Thursday, March 15, 2007


The No Asshole Rule

Robert Sutton – co-author of Evidence-Based Management, and one of the smarter business writers out there – has a new book with the undeniably catchy title The No Asshole Rule. Drawing on some systematic research and a bevy of anecdotes, he makes the case – admittedly, with some fuzziness – that assholes are drags on productivity. He cites cases in which companies have tolerated assholes for many years, on the grounds that they're star performers, but when they finally lost patience and dumped the prima donna, everybody else's productivity rose.

Intuitively, it sounds right. Heaven knows, I've worked in settings in which toxic bosses created such horrible work environments that time and effort that could have gone into productive work instead went into boss-evasion, CYA blame-shifting, and various no-value-added internal politics. Replacing bosses like that with bosses whose focus is on the right things can't help but improve the organization.

Sutton also isolates, again correctly, an easy asshole test. Does the person “kiss up and kick down”? If so, you've got an asshole on your hands. (Easy applications: at lunch, how does the candidate treat the waiter? Before the interview, how does the candidate treat the secretary?)

A 'no asshole rule' is a great idea at the point of hiring. It's safe to assume that most people, most of the time, are on their best behavior at job interviews. (There are exceptions, but it's a decent default assumption.) If even the best behavior is grating, you can bet safely that the longer-term behavior will be horrible. Most folks are capable of short-term masking, of course, but if they can't even manage that, run away.

Sutton also notes that assholery is contagious. If an organization starts to promote and reward me-first behavior, then those whose inclinations are in that direction will rise to the top. Those who could go either way will adjust to the prevailing winds, and also become cretinous. It doesn't take very many bad apples to spoil the barrel. So the cost of tolerating assholes escalates, as they gradually poison every well around them.

A few easy critiques suggest themselves. Certainly, assholery is, to some degree, in the eye of the beholder. That's another way of saying that hiring requires judgment calls, which it obviously does. Different people define acceptable behavior differently, and we all have blind spots and pet peeves. And it's certainly true that codes of expected behavior have racialized, gendered, and culturally-specific elements that can lead to false negatives. (Example: in some cultures, the 'warm oatmeal' handshake is considered acceptable. I find it creepy, but there you go.)

(From a bureaucratic perspective, it's also the case that assholery of a particular sort – racial slurs, sexist comments – can easily form the basis to dismiss a candidate. But equal-opportunity jerkiness doesn't trigger the same level of scrutiny. The wisdom of the distinction, I leave to the reader.)

Those critiques all have some validity, but I don't see any of them as dispositive. They suggest that folks making hiring decisions need some self-awareness and some awareness of other norms, both of which strike me as good ideas anyway. But to carry the critiques to the point of dismissing judgment would strike me as a terrible mistake.

Baseball fans will probably immediately think of Alex Rodriguez. For those who don't know, A-Rod is, by any statistical standard, an outstanding player. He also has a funny way of making teams worse by joining them, and making them better when he leaves. If you look only at the 'objective' individual statistics, you'd want him on your team. If you look at his history, not so much. (The opposite example would be somebody like – and I'm showing my age here – Lenny Harris or John Olerud. Their individual stats weren't in A-Rod's league, but they made teams better by their presence.) The Seattle Mariners had the best season in their history after they let A-Rod go, even though his replacement had much less impressive statistics individually. Since picking him up, the Yankees have been stuck in neutral, despite spending far more than anybody else on players.

Reading Sutton's brief book, I kept thinking about its applicability (or lack thereof) to academia. We don't have clean measures of productivity, and much faculty work (especially outside of the sciences) is individual. Worse, we have a tenure system, wherein assholes can be granted lifetime job security. The old criterion of 'collegiality,' which was supposed to be a sort of 'no asshole' rule, has been largely demonized as racism (or other bias) in sheep's clothing; if it can't be quantified, in this litigious climate, it can't be used. But we haven't really replaced it with anything, so toxic personalities roam free. At the end of the book, Sutton mentions his webpage and solicits feedback via email. I emailed to ask “what if the assholes have tenure?” His response:

Alas, I wish I could be more helpful. My wife was managing partner of a law
firm during much of the period that I wrote this book and my father in law
was in university administration and Berkeley and Boulder for years,and
both talk about this problem. The one thing my wife always emphasized was
the importance of not starting to act like them no matter how bad they are,
and she did a pretty good job of keeping them under control by talking to
them in private a lot... but I know it is hard and in fact there was an
assistant professor in our department that we promoted a couple years ago
and I complained that he was arrogant and abusive and should at least get
that message that it would -- or should -- hurt in the long run, and my
department chair declined to do so because "he was a star," he has turned
out to be nasty tenured professor...

I agree it is tough, but for starters, there is an argument for documenting
their behavior.

I wish I could help more, and thanks,

(ellipsis in original)


Have you seen anything really effective for dealing with assholes with tenure? If they can't be removed, have you at least seen effective and sustainable ways to do damage control?

Dean Dad, I know you are a very busy fellow, but can't you see there's an opportunity here for you? Please, please write the book that tells us the answer to this question!
Ah...Managing assholes.

One way is to keep everyone in the information loop (assholes like to screw around and twist information), as well as chatting to them privating.

Managing tenured assholes.

This is where a strong dean can do wonders. Even with tenure, you need the 'fringe,' travel money, grad assistants, extra secretarial help, etc. I've seen tenured assholes lose grad asses, particularly if they abuse them. And the dean backed this decision to the hilt (the GA lines came from the department, NOT grant money--so documented absue was easily dealt with.)

So, while tenured assholes can't be fired, then can be chastened. The Dean can also take steps to make sure they don't become department chairs, etc., to prevent the "asshole factor" growing by geometric rates.

My favorite example of managing assholes is 20 years old, when the then music department chair posted an "ATF" reading outside of his door. (ATL=Asshole Tolerance Factor," a scale of 1-10). If the reading was one, you had best stay away. I might seem like a really agressive move, but it seemed to work.
To latch on to an aside in your post, I think you're right on when you suggest that the way people treat servers and bartenders and department secretaries may be indicative of ass hole status. The thing is, I have never been so mortified than when I have gone to dinner with academics. Apparently many academics feel going to a restaurant is a chance to get their Victorian groove on and say things like 'off you and be swift' or, in a tsk-tsk tone of voice, 'my goodness, where is that girl with my butter'. Although my favorite (?) was a woman bellowing in a faux British accent 'waiter, waiter'. I simply bowed my head in shame. There have been several times I've been mortified this way, but the during one of these times, as we were leaving, I feigned leaving something at the table so I could go back and slip the server an extra $15. And I was the candidate!

And for the record, I think A-Rod is the greatest thing to have ever happened to the NY Yankees.

GO SOX!!! :)
Calugg has a definite point. In my field, you may be tenured, but you live and die by your grad students, techs, and postdocs. One notable asshole in my department had her entire staff quit simultaneously. Put a hell of a crimp in her productivity for years.

In fields that are dependent on research grants, being a jerk to people who might be reviewing your grants is also dangerous. Funding is very tight, so good, quality applications are thick on the ground compared to the money available. If you have a good application but a reputation for not playing nicely with the other children, you may well lose out.

OK, if you're really a superstar, you might get away with it. Your department may even hire someone to keep you quasi-insulated from everyone else. But the same goes for stars everywhere else, so....
My undergrad department did a pretty good job of managing at least one tenured asshole by (1) isolating him in such a way that he was able to maintain the illusion that he had power and influence, and (2) turning him into the academic equivalent of the crazy-but-harmless relative who sometimes escapes from his attic and wanders around loose. In retrospect, it was probably an expensive process and I don't know if it was worth it. However, it worked pretty well--people that he worked with on a day-to-day basis neither took his temper tantrums seriously, nor allowed him near enough to any real work that he could do damage.

My observation from my last job is that it's possible get rid of the stars-who-happen-to-be-assholes by be refusing to allow them to assert influence in areas that they think of as rightfully theirs. It's not easy, but it can be done, and they will even think that they left of their own volition.
Out of curiosity - what is a warm oatmeal handshake?
I wandered here because I typed "asshole dean" in the search engine. Sometime, the asshole is the dean and all you can do is wait him out. Of course, like tenured professors, you may be waiting for death.
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