Are You Dealing With Assholes at Work?

Are You Dealing With Assholes at Work?

Bob Sutton
Jane Ha
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I’ve spent the past few years working on The Asshole Survival Guide, a sequel to another book about assholes I wrote a decade ago, which focused on how to build a civilized workplace. In the ensuing years, I heard countless personal stories about the damage that bullies and backstabbers inflict, and how to deal with them. I’ve also been tracking the growing pile of academic research on all things asshole.

Until now, I resisted the polite but persistent pressure from readers, friends, and publishers to do another book on what I'd learned as “the asshole guy.” But it’s clear that now, more than ever, there is a need for just such a book.

Here are 3 surprising lessons for how to escape, endure, outwit, and ultimately understand assholes:

  1. Own it. When somebody feels as if others are treating them with disdain and disrespect, human biases are such that they are often unlikely to see and accept their role in provoking their tormentor—or are so thin-skinned that they don’t really have a tormentor. If you are in a situation where you believe that someone is treating you like dirt, because of these biases, you should be slow to label others as assholes—and quick to label yourself as one.
  2. Be realistic. If you are in a situation where the alleged asshole treats everyone like dirt, well, then, it probably isn’t your fault. But if they are nasty to just you, the chances you are doing something to piss them off are high.
  3. Be empathetic. Finally, the more empathy you can develop for the person who is leaving you feeling demeaned and disrespected, the better you will understand your role in provoking the bad behavior (and what to do about it).

This brings me to a lovely and instructive story by Barry Katz, the first IDEO Fellow appointed back in the 1990s. (I was the second.) Barry is a marvelous writer, with a deep understanding of the history of technology and design. As part of the launch for The Asshole Survival Guide, Barry told me one of the most compelling stories I’ve heard about how to engage in asshole survival when you just might be part of the problem. The story, along with Barry’s commentary, illustrates the lessons above perfectly, and more. It's beautifully told, so I've reproduced it as he wrote it to me:

“Many years ago, I connived to spend several months in Paris. Every morning, I walked down the three flights of stairs from my apartment, crossed the street to the neighborhood boulangerie, and waited patiently in line to buy a croissant for breakfast. The lady behind the counter chirped and gossiped and flirted with all the locals in the queue, but when I got to the counter her face transmogrified into a scowl. I didn’t like it, but I wrote it off as proof of the fabled Parisian disdain for tourists.

“Until one day, in a fit of ethnographic curiosity, I decided to conduct an experiment. Inspired by my reading of Clifford Geertz, I registered a thick description of every detail of the behaviors of the French people in line and resolved to mimic them perfectly. The guy in front of me picked his nose, so I picked my nose. The lady in front of him absently folded and unfolded her newspaper, so I dutifully folded and unfolded mine. As I neared the counter, I noticed that when it came time to pay, each of the citoyens placed a banknote in a little plastic tray and pushed it forward; then the baker placed the change in the tray and pushed it back to the customer. By contrast, day after day, week after week, I had innocently thrust a dirty ten-franc note into her face.

“On D-Day, I approached the counter and her face tightened into its usual scowl. She braced herself as I took out my money, but instead of handing it to her, I placed it delicately in the plastic tray and pushed it forward. She burst out laughing and we lived happily ever after.”

Isn’t that a beautiful thing? Barry nailed the upshot in the postscript he wrote me:

“Moral of the story: Unfairly, perhaps, Madame took my failure to observe local protocol as a sign not of ignorance, but of deliberate defiance. I insulted her, and dammit if she wasn’t going to insult me right back. Who is the asshole here?”

My answer is that both Barry and Madame were locked in a vicious circle of asshole poisoning, because each lacked the other’s perspective. But Barry, being the wise person he is, tackled the problem by thinking and acting like an anthropologist. In doing so, he demonstrated the three lessons offered above.

1. He realized that his biases might blind him to his contribution to the “asshole problem.” Then he reflected that he could be part of the problem—that he could unwittingly be provoking the lady behind the counter.

2. Madame was nasty to only Barry, which strengthened his suspicion that he was doing something to upset her, and it wasn’t just because he was an ugly American.

3. Once Barry developed empathy for Madame's perspective, he discovered what he was doing to upset her, changed his behavior, and their relationship was repaired.

It’s lovely example of human-centered design. And it’s a great reminder that sometimes, we are the assholes.

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Bob Sutton
Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor and co-founder of the Stanford Design Institute (“the”) who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. His new book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt, was published on September 12, 2017.
Jane Ha
Jane is an interaction designer with a notorious reputation for drowning her house plants in love. If she’s not whispering sweet nothings to her variegated rubber plant, she’s finding some other crafting hobby to obsess over, then discard shortly after.

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