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Book Report: “The No Asshole Rule”, by Robert Sutton

My annual review at Creative Commons took place at the end of July, and like last year, the emphasis was on the growing area of focus for me: management. I consider myself an accidental manager, but the anecdotal evidence is that I’m not terrible at it. The conversation during my review, and a prior conversation with a consultant from Teleos , led me to believe that I could improve my performance by learning more about “best practices” or “first principles”. So I’m trying to read some of the “literature”. While it’s not all directly applicable (or interesting), I think of it sort of like x86 assembler: I don’t want to write software in assembler, but I’m convinced that having some understanding of it helps me do better a better job at the work I do want to do.

The first book I chose to read was “The No Asshole Rule” , by Robert Sutton , a professor at Stanford University. Mike recommended Sutton generally, and this seemed like a good starting point. The entire book is an easy, enjoyable read, but there were a few pages I dog eared because they seemed particularly relevant or useful.

Sutton begins by defining an “asshole” as someone who meets two criteria: interactions with the subject leave you feeling oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled, and the subject specifically targets those less powerful than themselves. I think Sutton’s definition is useful because it distinguishes between people who are sharp-edged or anti-social, and those who leave others feeling like they’re less-than. I can’t think of a single job I’ve had that’s been completely asshole free by this definition, although the degree (and whether they’re colleagues, clients, or board members) has varied widely over the years. As my dad says, “you have all kinds of people, in all kinds of places.” All of that is to say that after reading The No Asshole Rule, I have a better idea what sort of people I want to minimize interaction with, and what sort of behavior I want to eliminate in myself.

In his discussion on how to build an asshole-free workplace, Sutton describes the need to teach people how and when to fight: a team needs to be able to “disagree and then commit”. The second guessing, criticism of the decision, complaining, and arguing stops being productive as soon as a decision has been made. I have worked with people who, as soon as things are less than perfect, constantly remind others that they disagreed with a decision. In my experience, those reminders are demoralizing and saps energy from everyone around them (whether or not their co-workers or supervisors deign to respond).

Does this mean that you don’t evaluate whether a decision was correct so you can improve your decision making skills? Absolutely not. My interpretation is that to be successful (and avoid being an asshole), your decision needs to include what the definition of success is (metrics). That allows you to come back to the decision later and say, “You know, this decision was made assuming X, Y, and Z would happen; we see now X didn’t, so let’s remember that in mind next time.”

The No Asshole Rule doesn’t just talk about how to identify and protect against assholes; Sutton also discusses how to prevent your own inner asshole from getting out. One thing I found interesting was the discussion about how seeing your co-workers as competition is a sure fire way to ensure you’re an asshole. I know that I’m guilty of this. The joke, “It’s not enough to succeed, others must fail,” used to sound like a plausible approach to me. Sutton talks about why public shaming of under-performers is not useful, and how simple word choices (“mutual”, “share”, “fair”, vs. “enemy”, “battle”, “lawyer”) can help people cooperate better. When I worked at Canterbury, there were times I thought of meetings with the Technology Subcommittee of the Board as “battles” to be “survived”. While not without reason, this probably influenced the way I presented information and responded to questions. I’m sure it’s happened since then, too.

Sutton also includes suggestions on how to deal with assholes, if you’re not able to escape them. Two suggestions are looking for incremental wins, and not stooping to their level. The latter seems like a variation on my mother’s advice to “kill ‘em with kindness” and “turn the other cheek.” I still have a hard time with both, and my experience growing up was that neither is a guarantee that the asshole will stop asshole-ing.

Overall “The No Asshole Rule” helped me think about what kind of environment I want to be working in, what sort of people I like to work with, and how I can be a better co-worker and manager.

As Sutton points out, most of us are assholes every now and then. Reading this helped me identify things I have done in the past and think about how I might approach the situation differently today.