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?