I recently read a book by Robert Sutton, Ph.D. and simply had to write about it. I apologize for the crude reference, but I do try to be accurate. This is the exact title of the book: The No Asshole Rule. The book describes the business impact of working with assholes. (By the way, the Dr. Sutton feels that “jerk,” “creep,” “bully,” or a whole host of other adjectives are not nearly as effective a descriptor as “asshole” for the type of person he is referring to). There is no other word that can quite pinpoint this person, so throughout this blog I will use his word; my apologies to anyone who may be offended.
The author, a Stanford professor, contends that assholes are toxic to your company and no matter how brilliant they may be, they should not be tolerated in your company. He defines them as individuals who belittle, berate, intimidate and otherwise demean other employees, particularly those in less powerful positions than their own. The negative impact of such individuals is far-reaching, as they:
- lower morale
- squelch innovation and creativity
- inhibit cooperation and teamwork
- discourage risk-taking
- decrease productivity
- complicate hiring process, as the best and brightest will not tolerate such behavior
One company calculated that the cost of one of their top performers, who was also highly offensive, at $160,000. That’s a pretty high price.
Furthermore, Dr. Sutton contends that if you work with these types of people, you have a much higher likelihood to act like one yourself. I have found what he says to be true. At one point, I worked in a very demanding corporate environment with several prime examples of what the author described. Once there was a time when my boss took a hard line on a mistake that she believed was made by the agency. I felt I had to carry this line in my discussions with them, and I found myself firing off an accusatory email demanding restitution. But even before it was discovered that we were at fault, I felt horrible for taking such a line. In the end, I apologized profusely, but I believe the damage to our relationship had already been done.
After that, I took immediate steps to disengage myself from that leadership style.
There is a useful chapter on how to survive working with these types of individuals. The advice is to take protective measures to emotionally detache yourself from your work (very hard to do if you’re passionate about your work). Interestingly, the author does not believe you can thrive, only that you can survive interactions with such people.
As a Personal Branding strategist, I found this book to be highly instructive. When I talk with executives in any field, ultimately the questions are “what is your leadership brand?” or “what kind of leader do you want to be?” How you express your brand is a part of your brand.
The author talks about the upside of assholes, and yes, there is an upside. As my amusing (if somewhat crass) brother-in-law points out, “@#%holes make s#@% happen!” Unfortunately, leading by fear and intimidation can be highly productive, as employees will scramble to get answers, to get work done, to perform, simply so that they won’t be yelled that or berated or demeaned anymore. Apparently, the recently deceased Steve Jobs was one of the most famous assholes in the business world. Certainly he was able to lead his teams at Apple to incredible achievements…but at what price?
From a leadership branding standpoint, every leader needs to decide if this is a style you’d like to take on. Do you like the feel of power that comes from showing yourself smarter, faster, better than others in your world? In the short-term, you may be able to successfully lead a team to Apple-sized greatness by being an asshole. But is it worth it? Does the end justify the means?
It wasn’t for me.
If there is anyone whom I have treated like an asshole, I humbly apologize. I certainly do not want that to be part of my personal brand.
If you are a leader working on development of your personal brand, I highly recommend this book. It will help you examine your behavior and ensure that you are not treating others in such a negative way.