Sunday, September 17, 2017

Reverse Calvinism: Thoughts on “The &*()& Survival Guide,” by Robert Sutton

Several years ago, Robert Sutton made waves when he published the book “The No Asshole Rule.”  The book detailed the damage that even high-performing jerks (I’ll use the term ‘jerks’ from this point forward) can do, whether to coworkers, customers, or a culture as a whole.  Now Sutton has published a survival guide so those of us who have to work with jerks can survive with our dignity and sanity intact.

It’s a quick read, and Sutton supplies enough (and vivid enough) anecdotes to make the cases painfully clear.  Most of us won’t have any trouble coming up with examples of our own.  

Sutton makes a few core assumptions.  First, he points out that jerkish behavior is contagious.  The longer it goes unchecked, the likelier it is to spread, whether out of habituation, self-defense, or perverse incentives.  Second, it has characteristic patterns.  Third, it’s counterproductive, at least in the long term.  Finally, in some cases it has roots much deeper than standard workplace interventions can hope to handle.  

That fourth one strikes me as the most interesting by far.  Sutton draws a distinction between an occasional or situational jerk, and what calls a “certified” (or chronic) one.  The occasional or situational jerk could be anybody, and chances are, we’ve all been that at some point.  We’re likely to be at less than our best when we’re overtired, overextended, overstressed, or otherwise off-balance.  When someone who’s usually pretty congenial and composed is uncharacteristically snippy, it’s often a good idea to extend some benefit of the doubt.  Depending on the relationship, sometimes just taking them aside and letting them know how they’re coming off may be enough to set things right.

The certified jerk, though, is awful most of the time.  This is the person who’s always demeaning, undermining, or using others, often just for the sheer sport of it.  In these cases, Sutton’s many strategies tend to boil down to variations on escape.  Escape personally, by leaving the situation; escape psychologically, by investing less in it or otherwise using ‘framing’ to create distance; or, in rare cases, escape organizationally by gathering allies and staging a revolt.  Sometimes, the jerk simply has to be cast out.

It’s a sort of reverse Calvinism.  Rather than constantly scrutinizing ourselves (and others) for signs that we aren’t truly good, Sutton advises constantly scrutinizing others (and ourselves) for signs that we’re certifiably awful.  He suggests treating “certified jerk” status as a sort of residual diagnosis -- to be used only when all other options have been exhausted.  But once they have, it’s time to unleash drastic measures.

As with many how-to books, much of the content boils down to “it depends on context.”  That’s true, of course, but not terribly helpful.  Is it a good idea to take the high road?  Yes, unless it comes off as weakness or enabling.  It is a good idea to hit back?  No, unless it is.  Does humor help?  Yes, except when it doesn’t.  Sutton’s honesty is admirable, but it tends to reduce the book’s usefulness.  (My favorite tip, which I learned from a former boss: when a student or parent starts berating you with “I pay your salary!,” respond with “Oh, that’s you?  I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that.”  It confuses them long enough to interrupt their momentum.)

Most of the book addresses corporate settings, where some level of turnover is relatively normal.  It never addresses higher education, which is a real oversight.  Sutton notes that “employees in Tepper’s study who were trapped -- who didn’t leave abusive bosses because it was too hard to find other work -- were less satisfied with their jobs and more depressed; they also suffered elevated emotional exhaustion and conflict between work and family.” (38)  For many faculty who have full-time jobs but aren’t national superstars, the relative lack of opportunities for lateral moves can effectively force unhappy people to stay.  Given Sutton’s insights about bad behavior being contagious, it’s unsurprising that academia provides a haven for certain kinds of jerkish behavior.  If you’re a full professor of, say, English at a community college with twenty years’ experience there, and you’re unhappy, the odds of you finding a comparable job at comparable pay elsewhere are slim.  The industry doesn’t work that way.  You’d have to move into administration, take a pay cut, or find another line of work altogether.  Instead, you’re likely to stick around, albeit unhappily, and gradually either check out or act out.  If enough others do the same, over time, the culture can go in some unhappy directions.  It may be situational jerkiness, but the situation can go on for a long time.

That’s the book I’d like to read.  When “exit” isn’t a viable option, either voluntarily or involuntarily, what’s the best long-term strategy?  What if you can’t cast out the sinner?  “It depends” is true, but unhelpful.  Some contexts are common enough to be worth specifying.