I have had an advance copy of Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t for a couple of months now and have been waiting for the right time to weigh in with my thoughts. You may say that Robert and I bonded over the word “asshole” – he was pointed to my Open Letter to CXOs post by a colleague in Australia and, after connecting, we have shared thoughts about civil and uncivil workplace behavior.
Then, while watching ESPN while on vacation, I saw that Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight was about to achieve the “winningest coach” (is that a word?) designation.
I will qualify this post by saying that I don’t know much about basketball, or basketball coaching techniques. The fact that I briefly dated the center of my high school basketball team and he went on to win the state championship the same year is pure coincidence (but true – San Anselmo Sir Francis Drake High Pirates – go team!).
I do know a lot, however, about assholes, having worked as a consultant in Corporate America for many years.
Robert Sutton defines assholes through two simple tests:
Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?
There are also some more specific indicators, defined by Bob as The Dirty Dozen:
The Dirty Dozen
Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use
- Personal insults
- Invading one’s “personal territory”
- Uninvited physical contact
- Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
- “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
- Withering email flames
- Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
- Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
- Rude interruptions
- Two-faced attacks
- Dirty looks
- Treating people as if they are invisible
Following this criteria, the flamboyant, angry and chair-throwing Bob Knight is a card-carrying asshole. What I found interesting was the conversation on ESPN’s Quite Frankly, Hosted by Steven A. Smith, about whether or not his outrageous behavior should muddy his designation as the most winning coach ever.
Steven Smith had two journalist guests on, whose names I didn’t write down. One called Bob Knight’s passing to the top slot “a dark day in college basketball history.” The other journalist, from Bob’s former hometown of Indiana, said that “If Bob’s employers don’t have a problem with his behavior, why should I? College basketball is a billion dollar business and all that matters is winning games.”
Herein lies my big beef with highly productive assholes like Bob Knight.
There is no denying that he is an incredibly talented coach who understands how to mobilize a team to win games. But what is the collateral damage? The journalist who stated that “all that matters is winning games” is overlooking a huge factor: Bob Knight is coaching college students who are in the midst of learning how to be productive citizens, at the same time they are playing basketball. You cannot tell me that his behavior will not influence some of them in both their basketball and business careers. My niece is a student at Texas Tech, and I am sorry that she has to witness his antics on the basketball floor as she enjoys her team’s games.
Over and over again, I have seen talented spoiled brats in senior level corporate positions stay in their jobs because their bosses were afraid to “mess with a winning formula.”
I also think there is a certain mythic reputation given to some superstars who are actually more admired because their wildly unacceptable behavior is untouchable. It is usually stopped only by one of two factors: criminal charges or a lawsuit. Then you see the finest of corporate PR backpedaling as management attempts to show that they were “taken by surprise” by the allegations or “totally unaware” of the behavior until the charges were filed.
Robert gives some great, specific advice for avoiding assholes in the workplace, including his somewhat controversial perspective that sometimes we learn to “develop indifference and emotional detachment.” I don’t think that he is advocating staying in a toxic setting if it is affecting your health or well-being. The way I take the advice is to not give up your power to assholes in your workplace by leaving with your tail between your legs if you have valid reasons for staying there. Be like an Aikido practitioner and use the force of their negative energy to gently direct them to their own demise. If you engage in direct conflict with them, you will lose.
The most important lesson I take from the book as an entrepreneur is twofold: Watch to make sure that I don’t behave as an asshole, and avoid them in the form of clients, partners or mentors. I have had mentors in the past who pushed me to be more aggressive, critical and in-your-face with my clients. As I looked at their own lives, I saw that besides financial success, their highly critical behavior tended to leak into their personal lives and they had difficult relationships with their spouses and children.
There is nothing glamorous or powerful about making someone feel inferior, ashamed or humiliated. As much as we hold up competition and winning in our culture, it should not be the only criteria for measuring success.
I think Bob Knight should have been stopped in his tracks a long time ago by his management and held accountable for his behavior. His incredible talent and skill is overshadowed by juvenile behavior that is embarrassing to him and his family. What a waste of a tremendous gift. And what a disservice to the many young men he mentored as a coach.
If you are plagued by a similar figure in your workplace, you will enjoy Robert’s book.