The Asshole Survival Guide: The Backstory

A few weeks back, the staff at my academic department at Stanford—The Department of Management Science & Engineering—sent me a series of questions to answer for a piece in the alumni newsletter.  Perhaps because I have been in the department for over 30 years, I used it as a chance to not just reflect about the book, but also about my journey from a young assistant professor who only wrote articles for academics to a 60-something professor who is now devoted to applying evidence-based and practical lessons so, as one of my colleagues put it, “work doesn’t have to suck.”  Below is a version of this interview that I edited for Quiet Revolution (with permission from my department). 

How did you become interested in workplace culture? 

The answer is both personal and academic.  Early on, when I was in high school, I was always fascinated by how differently people behaved in different organizations—even when they did more or less the same work.  I grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula, and my main job in high school was at a now defunct restaurant on Ramona Street in Palo Alto called The MBJ Ranch Room (Note to locals: The Old Pro is there now).  Our big competitor was Round Table pizza, and we would visit and talk with them, and it was amazing how much more constrained their jobs were, how strict their rules were, and how closely they were supervised compared to our restaurant.   I think we had more fun, but they had more consistent food and service.  But we had more loyal customers.  

Then, when I went to graduate school at The University of Michigan, my dissertation advisor Bob Kahn was quite interested in organizational norms (which is similar to culture, some academics would say the same thing).  Bob had a lovely definition of organizational norms, something like “Those overarching shalts and shalt nots that, in time, come to permeate organizational members souls.”

I got interested the causes of different organizational norms, or culture if you like, and it run through much of my research, including my writings on scaling with Huggy Rao, where we found that organizations are better able to grow and spread excellence when there is strong agreement about which behaviors are sacred and taboo.  And norms are at the core of a series of studies and conceptual papers I did early in my career with Anat Rafaeli on the expression of emotion in organizational life — we studied how, in many jobs, part of what we are paid for is express certain emotions and stifle others.  That stream of research is the forerunner of The No Asshole Rule, as it is a norm for people, teams, and organizations about which emotions they ought to display and stifle. 

How has the success of The No Asshole Rule affected your work and life?  

Well, it has been weird. I have spent the bulk of my time over the last decade focusing on organizational change and innovation, and leadership.  But that little book— both because of the mild obscenity and universal problem of demeaning and disrespectful behavior— has attracted a lot of attention (many people who know the book don’t know I wrote five books and over 100 articles on other topics).  It’s affected my work in that people constantly tell me stories and ask for advice about how to deal with the jerks in their lives.  

I have tried to answer their all their questions (which isn’t easy) and I keep track of the now huge academic literature on everything related to jerks.  Since I published The No Asshole Rule, at least 200,000 academic papers have been published on pertinent topics such as abusive supervision, workplace bullying, bullies, rudeness, air rage, road rage, and on and on.  And, on a personal level, when I act like jerk—which does happen, as I am human and a fairly emotional one—I feel even worse about it then before I became known as “the asshole guy.”  Now, when I do it, it means (as my friends remind me) that I am being both a jerk and hypocrite! 

What made you want to write The Asshole Survival Guide?

The No Asshole Rule focused on how to build civilized workplaces; it only had one chapter on how to deal with people who leave others feeling demeaned, disrespected, de-energized, and/or oppressed.  While there are some executives and companies that adopted or wanted to adopt the rule that reached out to me (for example, the financial services firm W.R. Baird is proud of its “no assholes policy”), the main response to that book was all those stories that people told me about the jerks in their lives and how they tried to deal with them.  And such stories— which came most often in emails—usually contained a request for help and advice.

I tried to respond to all of them and tried to save them.  I wasn’t sure I was going to write another book, but they came in handy when I did.  The first chapter of the The Asshole Survival Guide is called “8000 Emails” and starts out with examples—ranging from a CEO who felt abused by “boardholes” on his board of directors to a Lutheran pastor who asked advice about dealing with “mean” parishioners who volunteer their time. The rest of the book is devoted to giving the best answers and advice I can muster to people who feel besieged by jerks (either for a brief time or day after day).

I especially emphasize two points as “mental provisioning” for anyone who faces such challenges.  The first is that, yes, there is much evidence that jerks are bad for your health and performance, and a fair amount of evidence about what “defenses” are effective.  Yet, in the real world, asshole problems are so messy and complicated that there is no one-size-fits all strategy or no evidence-based decision tree that everyone can use to tackle their particular challenges.  Asshole survival is a craft, each person needs to develop their own strategy, and while the research and less rigorous sources in the book can help, there are no instant or foolproof strategies.  

The second point is that, because we human beings have limited self-awareness and (especially if you have good mental health) tend to underestimate our weaknesses and errors.  Surveys and other evidence show that many people say they are victims of assholes or have witnessed persistent bullying at work (roughly 50%), but very few people (less than 1%) admit to being workplace bullies.  Those numbers don’t up.  To help counteract such biases—which pretty much all of us suffer from- my advice is “be quick to label yourself as an asshole, and to be slow to label others.” 

Any quick survival tips you’re willing to share?  

Well, for starters, if you feel under siege, where day after day you have a job (or perhaps an important customer) who treats you like dirt, quit (or fire the customer) as fast as you can. But don;t be an idiot about it; plan your getaway in such a manner that you can still pay your bills and protect your reputation.   For less severe asshole problems, or if you are trapped, there are few little tips I like.

One is to use power of physical distance.  With the rise of open offices, this is even more important (As with Susan Cain, I am not a fan of open offices).   There is evidence that if you can get at least 25 feet from the local jerks, it both protects your physical and mental health, and reduces the chances you will become infected with their toxic behavior (there is a lot of evidence that nastiness spreads like the common cold).  I also writeabout the power of “reframing” or “mind tricks that protect your soul.” One of the most powerful is called “temporal distancing,” or imaginary time travel.  The ideas is that when some jerk is driving you crazy, you imagine it is a day, a week, or a year later and you are looking back on it, and it really didn’t last that long or wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed at the time.

Finally, I talk a lot about fighting back in The Asshole Survival Guide.  There are three factors that especially predict how successful you will be at stopping or bringing down a bully. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is whether you—or them— have more formal power (the more powerful they are, the tougher it will be to win).   The second is whether you are fighting back alone or with others, the more allies you have, the more likely you are to win because it is harder to portray you as a lone nut and you also have more power (even against a boss or other powerful person). The third is documentation; keep notes, emails, and social media posts, anything that provides objective evidence that you and your colleagues are in fact being bullied.   

If you are interested in learning more, the Stanford Alumni Association interviewed me for some short videos about how to deal with workplace jerks.  You might want to check them out; there are seven of them, and each is one two or three minutes long. 

Was your writing process different for The Asshole Survival Guide vs. The No Asshole Rule?  How?  Do you find it easier writing about this subject now?  

It was just different.  When I wrote The No Asshole Rule, there was less research (especially rigorous research) and I had a couple hundred emails people sent me (in response to a short 2004 Harvard Business Review piece on the no asshole rule). This time I had the advantage and disadvantage of more material.  But, for better and worse, I am probably happiest when I am alone writing something—especially something long like a book.  The two books that I wrote before The Asshole Survival Guide were longer projects.  Good Boss, Bad Boss probably took me two years to write.  And Scaling Up Excellence (with Huggy Rao) took even longer.  

That said, in some ways the processes for every book I write is the same.  I (or my co-athuor and I) spend a bunch of time gathering material, then we/I develop a rough outline of the book, write a proposal, a publisher agrees to publish book, and then start writing the thing.   Once I get momentum on writing a book, which can take anywhere from a month or two (as in The Asshole Survival Guide) to a several years, I am very disciplined—obsessed is a better word.  For The Asshole Survival Guide, it probably took me six months to figure out how to write a 10,000 word proposal for it, perhaps longer.  Then, once my publisher committed to it, it took perhaps six months (working six or seven days a week) to write the 50,000 or so word book. 

Also, another thing I’ve learned that the writing is only about half the work for a popular book.  There is book promotion, which I like doing.  And a zillion other little things.  For example, I have learned to be especially obsessed and particular about covers.  For this book, I drove my publisher a but crazy, and I also pulled in a lot of people for advice such as David Kelley (founder of IDEO and the Stanford Design Institute) and Elizabeth Gerber (a former doctoral student of mine, now Northwestern, and also a great designer who founded Design for America) to comment on covers—and Gerber even generated some cover concepts.  Ultimately, the designers who worked on the cover (there were at least three) generated more than 25 different concept  ranging from a picture of an employee identification badge for a professional “asshole wrangler,” to a rather abstract and beautiful picture bullfighter and a bull, to a knight in full battle armor sitting in a chair with a laptop. The final design blitz by my publisher generated 31 different variations of the final “Alka-seltzer” cover. That’s design thinking in action!

What’s next?  

I am on sabbatical for the 2017-18 academic year.  Once the promotion blitz for The Asshole Survival Guide is over, my focus will turn to working on  a long-term project with Huggy Rao on organizational friction —what causes bad friction, how to dampen or stop it, and when it is a good thing. We have been working on this topic on and off for the past couple years.  For example, I wrote a short piece for LinkedIn on Why Your Job is Becoming Impossible to Do.  And the most fun and educational effort here is my”Friction Podcast,” an 11-episode season that I hosted this year that was produced by an astounding team the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.  You can find it on iTunes or Soundcloud.   The episodes range for conversations with academics like Huggy Rao and young Stanford hotshot Melissa Valentine, to interviews with industry veterans including Patty McCord (a key architect of the Netflix culture), to a live recording that we did at IDEO’s San Francisco office with Kim Scott, author of the bestseller Radical Candor.  Huggy and I will spend the year figuring out how to make progress on the ‘friction problem” through research, case studies, and conversations with executives and friction fighters.  I am not sure if we are going to write a book, but we may. 

For now, though, I am working on the launch of this new book, so it is all assholes, all the time, for the next month!

I am a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Check out my new“All Things Bob Sutton” site, which includes a place to sign up for a free monthly newsletter, videos, links to my writings, and other goodies. Follow me on Twitter@work_matters and check out my other posts on LinkedIn. My last book (with Huggy Rao) is Scaling Up Excellence. My new book, The Asshole Survival Guide:How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt, will be published September 12th, 2017.