Monday, October 15, 2007

The No *Jerk* Rule

Good managers already know this. Tenure makes it even more difficult, however. From Cliopatria:

The No Asshole Rule

Abridged and Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age

Over vacation I read a book I bought earlier this year: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, by Robert I. Sutton. I'd picked it up strictly on the basis of the eye-catching title, the fact that the author was an apparently well respected professor of management science at Stanford University, and a couple of paragraphs from the introduction:

I first heard of "the no asshole" rule more than fifteen years ago, during a faculty meeting at Stanford University. Our small department was a remarkably supportive and collegial place to work, especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life. On that particular day, our chairman Warren Hausman was leading a discussion about who we ought to hire as a new faculty member.

One of my colleagues proposed that we hire a renowned researcher from another school, which provoked another to say, "Listen, I don't care if that guy won the Nobel Prize. . . . I just don't want any assholes ruining our group." We all had a good laugh, but then we started talking in earnest about how to keep demeaning and arrogant jerks out of the group. From that moment on, when discussing whether to hire faculty, it was legitimate for any of us to question the decision by asking, "The candidate seems smart, but would this hire violate our no asshole rule?" And it made the department a better place.

I found this passage arresting because it spoke to my own profession, academe. The book as a whole, however, focuses on the business world -- a world in which, to be sure, I was immersed full time for several years between my undergraduate and graduate studies, to say nothing of many part-time jobs during high school and college.

Sutton's basic thesis is that the presence in a given organization of even a few assholes can poison its culture and easily cost the organization several hundred thousand dollars a year: because of employees who get fed up with the asshole and quit, thereby obliging the organization to pay the cost of hiring and training replacements; reduced productivity on the part of employees who remain; the cost of the extra time managers must devote to supervising the asshole, doing damage control, etc.; the cost of dealing with sexual discrimination and harassment complaints; and the cost incurred when assholes damage the culture to the point where employees are no longer willing to "go the extra mile" for the organization -- what Sutton calls "discretionary investment."

The trouble is, most organizations do not really perceive these costs. As Sutton's opening vignette suggests, in academe an asshole is tolerated because she or he is considered a "star" who brings prestige to a given department: the Nobel laureate his department rejected was undoubtedly courted assiduously by many others. In business an asshole is tolerated because she or he generates a lot of revenue. And of course, many assholes of rather ordinary ability are tolerated simply because too many of us are conflict averse and have no idea how to confront an asshole -- particularly since many assholes actually revel in personal conflict.

We know assholes when we see them, but Sutton proposes two useful tests to determine whether someone is acting like an asshole:

Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?

Nobody likes an asshole. But as Sutton's book documents, too many business organizations lack effective policies for dealing with assholes. (The challenge is especially difficult in academic organizations, where assholes are, for the most part, bomb proof because of the lifetime job security that is tenure.) Yet solutions to the workplace asshole problem do exist. It's a matter of whether an organization is willing to face th
e problem and take determined steps to address it.

For more on the No Asshole Rule, see this brief article.

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