Review of the book claiming to have answers to some of our everyday struggles.

I did not read the book in English. This is because I came across this book in a bookstore in Basel. The English table of contents seems similar enough, so I’ll stay with the chapters. If something appears weird, that might be one reason. This also prevents me from directly quoting, but let’s see.

Notes

This is a collection of my notes about this book, particularly things I was not aware of, or concise phrasing I wanted to share. Even though you might substitute reading this instead of the book itself, a summary can only give you so much information about the contents’ implications. In my opinion, the implications are the biggest part of the book, and that part is (mainly) missing.

Instead, I took the liberty of ‘connecting’ the content with topics I am already familiar with, explaining it. This effectively means, if you wonder why something you read here is not in the book - it never was.

Foreword

There is situations, where you come across someone and just recognize that they are being an asshole. And, honestly, there just is no better word for it. Jerk? Well of course they are a jerk, but that kind of does not cut it. They are more than ‘just a jerk’.

The first time he came across the ‘no asshole rule’ was during a discussion about candidate selection for Stanford professors, where someone said the following:

Listen, I do not care if he won the Nobel price … I just do not want an asshole to ruin our group.

And that kind of cut it. Over time, this really was implemented and it kept the climate really collegial.

Early on, he wrote a short excerpt for the Harvard Business Review, and as they have a right and proper image, he did not expect them to write the word ‘asshole’. After all, it was eight times in his article. But they did. And then a flood of feedback from all around the globe came in. Since, apparently, this is an everyday problem sometimes.

Someone even proposed ‘idiot-audits’, with something along the following:

I propose to consider the following question: ‘Why do we comply to such behaviour?’ If your answer is ‘because the office can bill 2500 highly paid hours from this creep’, you at least got your priorities sorted, without having spent a cent for a consultant.


1 What Assholes Do and Why You Know So Many

Now the problem (?) is that not everyone is an asshole. Some just had a very bad day. So how to differentiate between those with a bad day and those doing it regularly?

He calls them ‘temporary’ vs ‘certified’ assholes, the meaning of which is self-explanatory.

Is just one bad experience enough for them to be thought of as being a ‘certified’ one? He tells a story about him being a new assistant professor, working really hard in improving his teaching. When he received the ‘best lecturer’-award after three years, a jealous female colleague whispered to him in a condescending voice: “Well done. How about, after having satisfied the babies, to do some actual work?” Understandably, he was not exactly happy after this encounter.

Which constitutes the first test: After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?

What else do they do to make you feel like that? He cataloged these unpleasant behaviours as The Dirty Dozen:

  • Insults
  • Violation of personal space
  • Unsolicited touching
  • Threats
  • Sarcasm
  • Flames
  • Humiliation
  • Shaming
  • Interruption
  • Backbiting
  • Glaring
  • Snubbing

This, however, is apparently not sufficient, since everyone behaves like that sometimes. He himself gives the example of sending a scornful email to a colleague because he wrongly believed she was trying to take an office away from his group - as soon as he realized this was not the case he apologized profoundly, but it was still done. As it was a ‘one-time’ occurrence, this does not qualify him as anything more than a ‘temporary’ asshole.

He then goes on and lists several ‘publicly well-known’ assholes, both male and female.

The second test (apart from apparently that this needs to be repeated behaviour) is if the person primarily targets less powerful people.

He does not, however, Cavour cowards or obsequious people, as they just try to avoid confrontation, with similar negative effects. He gives the example of Intel doing ‘constructive confrontation’ workshops regularly, and having an accordingly confrontational culture.

Also, during his research for another book, ‘Weird Ideas that Work’ (core: hiring ‘eccentric’ people you do not seem to need might boost overall creativity and productivity), he found that for some reason HR-people tend to ignore ‘weird’ mannerisms from people and downplay unfavorable ones for their achievements on paper.

The other two points he still makes in this chapter are that there are a massive amount of assholes everywhere, and that the best way to measure a character is to see how a Person treats both people above and below herself.


2 The Damage Done: Why Every Workplace Needs The Rule

First, he reiterates that they are literally everywhere, this time with a lot of numbers, stats. And they mainly damage their surroundings through small inconveniences for everyone they interact with, generally demotivating people and putting them psychological pressure, which results in them having a statistically significant higher rate of illness.

He then makes a really convincing point of ‘people do not really quit their jobs, they quit managers and environments’ - the average turnover rate is about 5%, but for environments with asshole-managers it is up to 25% on average.

But, they are not the only ones suffering, especially asshole-managers suffer from the following symptoms:

  • Demotivated teams, reducing effectivity
  • Nitpicking and small ‘revenge’ on them (they obviously do not notice)
  • They frequently have new people to teach, reducing overall productivity
  • They are getting fired more frequently as well, meaning a search for another job …
  • If someone out of the team, or maybe on social media gets to know about it, there is a social fallout which might influence the stock market or your ability to stay as a manager
  • Your team only tries to prevent getting blamed, no effort is made to actually solve the problems at hand
  • They will not have the best candidates applying either, because a lot of people get to know about bad managers from other employees social life

What I was thinking about when reading the ‘revenge’-part was something I read about the military somewhere (I cannot seem to find the source, contact me if you know where it is from exactly!):

if you respect your boss, do what he means, if you don’t, do what he says

Anyways, frequently searching and hiring new people is a lot of effort and thus money, even excluding the time needed to get them up to speed within the company.

He then explains the ‘snowstorm-indicator’, basically a measure for how much people actually like working at their current job; Effectively it is the proportion of people coming to work even though they would have had a simple excuse (e.g. a snowstorm happening right now).

Assholes, especially as managers tend to require more effort, time and energy from everyone surrounding them for the same results. But since everyone else deserving credit is being held down by them, they seem much better than they are.

What follows is a very long list of potential ‘money losing’ actions and ways they do or are subject to, effectively costing the company money. This might allow you to calculate the cost of someone behaving as an asshole in your company.


3 How to Implement the Rule, Enforce it, and Keep it Alive

Sometimes glorified overachievers become assholes over time, if they are not kept in check. There seems to be a company out there, roughly calculating the (asshole-) cost of one of their managers and deducting it from their pay (250k!).

One reason assholes are tolerated is probably the existing ‘winners mentality’, especially in America. This means that ‘just about everything’ is allowed, as long as it gets the team winning; That it is expected for successful people to be not as nice as others.

So what a lot of companies do is create environments where it just ‘is not profitable to be a jerk’. Essentially, the rule needs to be publicly known through words, but especially through actions. One company has this rule that it is not allowed to shout at each other, which seems to be part of the trick.

Make sure that your employees help each other out, and are actually nice to each other as well. Also, you would not want your words replace your deeds, if you have values but do not live them, people will not feel safe there, as apparently words are not worth that much.

These are a few heuristics to actually hire someone who is not an asshole:

  • Trusted references are worth a lot (ask them about the other persons behaviour under stress)
  • Only invite people based on competence, to focus on the social side during the interview
  • Walk around and talk to people, to get a feeling as to how that person integrates
  • Have people below and above the position interview the new person This also prevents assholes to get in Manager or HR positions, they would multiply rapidly (people tend to hire people similar to themselves, or their ideal version).

As it turns out, chemistry within a team is worth a lot. Firing your ‘star salesman’ might increase overall sales by 30%, slightly depending on how he behaved.

There is this story of a new CEO making it his personal goal to get rid of 25 asshole-managers throughout the company, which he did over the course of the first two years. After that, they became one of the most profitable ones in their business.

Another detection mechanism if someone is an asshole: would you feel relieved if they were let go of? If yes, it might be time to actually do so.

Apply the no-asshole-rule to your customers and clients, everyone will thank you for that. Power tends to corrupt, and ‘rewarding’ overachievers makes them correlate the reward with their behaviour … which might not be true. Also, they might have this image of really successful people being assholes, and them slowly becoming really successful also means, …

The core of the next example was that you should be an approachable boss (no one should fear giving you feedback about something), and that while a hierarchy needs to exist, the social differences should be reduced where possible and downplayed where not possible - this makes for a much more collegial atmosphere.

A different approach would be to regularly do anti-asshole workshops with reflection and sensibilization, they tend to have massively positive results, such es drastically reduced overtime and sick days while improving efficiency and revenue by 9-30%.

People are going to follow the majorities’ behaviour. The proportion of people following even increases if there is one visible ‘outlier’, because we want to separate ourselves (‘us’) from the outlier (‘them’). However - it might not be that good of an idea to employ ‘exemplary’ assholes, for various reasons. You would need to keep them at the bottom as well, to make sure that everyone understands that this is undesired behaviour.

There are ten rules for applying the anti-asshole-rule:

  • Talk about it, write about it, act after it
  • Assholes multiply fast. They hire themselves and infect others
  • Get rid of them as fast as possible
  • Treat assholes as incompetent. Incompetent in communication, if nothing else
  • Power corrupts. watch out whom to promote
  • Acknowledge differences in status, but mitigate unnecessary status differentials
  • Manage moments - not practices or systems. Be mindful
  • Value and teach constructive confrontation
  • Adopt at most one negative role model total. Keep that one in check accordingly.
  • Small events can have massive influence on the company

This is especially true during hard times where everyone is on edge already, because ultimately these are the only situations where it counts.


4 How to Stop Your “Inner Jerk” From Getting Out

Everyone is a temporary asshole sometimes. Now how do you prevent yourself from becoming a certified one?

Everyone has a hard time sometimes and act like one. Most people try to synchronize with other people, acting and becoming more similar to them. He was in a group once where he and three others fought for the leading position, making them pretty big jerks in the process. His consequence was pretty simple: quit it. So that you can do as well, make sure not to have any big sunk costs, and select the people you work with very carefully.

If you are not in a position capable of quitting (for whatever reason), reduce contact and try to be happy with what you have - you do not need to compete with them over who the biggest jerk is. You can always focus on cooperation and win-win-situations, this will bring you the most in the long term.

The first step is noticing that you are an asshole - most people are not aware of it and only want to do good. They usually notice with overwhelming evidence of a 360°-Feedback, which you probably do regularly already.

At the end of the chapter is a self-evaluation about how others react to you, and a threshold from which onward you are quite likely to be at least a considerable jerk.


5 When Assholes Reign: Tips for Surviving Nasty People and Workplaces

Apparently, millions feel ‘contained’ in pro-asshole company cultures. Statistically, 25% of those getting harassed, and 20% of those witnessing it, will change their manager. This is much higher than the usual 5%.

Some are in situations where they cannot afford to change their job. The best way to fight against a nasty workplace is among the following:

  • Do not victimize yourself. It is not something you could change.
  • ‘Do not fight against the flow’. Calm down and let them do their thing. It will be over soon.
  • Look for others in similar situations and get together, exchange hardships and achievements.
  • Be content with small victories, small and gradual outings of them being assholes.
    • Build upon this. You are in control! Get some self-confidence from this to hold on.
  • Re-frame the situation: The current situation is only temporary and will not affect your overall life
  • It is not your fault and there is no benefit in thinking otherwise - Everyone would have been treated like this in your situation
  • Have or create some sort of ‘safe’ break room, where your boss/(the asshole) is not allowed to be in.
  • Keep calm and keep positive
  • Avoid contact as much as possible
  • Always be deescalating and try to reeducate the offenders
    • Even if it fails, the likelihood of outbursts is massively smaller than when angering them further
  • Even if you can endure, you probably should find a way to get away from it

Additionally, there are two examples showing just how important control, or at least a feeling of control is:

  • Every surviving war prisoner (released from the Vietnamese in 1973) had some kind of small ritual, something they did every day, which kept them ‘in control’ and sane.
  • In a bus depot in a city in Michigan they had the rule that they are allowed to have ‘three accidents every year’. And they should keep one of them for all the idiots during Christmas rush time. This gives them a lot of control, and lets them keep calm even in pretty annoying situations, keeping their actual accident rates very low and winning them multiple safety awards.

6 The Virtues of Assholes

Originally, he did not want to write this chapter, but it is seen as a ‘necessary evil’, and the book would be kind of incomplete without it.

The first proof is Steve Jobs, the now late CEO of Apple. He became successful, at least partly ‘because’, and not ‘even though’ he was an asshole, which is to say it seems to be useful at least in some cases.

After the Bill Clinton affair, two different video clips were shown to people, one where he was apologetic and calm, and one where he was angry. He was, among others, seen much more competent by those having seen him ‘angry’.

The least to take away from it is that strategic anger can have massive influence, and become a strategic tool for power. However, just as much as intimidation has been proven to work (as a form of motivation for work), other strategies, such as rewards and recognition have been proven to be significantly more effective.

That is to say, ‘strategic assholes’ tend to be doing something similar to ‘god cop, bad cop’, ‘sugar bread and whip’, some form of both punishment for bad, as well as rewards for good work. Everyone wants to bond with the one giving out rewards.

Calling debt collectors use the inverse principle, if someone is already stressed out about the late payment, stay calm, but it works wonders to slightly shake those up that are calm as if they don’t have a care in the world.

Personally he was in a situation where he is unsure if any other behaviour would have worked at all; He and his family were just barely in time for their flight to get their boarding passes, and the staff brushed multiple nice attempts off, without having heard the problem. So he warned his family that he would get loud for a moment and that he would stop immediately if they started doing something and that he was sorry but did not know what else he could do to get their attention. So he started shouting right next to them, about the bad quality service they experienced and they should be helped immediately. So they actually got help, and he handed the negotiations to the ‘good cop’, his wife. Later, they learned that they should have gotten their boarding passes at an earlier counter, but there the assisting person was probably just lazy and passed them on to the next.

There are five ways for effective assholes:

  • Openly shown anger and being mean can be effective tools for power
  • Intimidation and viciousness are good for getting rid of competitors
  • Recognition for contributions work wonders when also motivating people with fear
  • Build a ‘toxic tandem’ with someone nicer / find your ‘good cop’
  • Solely being an asshole does not suffice, know when to be one, and especially when not to be one

Reality from an assholes perspective

  • Even though they are an asshole, somehow they perform well, and they start to associate that with their behaviour - creating invalid feedback loops
  • The skills getting vs keeping an influential job tend to be different ones, if not opposite ones
  • People stop telling them things that went wrong for fear of getting blamed - they think it works just fine, even close to the point where everything is about to crash and burn
  • People are good at looking different as long as the unliked person is watching. Without them being around, the others have much less energy and motivation to get anything done, and it is close to impossible for the unliked person to find out about it
  • Their employees will focus on not getting blamed rather than actually solving the problems at hand - with devastating long-term effects
  • People (especially those charging you) will ask for considerably more when working with someone unlikable, ‘to make up for it’
  • They continuously create enemies, who try to harm them without getting noticed (doing slightly worse work, delaying or neglecting to report important information, claiming work takes longer than it does)

Some of the advantages are real, but beware of dragons (illusions)!


7 The No Asshole Rule as a Way Life

Little Joe’s is your cozy local family diner, with the owner and staff happily fooling around. Customers are happy. Add a douche-bag, making impolite comments and complaints, insulting everyone telling him to stop doing that, generally making everyone uncomfortable. A customer with a loud voice complimented him:

You are pretty amazing! I was looking everywhere for someone like you! I absolutely love how you portray yourself, could I get your name please?

The douche was somewhat happy of being recognized, saying who he is.

Thank you, I really appreciate that! You know, I’m writing a book about assholes … and you are the perfect character for chapter 13.

Except for him, everyone started laughing. He got and kept quiet. This was Sutton’s’ first encounter with a book about assholes, and it portraits several central themes perfectly:

  • A small number of creeps is sufficient to let everyones warmth and sincerity be forgotten
  • You should get rid of them fast; neutralizing their damage takes tremendous energy and effort
  • It is nice talking about ‘not accepting assholes’, but it also needs to be enforced
  • If you cannot enforce it, it is better not to talk about it - lest you also be a hypocrite
  • The rule lives and dies in the moment, it needs to be enforced at every moment
  • Keeping an exemplary asshole is a stark reminder for people not to become one
  • Management is not responsible for enforcing the rule. Everyone, always, is (it was not the owner or a staff member making the book-comment, and it would likely not have been as effective either)!
  • The main motivation for such behaviour tends to be the fear of exposure (for something), or simply shame
  • The second guy was an asshole to the first one as well. The assholes is us, and it needs to be us, but it needs to be kept in check, so check yourself in the mirror regularly


Overall

I would recommend this to everyone with a bit of time, and maybe a slight personal annoyance towards such a person.

Main Takeaways

For me the by far biggest takeaway is an increased sensitivity to the topic of unpleasant company in general. Especially if people are doing it structurally or only temporary. Also, it appears that I have used the ‘strategic’ part before, albeit only a few times. I guess this really will be useful in avoiding certified ones, and preventing them from taking hold wherever I will work in the future. I will live by the ‘no-asshole-rule!’

Criticism

I really liked it. It was concise, but not too dense, with good exemplary stories and references, explaining in detail what is meant. I liked how the author gave examples of him being someone unpleasant without making it seem like he wants to be glorified for admitting these atrocities.

Additionally, since I read the German translation, I was quite surprised. I expected more to be rather ‘clear cut’ translations from English, but there were quite a few passages and words, subtleties, that one could not have ‘simply translated’.

Favourite Quotes

This obviously includes the original ones with my translations here:

Ich schlage vor, dass Sie sich folgende Frage stellen: ‘Warum finden wir uns mit einem solchen Verhalten ab?’ Wenn die Antwort lautet: ‘Weil die Kanzlei 2500 von dem Widerling geleistete hoch bezahlte Stunden in Rechnung stellen kann’, dann haben Sie zumindest Ihre Prioritäten geklärt, ohne auch nur einen Cent für Unternehmensberater ausgegeben zu haben.

which, roughly translated is

I propose to consider the following question: ‘Why do we comply to such behaviour?’ If your answer is ‘because the office can bill 2500 highly paid hours from this creep’, you at least got your priorities sorted, without having spent a cent for a consultant.

and

“ein guter Busfahrer niemals einen Unfall baut, der ein Unfall ist.” Vielmehr sollten Sie “Unfälle” als Strafen ansehen, die sie “wild gewordenen Autofahrern” bewusst zufügten. Jeder städtische Busfahrer, erklärte sie, dürfte drei Unfälle pro Jahr bauen, ohne disziplinarische Maßnahmen fürchten zu müssen. Den neuen riet sie, sich “einen Unfall für die Weihnachtszeit aufzuheben, weil da die ganzen Idioten auf der Straße sind und Ihr den Wunsch verspüren werdet, es einem von ihnen heimzuzahlen.

which is

“a good bus driver is never involved in an accident, which is an accident.” Rather, “accidents” should be seen as “punishment intentionally dealt to cars gone wild.” Every municipal bus driver, she explained, is allowed to be involved in up to three accidents, without having to fear disciplinary measures. The new drivers should “keep one for Christmas, because all the idiots are on the streets then, and you will get a feeling of wanting to pay it back to at least one of them.”

Those were the ones that struck me, at least. Well, maybe include the two from the last chapter as well.