying
assumption appears to be that management are rational and competent; it must be the negative behaviour of the workers that lead to sub-optimal performance. I would welcome comment from I/O psychologists to correct my perception, if it is indeed erroneous.

My own working hypothesis is that a major factor contributing to the growing number of assholes in the ranks of management is that many managers have been incapable of making the shift from an industrial-era hierarchical, command-and-control business model to the flatter, open, and collaborative model demanded by the knowledge economy. Many of today's managers cut their teeth in the 80s and early 90s, when the information age was in full swing but the mindsets of the industrial era still held sway. Today, with the relentless advance of information technology and the impact of gobalization, industrial-era management mindset is rapidly becoming obsolete and is so misaligned with the new economy that it is, in fact, both counter-productive and destructive.
The above hypothesis, however, looks at an external factor contributing to asshole behaviour. I suspect that our western culture is breeding assholes, but I haven't reflected on this sufficiently to form a theory.

Overall, it is very saddening to see good people trapped in disfunctional organizations that are heavily influenced by Corncobs. The common advice is: "If you don't like it, find another job." Given the preponderance of assholes, this
advice is both simplistic and unrealistic. People know that their odds of finding a position with an organization free of some degree of sociopathic management is perhaps 40- or 50-to-1. "Better the devil you know..."


The description of assholes seems similar to that of a sociopath. Is there an appreciable difference?

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