Monday, October 30, 2017


Last year, I blogged about Robert I. Sutton's book, The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (2007).

Even if you have the good fortune to be not only surviving, but thriving, in a civilized workplace, I recommend Sutton's book, if only because it emphasizes how easy it is to become ...  an asshole.

Recently, Sutton published a shorter book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt (2017).

Although I think The No Asshole Rule is the better book, if you're pressed for time and feeling like crap because of the way that other people treat you at work, The Asshole Survival Guide can help.

Sutton wrote the second book a decade later, after he received thousands of emails from people out there in the great big world--people who are suffering and struggling and surviving the assholes in their respective little worlds.

Pastors wondered what to do about individuals who volunteered their time, only to be assholes to those around them.

CEO's struggled to cope with "boardholes" (individual board members who behave like assholes) or "doucheboards" (entirely dysfunctional boards).

And workers wondered how to live with people who seem determined to bully and demean, often with no ostensible reason for their behavior.

For the last decade or so, bullying and incivility have been on the rise. (Gee, I can't imagine why.) And if you think it's limited to "mean girls" in high school or email or social media or the internet (or, more recently, politics at the highest level of government), think again.

In 2006, an Ohio State University study "estimated that abusive supervision costs U.S. corporations $23.8 billion a year (based on absenteeism, health-care costs, and lost productivity)" (10).

That was over a decade ago. Odds are, the estimated costs of workplace bullying have risen and will continue to do so, unless and until we openly confront and address the problem.

Sutton's book attempts to do just that, while at the same time meeting the needs of those who believe they are suffering in abusive workplace environments.

The first step, Sutton argues, is to diagnose the problem and its extent: are you dealing with just one bad apple, or has the entire bunch been spoiled? Is it a temporary problem, or a more or less permanent one? Do you have any power at all in the situation, or are you simply suffering?

Sometimes, the survival strategy is simple and straightforward: get away from the asshole.

Although you might think that you have to quit your job to do this (and in some cases, you might), it's also possible that you can limit your interaction with the person in question or move to a different department.

If the problem is a systemic one, however, avoidance and escape may not be so simple. However, Sutton believes that it is important to be realistic and acknowledge the damage done by assholes-- not the least of which is that, over time, they will turn you into an asshole as well.

Hanging in there and "toughing it out" may seem like a virtuous way to live. But in the end, it may cause you to become exactly what you fear and loathe: an asshole.

Not a very virtuous way to live after all.

In the spirit of the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Sutton suggests that it's better to refuse to connect with an asshole--in any context, no matter how seemingly lucrative or conducive to your career it might initially seem to be--than it is to have to figure out how to devise ways to avoid or disconnect from the person later on down the road.

Cultivate good radar, learn to spot the assholes, and cut your "losses" while they're still only imagined or potential losses, rather than real ones.

As a friend of mine once reminded me, "No one needs extra crazy lying around."

If it looks like a person might be the type of person who will bring "extra crazy" into your life--whether deliberately or inadvertently, in tiny doses or big, two-ton barrels--think before you engage with them. As Sutton notes,
I focus on reducing the amount of exposure because jerks are a lot like sick people who are infected with a dangerous and contagious disease. We human beings "catch" many of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from others (even when we don't want to). Becoming "infected" changes us (usually for the worse), and we pass our negative germs along to others (even if we don't intend to). (67)
Think of assholes as germ-carriers, and wash your hands of them as quickly as possible. Better yet, avoid contact altogether. Make a mental note to keep your distance, the way you would if you saw someone looking bleary-eyed and snuffling and sneezing at their desk one morning.

You wouldn't think twice about protecting yourself from the flu, if you knew you could avoid catching it.

Abusive and manipulative people are infected with a toxic and highly contagious way of behaving and interacting with others.  Protect yourself accordingly.

If you can't avoid or distance yourself from an asshole, try to slow their roll. A University of Chicago study scanned the brains of teens with "aggressive conduct disorder": "[w]hen the researchers showed the bullies pictures of people who were experiencing pain--for example, from a hammer dropped on a toe--the pleasure regions of their brains lit up (this did not happen to the kids in the control group)" (73).

If you've ever found yourself confronted with an asshole doing what they do best and thought, "It's like... they get off on being an asshole...", you're probably right.

Although the "findings are tentative" (73), there does seem to be a way in which bullies truly enjoy tormenting others (internet trolls provide perhaps the most obvious anecdotal evidence of this).

Given that the asshole may actually be enjoying the interaction, it becomes even more imperative to just... not respond.

But if you don't have that luxury--if you simply have to respond, because you work with the person and s/he has power over you--you can consider adopting my own personal mantra that I've honed over the years. It goes like this:

"There's no law that says I have to respond to you in a timely fashion. You can wait."

Bullies and emotional manipulators like to impose a timeline consisting of one point: the right now.

The goal is to see you flustered and flurried and upset, so that you drop everything to handle their ... well, bullshit, basically... as quickly as possible.

But when you do, know now that it will never be good enough and it will stop nothing. So... do what works best for you. If it's not really urgent--if it's only "urgent" in the sense that the asshole "needs" it--make 'em wait. They will be less likely to approach you with their needs in the future, if those needs tend to go largely unmet. 

On the flip side, Sutton notes that "One way that assholes leave others feeling disrespected and demeaned is to ignore them as people. That is, to treat them as if they were invisible. A classic crappy move is to treat someone like a piece of furniture that you use but do not acknowledge as a human being--no eye contact, no smile, no thanks, no connection of any sort" (76).

I've experienced this one myself. It can be exasperating, even for an introvert, because human beings are social animals. The assholes who treat people this way have an instinctive understanding of that: their behavior is essentially exploiting this facet of human interaction and connection, to make you feel like an outcast.

My way of handling this situation is best summed up in an old Far Side cartoon:

Be the guy with the wheelbarrow.

As Snow White advises, "just whistle a happy tune." Better yet, as Sutton advises (and I'm paraphrasing here, but not by much): "Cultivate the fine art of not giving a shit."

If they want to treat you as if you're invisible, let them. The world is full of better people than that, so be invisible to the assholes so that you can be fully present to those who will like and respect and admire and care about you.

Because time and time again, research suggests that the people targeted by workplace bullies or abusive managers are generally smart, conscientious, and productive.

Ironically (but not surprisingly), these workers are also consistently better-liked across the board, outside of the bullying environment.

Don't let some asshole(s) change that. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."