The Problem with Assholes – and Why They Won’t Go Away

Say hello to J. Mike Smith of Back West Inc. J. Mike is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better. Over the past 25 years as a senior business executive, J. Mike has worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Genentech, AT&T, and Visa. We are all but too excited to be able to offer the expertise of such a seasoned vet to you: the readers of THE FIVE!

Stanford University professor Bob Sutton, whose work  I admire, authored the book “The No Assholes Rule.“ Good book, great topic, and some wonderful thoughts about how to work with and / or avoid workplace assholes.

Unfortunately the “rule” doesn’t  work in most firms. And even while asshole behavior is corrosive and cancerous to the effectiveness of most companies, here’s why jerks and assholes will continue to exist in the workplace.

Urban Dictionary defines asshole as “someone being arrogant, rude, obnoxious, or just a total dickhead….” Jerk, which I’ll get to in a second, is characterized as “An idiot or stupid person. An insensitive, selfish, ignorant, cocky person who is inconsiderate and does stupid things.” Jerks and assholes are two peas in the same pod, two words to describe behaviors of some people.

Here are four reasons why the No Assholes Rule often fails:

  1. The boss behaves like an asshole.
  2. The boss has people who he likes a lot who behave like assholes.
  3. There is no common language – no lingua franca – for describing the behaviors within the culture that are considered like those of an asshole.
  4. Firms are unwilling or unable to take on “stars” who behave like assholes.

Sutton uses a quote from a BusinessWeek article on Barclays on his blog from Rick Ricci, CEO of Barclays Capital, to illustrate the use of the No Assholes Rule: “Hotshots who alienate colleagues are told to change or leave. “We have a ‘no jerk’ rule around here,” says Chief Operating Officer Rich Ricci.”

The boss behaves like an asshole

I worked with Rich Ricci when he was the COO at Barclays Global Investors, and liked working with him. So did a number of other people I know. He is smart and hardworking, with a great sense of business vision and understanding of financial markets and organizations. He also has pretty decent humor if would actually engage him, rather than working on the best way to spin a PowerPoint presentation with him. Like most “driver, driver” types, Rich is often impatient, and likes to get things done yesterday. Wilting flowers struggle with Rich.

To work well with the Rich Ricci’s of the world you need to know your stuff, do good work, and be able to take them on full steam. I think executives like Rich can be extremely valuable to propel organizations forward. While I never experienced Rich as an asshole or jerk, hunch is any number of people in what was characterized as the nice, polite and sometimes laissez faire culture at BGI felt assholed by Rich.

Rich for them was a jerk – sort of a Steve Ballmer force in the frequently gentile world of asset management. For me he was a typical hard charging executive. In my experience Rich kept his word, did what he said he was going to do, and apart from one blind spot – outlined below – was a highly effective executive.

The problem is that if you think somebody like Rich behaves like an asshole, it’s tough (absent great exec coaching from somebody like me) to change their behaviors.

The boss hires people he likes who behave like assholes.

Rich had a colleague I’ll call “Victor” he brought along with him from Barclays Capital to BGI. And Victor satisfied many of the list of behaviors that Sutton identifies as asshole behaviors. (See this review by Guy Kawasaki for a full list.)

Victor was generally pleasant to people’s faces, but was a vocal outlier on most discussions in which he had an opinion. If a group thought “black,” he argued for “white.” If the group wanted to go “left,” Victor wanted to go “right.” Victor was “forgetful” – the agreement to do something one day became the forgotten conversation the next. You got along well with Victor if you agreed to whatever he thought; not so well if you took a position different than his. Victor would say one thing to your face, and you’d hear through the back channels that he was saying something different behind your back.

In short, Victor was jerk. The problem was that Rich liked him, and through their association – intentionally or otherwise – gave him air cover to continue to be a jerk.

After getting bounced from Barclays Capital, Rich provided entre for him into BGI. After getting bounced from BGI, Rich parachuted him into Barclays Private Wealth. When I first met a senior HR exec from Barclays Capital and the subject of Victor came up their first words were “I’d love to see what pictures Victor has on Rich.”

In other words, Rich had a blind spot regarding Victor, and Victor used it to his advantage. Rich, by the way, brought one or two other people to BGI with him, and they were outstanding; strong performers who worked well with others.

Victor, on the other hand, was widely viewed as a real stinker.

There is no common language – no lingua franca – or describing the behaviors are like those of an asshole

One man’s junk, as the adage goes, is another man’s treasure. An assertive automobile driver from Boston is described as “road rage” in Honolulu. The point is that unless organizations describe and calibrate behaviors and the value you place on them, short hand descriptions such as “no jerks” or “no assholes” are culturally meaningless.

Here’s an example of a rostering of (appropriate) behaviors which support assertiveness:

  • Takes a stand, even/especially when ideas or proposals are challenged.
  • Expresses self without offense or challenge.
  • Maintains eye contact.
  • Gestures support verbal comments.
  • Moves toward rather than away from challenge, verbally and physically.
  • Timing of comments and ideas facilitates understanding rather than interrupting insensitively.
  • Conveys a positive first impression and conveys confidence and credibility.

And here’s Bob Sutton’s (via Kawasaki)  very helpful list of behaviors that are typical of assholes:

  • Personal insults
  • Invading one’s personal territory
  • Uninvited personal contact
  • Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  • Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
  • Withering e-mails
  • Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  • Public shaming or status degradation rituals
  • Rude interruptions
  • Two-faced attacks
  • Dirty looks

The disconnect for most firms is that they don’t use descriptive behavioral language to call out assholes / jerks. Staying in shorthand mode lets people deal in ambiguity, rather than calling the proverbial spade a spade. When you get explicit with people about behaviors (think “Loyal. trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent” – but with blown out descriptions on what each of those terms looks like when is displayed and evidenced) then you mitigate the amount of ambiguity about which behaviors in your culture are appropriate and valued, and which ones suggest you should look for work elseswhere.

Which leads to the last problem with effectively installing the No Assholes Rule.

Firms are unwilling to take on “stars” who behave like assholes.

If you’re a basketball fan, call it the Kobe Bryant syndrome – if you’re an American professional football fall, the Terrell Owens disorder serves even better. Bobby Knight (now retired collegiate basketball coach), or any number of Hollywood stars (all male, by the way) if you follow entertainment, all come to mind.

The issue? Talented people who have a hard time working with other people. You love ‘em when they’re nice, you hate them when they revert to their more unseemly behaviors. You hate to fire them because you think they are indispensable; like almost all people, they seldom are.

And when these stars misbehave and organizations continue to reward and recognize their behavior with money, fame, more opportunity and/or perks, the rest of the organization dies a little. Credibility suffers. Cynicism blossoms.

The tough thing to do is to fire them a la Sumner Redstone’s dispatching of Tom Cruise. Such a move clearly changes the conversation, and typically organizations just need to do it once to make a point that lasts years. Gutsy, hard, but effective. And you usually just need to do it once.

The problem with assholes and jerks is that over the mid to long run they impair if not disable organizational performance. Great for fire drill, bad for most everything else. And like theparable about the lady and the snake, the issue with stars who behave badly is not if they’ll blow things up, but when.

Cut to the chase: Organizations and firms that want to improve performance can take a simple first step by defining – norming is a better word – the behaviors they want to support, and those that are not appropriate. Good coaching can help both people who behave like assholes who want to change, or people who want to be able to confront and deal with people who are behaving like assholes. It’s not always easy sledding, since there are a least four major obstacles that typically exist.

But then again, no one said being successful would be easy.

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