Nov 16, 2011
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The No Asshole Rule

I have just finished reading The No Asshole Rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD. Dr. Sutton uses 2 questions to test whether someone fits the description:
After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

I was surprised to find that when I applied this test to various people I have worked with over the years that they fit the description more than I would had thought. I recognized many former co-workers in the stories that Dr.Sutton shares in the book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Research shows that assholes are everywhere.

Bad for business

The main point to take away from the book is that assholes are bad for business. Organizations are much more productive when they are not wasting energy dealing with these people. To start with 20-30% of an organization’s workforce is likely to leave the job to get away from the jerk. That doesn’t include the time spent dealing with, recovering from an attack by, or avoiding the person. There is also the opportunity costs that are lost when the employees in an organization spend more time covering their asses than doing their work or coming up with new ideas. In short, organizations can’t afford to hire assholes.

What about me

For the individual, the message of the book is that we all potentially meet Dr. Sutton’s criteria, some of us may temporary assholes, while others are permanent. Sutton’s advice to avoid falling into this category is to “treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” It sounds easy, but as Dr. Sutton points out, assholishness is a communicable disease. When you work with assholes, it is easy to start acting like one. If behaving like an insensitive jerk is rewarded, the temptation will be strong to act like one. And if the people around you are acting that way, then it can look normal. It is important to keep on your guard, so that you don’t join their ranks. You can check to see if you are a “Certified Asshole”.


Framing is one technique that Dr. Sutton offers to avoid becoming an asshole. To not catch the disease, Sutton suggests that you resist the urge to frame situations as “I win, you lose”. The book gives examples of how framing a situation in a certain way can influence the outcome. When people are told that they are in a competition, they are more like to act like competitive jerks. Another example that Sutton gives is an experiment where one group was told that they were playing the “Community Game” and the other was told it was playing the “Wall Street Game”. People who were playing the “Community Game” were noticeably more cooperative.

This got me thinking about past jobs and people who were always trying to make the library “run more like a business”. I started to think about how does this frame impact how people work together? Why are these people interested in the re-framing the workplace? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of business processes that libraries should adopt. And there may even be aspects of running the library that should be framed in business terms. But I think most of “be more business-like” crowd want to bring competition into the workplace. I’m sure that many would not even dispute that. The problem is that we are not in competition, especially not with one another, and, as Dr. Sutton points out, competition in the workplace breeds assholes.

So, why do some people want to frame the library as a business? They could really believe that there is something to be gained by being more business-like. In fact, there could. But as I read The No Asshole Rule I couldn’t help thinking that many of these people were trying to frame the workplace in way that would benefit them. That these people were trying to spread their poison. Maybe I am being too hard on them. Maybe they came from places that were more business-like or just lousy with assholes. But most of these people never have a real plan for bringing business processes to the library. Too often, they seem to want to create a workplace where it is OK to belittle and harangue their co-workers when they don’t get what they want.

The No Asshole Rule

Life is too short to spend it with assholes. Life is also too short to be an asshole. Dr. Sutton’s book is plea to implement a No Asshole Rule, where they are not allowed in the workplace or if they are in the workplace, that they are contained. We can’t control what other people do, but we can enforce the rule by not being one ourselves. We can also work to keep them from being hired. If they are already in the workplace, we can punish their behavior and to isolate them. But if you are dealing with them in your workplace, there may be little you can do beyond trying to not be one yourself.

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