The No Asshole Rule

No Asshole RuleI recently had the chance to take an entertaining and enlightening class from Bob Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University and author of the book “The No Asshole Rule.” By Professor Sutton’s definition, workplace assholes are employees who deliberately make co-workers feel bad about themselves and who are openly aggressive to others who have less power. Not surprisingly, Sutton’s research shows that workplace assholes are detrimental to businesses. His unequivocal solution: get rid of them.

The book makes the point that all of us have some traits of workplace assholes and provides a 24-item self-test with true/false items such as the following:

  • Sometimes you just can’t contain your contempt toward the losers and jerks in your workplace.
  • You have the feeling that people are always very careful about what they say around you.
  • You secretly enjoy watching other people suffer and squirm.

Not long after the book was published, well-known blogger Guy Kawasaki renamed the test ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam) and put the survey on-line. Since then, more than 220,000 people have completed it with a mean score of 6.7. According to the on-line survey, a score of 5-10 is described as a borderline certified asshole, suggesting that “the time has come to start changing your behavior before it gets worse.” A lot of us seem to fall into this category.

Before we assume that there is a disproportionate number of difficult employees in the workplace, we need to remember we can’t know how many people have completed the test for themselves or for others. In addition, there has been lots of research that show that self-assessments have scale bias. As such, we shouldn’t worry about the exact scores.

During our class, Professor Sutton explained that the test was not intended to be precise and was best used to provoke awareness of difficult behaviors. He pointed out that the book contained suggested remedies for each behavior and methods for dealing with them in others. We debated whether a “certified asshole” would ever take the test themselves and therefore whether the test could really create awareness.

It was a spirited debate that was never really resolved. However, Professor Sutton suggested a very simple question that would serve as a reasonable proxy for the survey:

Do people feel more or less energized after talking to you?

It’s a great way to test your impact on those around you; if you’re reducing energy, you might be exhibiting workplace asshole behavior. I encourage you to ask yourself this question at the end of every day. I do.

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20 Responses to The No Asshole Rule

  1. Oski April 6, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    “Do people feel more or less energized after talking to you?”

    It’s kind of hard to answer that question. You can not really tell what other people are feeling with any degree of accuracy.

    What I do like about Bob Sutton’s advice is how to deal with assholes; get away from them (fire them if they work for you or get another job if you work for them…one more option would be to convert them but good luck with that!).

    In my experience, assholes are never worth the trouble no matter what other sterling qualities they may have(and I have met some really talented assholes in my time)

  2. Peyton Farquhar April 6, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    Who are these people **who still have jobs** and apparently have so much on their hands that their primary concern at the office is to make others lives miserable?

  3. Robert E April 7, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    You know, it’s a little like driving during rush hour. Those awful drivers, rude and arrogant, are easy to spot. Often times, we don’t recognize our own occasional bad behavior, even if we are not the poster child for being a SOB while driving.

    The worst thing about this — just like at work — it’s those good drivers, the courteous, polite drivers, that never get recognized.

    It’s good to have someone like Bob Sutton to remind all of the “drivers” that there may be some necessary review of our own behavior.

    Too bad we don’t talk more about the people who don’t have bad attitudes or ego problems and create that atmosphere that helps make it a better day working,jerks notwithstanding.

  4. IDM Team April 14, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Jonathan, after reading about ARSE, the IDM team would like to offer our services. If you can get a representative data set, we are happy to do an analysis to determine if we have a statistically significant propensity for non-ARSEs at SAP and what the dependent and independent variables are that influence that score. We could break it down by further dimensions, too, if you needed. Let us know. You know how to find us.

  5. Scott G April 29, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Try the following test: Think about all the bosses you’ve ever had and rank them as good or bad (or medium if you must). I will bet my shirt that all the good bosses gave you energy after interactions most of the time and the reverse was true for bad bosses. The test of giving or taking energy proves more than whether you’re an a–hole, it is the singlemost reliable litmus test of whether you are a good boss

  6. Jonathan June 13, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    Good to see that this post stirred up so many responses. Bob Sutton had that reaction in all of us during the class. I agree this litmus test is one of the simplest — and perhaps most compelling — ones that you can apply. As for turning over the data to analyze, I don’t have that luxury. If Guy is reading this, maybe he’ll accomodate us.

  7. Anne August 1, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    Just found this post. Sutton’s basic idea about not permitting bad behavior is great; however, it sounds like he doesn’t understand the complexity of what causes that behavior in the workplace and how it can become nearly impossible to trace who the instigator really is and who permits the behavior to continue. Most often, I believe that whether it’s controlled comes down to the skill of the manager. I saw this first-hand when working in what should have been a congenial small group… the unskilled and paranoid manager allowed herself to be manipulated by one power seeker, and pretty soon the entire group had adopted bad behaviors as coping mechanisms–myself included. It was mayhem, and finally destroyed the organization.

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