Add Insult To Inquiry
For a kinder, gentler office, question the jerks where you work

Wednesday, April 11, 2007 10:21 AM

John in accounting who constantly vetoes your expense reports for no good reason. The woman one cubicle over who you suspect of stealing your tape dispenser. The boss who belittles your clothing along with your job performance.

Toiling in an office often means working with jerks. So how do you deal with them without calling in sick every day or going on a murderous rampage? Writer and professor of management science Robert I. Sutton tells how in his new book, "The No A--hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't" ($23, Warner Business Books). In it, he bluntly lays out how to handle (and if you're lucky, maybe even fire) workplace bullies and take on 9-to-5 tyrants. Express' Jess Milcetich chatted with Sutton about the secrets of increasing productivity and improving the overall atmosphere in the workplace.

What is the "No A--hole Rule"?

To me, it's kind of a point of view, or really a rule, that some organizations have and most don't. They won't let people who are demeaning in the door if they possibly can, and if people start acting like that, they won't let them get away with it. And if they keep it up, they'll kick them out. It's that simple.

Why is it so important?

When I started reading academic literature from organizational psychologists on bullying, [I saw] the way it hurts people and costs organizations money. People are less committed to their jobs. To me, it ends up wasting people's careers.

The other part that's more sort of the capitalistic cost is the TCA, or Total Cost of A--holes. The most surprising thing: A Silicon Valley executive calculated the total costs of an employee who was burning through secretaries and needed anger-management counseling. It cost $160,000.

You can make a case that sometimes it's worth the trouble, but from my experience if it's causing so much damage and it's so unpleasant to be around, it's not worth it.

So what are some of the infractions of these work jerks?

I have this list called the dirty dozen. It includes teasing and insulting and treating people as if they were invisible.

There are lots of different ways in which nasty people can do their dirty work, like doing things that leave the people they work with feeling demeaned and de-energized. Sometimes the stereotype is the boss in the three-piece suit with the veins bulging, but some of the most damage is done by people who are very subtle and do subtle put-downs. One of the most insidious things is to treat people as if they are invisible. There are lots of different ways to do your dirty work.

How do you screen when you are interviewing potential employees?

The interview is a lousy place to pick things up. There are little things you can look for. If they treat those who are "inconsequential" poorly, that's a sign. There was a Southwest Airlines pilot who was nasty to a receptionist. That was it. He was gone.

The other thing that I think is more powerful is checking out other people they've worked with and checking out what their reputation is.

Also, if there are known a--holes in your firm, you should watch out, because they breed. If you're in a group where people are insulting and that's the game, you're going to catch the disease. It's hard to survive in that environment.

How do you tell if you are the bad guy?

There's a self-test in the book with 24 items. There's this notion that self-awareness is part of it. I have a list of things like "people stop having fun when you come around" or "you take pleasure in other people's lack of performance."

I think there are two kinds of a--holes. The first know it. They're strategic and know what they have to do to get ahead. Sometimes that's true and sometimes that's false.

There's another kind. They are the ones who don't quite know how other people perceive them, and when you tell them, they're absolutely shocked.

Both kinds exist. I think it comes down to having people you can trust who are telling you when you are being a jerk.

What can you do to remedy the situation?

Create a world where you get other people around you to call you on it and you actually try to modify your behavior. To me, that's the heart of it. It's creating a psychological safety to be called on it.

The idea that you can call your boss a jerk and your boss thanks you; that's very hard to do. I don't feel safe doing that with my current boss.

You say the chapter on the virtues of a--holes was the one you least wanted to write. Why? And are there really positive traits?

I wish this wasn't true, but there are at least two positive effects. If you come across as angry, people view you as a more legitimate leader than if you're apologetic or sad or soft.

Then there's this thing called "brilliant but cool" phenomenon. If you give people feedback about their performance, especially with negative comments, you come across as smarter. It's the Simon Cowell effect. With the addition of personal insults, [the "American Idol" judge] will say something like what Paula or Randy said and be seen as smarter. With "brilliant but cool," for some reason, our culture gives us extra IQ points for being mean.

But from my perspective, when people act like that and win, they tend to misattribute their winnings. If you're a winner and an a--hole, you're still an a--hole, and I don't want to be anywhere near you.

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