Derailers & Jerks at Work


Dr. Relly Nadler:
This week we are going to give you some hands-on tools and practices to raise your emotional intelligence. Do you know what they key behaviors or actions are that can torpedo your career, derail you, or get you off of the track of being a star? Do you have a boss that’s a jerk or zaps your energy? Do you know what you can do about that?

Our guest is Dr. Robert Sutton of Stanford University. He’ll be talking about those bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, tormentors and egomaniacs who do their best to destroy you at work.

Dr. Sutton is a professor at Stanford Graduate Business School. He has published over 100 articles and eight books. He and Jeffrey Pfeffer have written The Knowing-Doing Gap and his latest book is The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving the One That Isn’t, which will be the focus of this interview. Dr. Sutton’s research and opinions are often described in the press including The New York Times, The London Times, Business Week, Financial Times, Fortune Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.

Bob, welcome to the show.

Dr. Robert Sutton: Thanks, great to be here.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Tell me a little bit about why you wrote this book, The No Asshole Rule.

Dr. Robert Sutton: Well, it was sort of a two-part story. The first part was that when I was a new assistant professor, in the mid-80s at Stanford, I was in a department which was sort of merged out of existence eventually called Industrial Engineering. We actually had the No Asshole Rule. Our philosophy was that even if somebody, and this came out of a very interesting faculty meeting, had won the Nobel Prize, we would not let them in our department if they were demeaning and put down others. You were talking about the smartest person in the room, which is a real risk in academia where people will act like they are smarter and every dimension even if they have not expertise or training in it at all.

That led to the most civilized workplace that I have ever been part of. It was one of those sorts of places that, let by our department chair Warren Houseman, that even when people would be jerks in other settings, in our department you just wouldn’t act like that because it just wasn’t very constructive.

Fast-forwarding ahead, I have given No Asshole talks at Google twice. Google might have some smartest people in the room problems but they are fairly civilized in a lot of ways. I had a woman come up to me at Google and say that she wasn’t really a very nice person, but she had to act that way at Google because it was the only way to get your job done. That was more recent.

The real impetus for the book was in late 2003 Harvard Business Review editor name Julia Kirby asked me if I had an idea for some breakthrough ideas for that section. As I pointed out and Jeff Pfeffer and I pointed out in our book Hard Facts, there probably are no breakthrough management ideas; at least we couldn’t find any, including Nobel Prize winning work by Economist by the way. Emotional intelligence which I think is an excellent concept, if you look at the roots of that it goes so far back. It goes back to at least leadership studies from the 50s and probably before that.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, it’s a great idea—it’s a very powerful idea. So, I said yes to Julia that I wanted to write an essay on the No Asshole rule but I said that wasn’t a breakthrough idea and of course a conservative publication like Harvard Business Review would never publish such a dirty word. She called my bluff and they published it. The most amazing thing, it continues just looking at my email today, I continue to get reactions because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before, including my much more serious work.

Dr. Relly Nadler: It goes to show just having the right title gets people’s attention and it really resonates with people. You really did come up with something that people can really relate to.

Dr. Robert Sutton: I’d like to say, oh, no, no, no, everything is the content of the book, but clearly the initial reaction to the book is the title. The fact that it’s been published in respectable places is sort of like a funny combination; I guess and get people’s attention.

Once you get past the title, as you know, the problem of bullying or abusive supervision, or mean spirited cultures or whatever you want to call it is a pretty serious problem in the workplace. As you say people who have this problem do limit their careers and can actually limit the careers of other. I think it’s an important problem.

Dr. Relly Nadler: One of the things that you have in your book is the test for whether or not you are an asshole. For some of our listeners who haven’t read the book, and hopefully, they will after this, what is the test? You have two tests in your book about establishing whether or not someone is an asshole.

Dr. Robert Sutton: One is, and there are dozens, is the notion of the various things that people do to leave others feeling demeaned and de-energized. There is actually large literature on bullying and psychological abuse and I’m borrowing from that. So everything from personal insults to treating people as if they are invisible, to back-stabbing and the like. These are the typical sort of surveys. Some of those surveys that we were talking about at the beginning that say that 37% of American’s report that they have had an abusive boss; those will be some of the sort of questions I’ll ask.

The other thing that is in the book is the self-test; the 24-item self-test that actually my wife who–actually today is her last day as a lawyer, she’s been a lawyer for 25 years as managing partner at a large law firm and she’s going to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Northern California for a little bit of a career switch—managed a law firm with 1,000 lawyers at one point and knows a lot about managing assholes. She ran through and helped me come up with this list of things like:

  • Do you feel surrounded by incompetent idiots and you can’t help letting them know the truth now and then; there’s a whole bunch of these in the book.
  • You were a nice person until you started working with a current bunch of creeps.
  • You don’t trust the people around you and they don’t trust you.

So, we’ve got 24 of these. It’s on Guy Kawasaki’s blog, and it’s called the ARST Test. So we have 115,000 people, actually a little bit over that, which have filled it out since Guy published it last February. The funniest thing and this is like one of those things like, as I say, I’ve worked this hard or harder on my prior books but, I have people who will come up to me and they will introduce me without telling me their name, they will tell me their number.

Listen to the complete interview, above.


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