Robert Sutton is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, and his latest book, “The Asshole Survival Guide,” delves into organizational culture in business, specifically how to deal with workplace jerks.
In this Shakedown, Prevue speaks with Sutton about the inspiration behind his book and his advice to meeting planners who are navigating the challenging behaviors of clients and attendees.
What gave you the idea to write the book?
Sutton: A lot of my stuff goes back to organizational culture. There’s a positive side. My department at the time that got merged out of existence had a “no-jerk” rule and was a very civilized place to work, and then my wife was managing partner at a large law firm, and jerk management was a major part of her job. I thought it was on organizational culture in particular. There are some organizations that have “no-jerk” rules and some are hypocrites, as they definitely have some jerks. I got such a strong response for that book, about 8,000 emails, and everyone was telling me their stories.
What also happened in the decade since I wrote the first book was that “all-things jerk” became a growth business for researchers. If I go into Google Scholar and put in words like “abusive supervision,” “workplace bullying” and everything jerk I can think of, I get something like 2,000 articles in academic journals. The main sentiment I read was that it sucks for you to be around jerks, and if you have continuous exposure to people leaving you feeling demeaned, depressed and de-energized, then your physical and mental health is likely to suffer and so is your productivity and creativity. The evidence that it’s bad is pretty consistent, and then I set off to write a book of useful strategies to help.
Are there different types of jerks in business, and what kind of considerations do you have to navigate in order to deal with them?
For sure. There could be thousands. One of my mottos is “[jerks] are us” because all of us can be jerks in the wrong conditions, so there are temporary jerks, which is all of us. Then, there are certified jerks; apparently, the former CEO of Uber was labeled this by his board. Then, there’s another distinction: clueless versus strategic jerks. A clueless jerk unintentionally is a jerk by interrupting people during a meeting, for example. And then there are strategic jerks who have decided that the way to get ahead is stomping on other people. There’s this other notion that some people are jerks that goes back to high school— the cool crowd, powerful jerks—and then there are the weird kids or the people who are different. One kind of jerk is the petty tyrant, who has relatively low prestige, but they have some power over our life such as the people who approve our expenses or the person behind the desk at the DMV.
What No. 1 trait do you suggest people have or try to develop in order to deal with jerks?
The main trait or skill is try to assess the situation. The first is to figure out to what degree it’s them versus you. You might have to go to the other extreme; it might be that you’re so thin-skinned that you’re constantly offended. There’s a lot of businesses where if you’re that way, you’re not going to get very far. Then, figure out how much power you have in the situation, and determine your options. If you’re at the bottom of the pecking order, or if you’re a CEO, you will have very different methods of how you deal with jerks.
And then if you’re in a place that’s like “Lord of the Flies” where everyone’s a jerk or one where there are just a couple jerks, you will also have different [things to assess]. If there are jerks everywhere, getting out is especially helpful because you’ll probably become one. Then, you can use strategies like avoiding them or telling yourself that “it’s not them it’s you.” When it’s a relatively small number, it’s easier to talk to the jerk or stomp them out. A lot of times, especially with clueless jerks, they actually sometimes have awareness and will change. Also, if it’s a relatively small number, you can form a posse and document behaviors of the jerk before taking it to the boss.
Do you have a favorite jerk story?
There’s one that I really like. One occupation where there are a lot of jerks is surgeons. They’re under a lot of pressure, and hospitals are such aggravating places to work. Attendings are the top dogs and have a reputation for abusing surgical residents. This guy wrote me to tell me that he and his fellow surgical residents would get together every week to decide who the “attending jerk of the week” was, and they’d write it in a book for posterity. Then, they would hand it down to different generations. This was about 20 years ago, and all of them vowed not to be a jerk as a result, and he said, as a group, they really didn’t think they became jerks. There was a self-awareness to protect the future generations.