An article containing some ideas from The No Asshole Rule appeared in The McKinsey Quarterly some time ago and was summarized in The Economist.
This post is motivated by the question with which The Economist ends its little story: “If jerks cost firms so dearly, why are so many them employed?”
I think that it is a good question, and one that I have puzzled over a lot. To their point:
A study of American workers released in March found that 44 percent of Americans reported they have worked for an abusive boss. This study was conducted by the Reed Group for the Employment Law Alliance.
They surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 American adults within the past two weeks, which resulted in interviews with 534 workers.
Things are even worse in some occupations, notably medicine. A longitudinal study of nearly 3,000 medical students from 16 medical schools was just published in The British Medical Journal. Erica Frank and her colleagues at the Emory Medical School found that 42 percent of seniors reported being harassed by fellow students, professors, physicians, or patients; 84 percent reported they had been belittled and 40 percent reported being both harassed and belittled.
The full report is here. Similarly, a 2003 study of 461 nurses published in the journal of Orthopaedic Nursing found that 91 percent had experienced verbal abuse in the past month. Physicians were the most frequent source of such nastiness, but it also came from patients and their families, fellow nurses, and supervisors.
The No Asshole Rule suggests a few reasons why there are so many.
1. In our society, we value winners so much that, even if they are jerks, we tolerate, or even glorify, them because — so long as they keep making money or winning games — we think they are worth the trouble. Exhibit one is Coach Bob Knight and his long tenure at Indiana University. The administration didn’t have the courage to get rid of him because he won so many games, despite a history of atrocious behavior.
See this story and the associated 1997 video clip: It sure looks to me like he is choking the player. Knight brags that he “did it my way,” but I don’t want people doing things that way in my organization, no matter how great they “perform.”
2. Tough leaders sometimes create a climate of fear, so that those who surround them are afraid to challenge them or take action against them. If you have seen The Last King of Scotland, the Academy Award-winning film about Idi Amin, you can see an extreme form of these dynamics on display.
The same dynamics (albeit in milder form) sometimes surround corporate leaders, as their underlings are afraid to challenge them.
3. Power can turn anyone into a jerk. A large body of evidence (hundreds of peer-reviewed studies) shows that giving ordinary people power over others can make them selfish and insensitive. I wrote a detailed post about this research on my other blog.
The upshot is that giving people power causes them to be more focused on satisfying their own needs and less focused on the needs and reactions of those around them, especially those with less power. They act as if social norms don’t apply to them.
4. There are advantages to acting like a jerk, such as when an organization is set-up as a pure “I win, you, lose” game. If you work in an asshole-infested organization, being nasty to others is probably the only way to survive, let alone get ahead. Indeed, that is why I grudgingly wrote a chapter called “The Virtues of Assholes” in the book.
But if you are winner and a jerk, you are still jerk, and so you are still a loser by a more important standard. Not everyone thinks that way.
I wrote the book, and the article for McKinsey, because there is a strong business case against allowing assholes to flourish, and my hope is that if organizations begin to come to grips with the evidence, they will take stronger steps to enforce the no asshole rule.
And as I have noted here before, there are growing group of executives who believe that enforcing the no asshole rule can help them attract and keep the most talented employees.
What do you think? Why are there still so many demeaning jerks in organizations if they undermine performance (and damage the mental and physical health of others)? Why do so many of these creeps get away with it?
Robert I. Sutton is the author of “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.” He is a fellow at IDEO and has taught at Stanford Business School in one capacity or another since 1983. He blogs at Work Matters, where he writes about business, management and __________s. He also blogs for HBR.org, where this post first appeared.