Work can be a drag if you find yourself in a den of assholes. Unfortunately, this seems to be becoming more common as narcissism is on the rise. I’d like to start a conversation about how we might tackle this problem. Here’s an outline of how we might begin to approach the problem.

TLDR: start with Robert Sutton’s No Asshole Rule and follow that up with modelling your behaviour on a gentleman — that’s where the Cambridge Culture comes in.

The No Asshole Rule

There are a lot of assholes out there. It seems that I may have run into more than my fair share. Assholes make people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised and belittled. In short, they destroy rather than create. The targets of their behaviour tend to be those less powerful — so assholes in management have a larger area of destruction.

These assholes can poison your whole organisation, leading to a culture of fear, lower productivity, high staff turnover, general unhappiness and gnashing of teeth.

The assholes tend to think that their behaviour is justified because it helps to “get the job done”. However, Sutton points out this is a kind of confirmation bias and usually “stuff gets done” despite the behaviour of the asshole — not because of it.

The best method of dealing with assholes is avoidance. Don’t take on a job, contract or customer if you’re going to have to live with assholes. If you find yourself in a den of assholes besides your best efforts, then leave as soon as you can manage it. Sutton recommends indifference for putting up with assholes — this may be useful in the short term. He also suggests reframing and small wins which seem better coping mechanisms. You may find you need to take a break after suffering at the hands of an asshole.

Don’t confuse the occasional asshole with the institutional one (Sutton calls this the temporary asshole and the certified asshole). Everyone blows up occasionally and let’s their “inner asshole” out — particularly when under th thumb of an institutional asshole! Don’t be too quick to label strange or unusual colleagues as assholes — Sutton has a book on this topic: Weird Ideas that Work. A good tip for preventing the inner-asshole from escaping is: argue like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.

I don’t believe that assholes are virtuous despite Sutton’s reluctant chapter on it. One thing that makes sense is that being an asshole may be a short-cut to power and status. Who doesn’t know one or two loud-mouthed, arrogant, self-professed experts that seek promotion only to succeed? Try not to let that happen to your organisation. If you have to put up with the odd asshole from time to time, whatever you do, do not promote them. Keep them in a box, try to reform them (possible if they are only an occasional asshole, unlikely if they are an institutional asshole). If that doesn’t work out, you really must fire them.

One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel Ancient proverb

A Cambridge Culture

A partial remedy to this situation is to adopt what I like to call a Cambridge Culture. This is as simple as modelling yourself on the behaviour of Simon Peyton Jones. Simon is a lead programmer of the Glasgow Haskell Compiler — aka GHC. He works at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and hence the name.

If you don’t know Simon, he can be described as a scholar and a gentleman. While being someone who is very bright, accomplished and energetic; Simon doesn’t feel entitled to indulge in behaviour that could be perceived as arrogant, haughty, overbearing, dictatorial etc. Simon also accepts that other intelligent folks might have views that run somewhat counter to his own. In this situation, he is not only tolerant but patiently teaches if those folks are open to it. He also listens carefully to work out where he may be off-track himself (if not completely wrong). As a lead developer of GHC, Simon encourages participation and rarely feels the need to make unilateral decisions. Instead, allowing the community to reach a consensus where possible and breaking deadlocks where necessary. He shies away from the title Benevolent Dictator for Life.