12/31/08 10:09AM

Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule finally made it to the top of my books-to-read queue. While it gets a bit repetitive at times (as business-type books are prone to do), I think the message is a good one, best summed up by its closing statements:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could travel through our lives without encountering people who bring us down with their demeaning remarks and actions? This book is aimed at weeding out those folks and at teaching them when they have stripped others of their esteem and dignity ... it's your job to help build and shape a civilized workplace. Sure, you already know that. But isn't it time to do something about it?"

That all sounds goods, but the book describes how organizations often glorify assholes. Oftentimes, the more right you are and the more often you win, the bigger jerk you can be -- success, intelligence, and talent makes you harder to replace, so your destructive behavior is tolerated or even pampered. There may even be the thought that people are effective because they're jerks.

Sutton argues instead that these sorts of people cause more harm than good and recommends ways for organizations to systematically eliminate them. (He distinguishes between one-off or temporary behavior and a persistent pattern of oppressing, humiliating, de-energizing, and belittling others, particularly those in positions of less power -- the whole "kiss-up, kick-down" routine.)

A few nuggets I gleaned from the book:

  • "Fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong." (courtesy Karl Weick) Confrontation, disagreements, and direct interaction are important, so teach people how to do it right.
  • Make a conspicuous example of the rule-breakers. As research by Cialdini and others suggests, people actually respond better to social norms when good behavior has a clear contrast to "deviant" behavior.
  • The frequency of "we" vs. "I" is a good test. Peter Drucker once said that the most inspiring and effective leaders he encountered had a few things in common, including, "They thought and said we instead of I."
  • "Learned optimism" can help in times when you encounter assholes. Per Martin Seligman's research, you can become more resilient to these situations by framing difficulties as temporary and not your fault, and as something that will not pervade and ruin the rest of your life.

The book also mentions a research project from the MIT Media Lab called the Jerk-O-Meter that analyzes tone of voice and speech style to give real-time feedback on whether you're "being a jerk" on the phone. It's not clear that tools like that will prove effective in a broader context, but it can't hurt to keep trying new things that might increase self-awareness and help us police ourselves from engaging in negative behavior.