Let me begin by apologizing for the use of a profanity in this column, but I must admit that in this specific context it is more expressive than any other word in the English language for describing a certain kind of boss or co-worker that everyone can relate to. I’m of course talking about someone who is known to his or her colleagues for their singular, and quite effective, ability to poison any environment they enter by their nasty, demeaning, obnoxious, embarrassing abuse of authority or power (sometimes even physical power) as an asshole. Of course we don’t call them by this name to their face, but that is how we think of them and how many of us refer to them in their absence—usually after they are just out of hearing-range.
This article is meant as a reality check for all of us who are extremely busy, are in positions of authority and have a very high opinion of ourselves. Now, some of us will read on to find out how we measure up to the highest rating, “Certified Asshole”, and others will no doubt find a copy of this article hiding under something on your desk, surreptitiously inserted into your briefcase, purse, or any other place that someone can leave it for you without being noticed. Just as certain medical specialists are called on for the treatment of certain particular areas of the body, executive coaches are often called upon to diagnose and treat conditions that bear a striking resemblance—in name only of course—to their biological analogue.
All too infrequently an author touches a nerve so directly, so deeply, with such clarity, intensity, efficiency of words and common sense that I feel compelled to share their work with my readers. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University, is just such a book—a must-read for anyone who is, or aspires to be, a leader who moves people to achieve superior results in the workplace.
Doctor Sutton’s book is a shining beacon of plain-spoken truth about an aberration of not only leadership and power, but of human decency and inter-personal competence and, while it’s sure to make many feel quite uncomfortable, it is an excellent diagnostic tool for Boards of Directors, CEOs, investors, managers and employees who are wondering why their businesses are not performing as well as they could be.
To be sure, this is no laughing matter, and when you begin to add up the costs and negative impact these people have on a business, you will begin to put this very common and pervasive problem in its proper perspective.
First of all, how do we identify this personality type? To paraphrase Tolstoy: “All good leaders are alike, but each asshole is an asshole in his own special way.” However, Dr. Sutton enlightens us with some things that, in his view, all assholes have in common:
1) They consistently leave others demeaned or de-energized, especially those who have less power.
2) They are less sensitive to the needs of others
3) Their primary focus is on their own needs and,
4) They become increasingly less considerate of appropriate social norms and behavior.
When you consider that the projected cost to the global economy of workers who work for people like this is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, as verified by the Gallup Organization recently, one begins to take notice of the toxic impact these people can have on a business. To complicate the issue, these personality-types are usually very good at “communicating upward”, or ingratiating themselves to their bosses, boards, investors—pick your favorite stakeholder—so they can be, quite intentionally, difficult to diagnose before it becomes too late.
Here’s another bit of research that I think you might find interesting. David Dunning, Professor of Social Psychology at Cornell University, recently concluded research which indicates that “The most deeply incompetent people consistently make the most self-inflated assessments of their abilities.”
So, please allow me to return to the original question: Are you one? According to Dr. Sutton’s research, those of you who are not are most likely to make the following statement, “I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.” This is the beginning of the journey to leadership excellence—self-awareness.