There are some people in life who are more than unpleasant, more than annoying. They’re real, genuine a**holes.
My guest today has written the preeminent field guides to identifying, dealing with, and avoiding all of life’s jerks, bullies, tyrants, and trolls: The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide. His name is Bob Sutton, he’s a Stanford professor of organization and management, and we begin our conversation together with how Bob defines what makes an a-hole an a-hole, what causes their jerkiness, and the costs of having such disagreeable people as part of an organization. We then get into the circumstances of when being a jerk yourself can actually be advantageous. We then turn to how to deal with the jerks in your own life, including distancing yourself from them, deciding you’re going to be better than them, and imagining you’re a jerk collector encountering a new species of jerk. Bob explains smart ways to fight back against jerks, and gets into the wisdom of documenting their jerkiness, why it’s occasionally helpful to take an aggressive stand, and how even Steve Jobs learned how to be less of an a-hole. We end our conversation with how to build a jerk-free workplace.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How do you know if you’re dealing with a jerk or just someone having a hard day?
- Why you should be slow to characterize someone as an a-hole
- How do jerks become jerks?
- The costs of jerks to productivity
- The occasional benefits of being a jerk
- Ins and outs of dealing with jerks
- Why you need to document the actions and behaviors of a-holes
- What does it look like to fight back against a jerk?
- How do you deal with superstars who are jerks?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Deal With Aggressive People
- How to Cut Toxic People Out of Your Life
- Sizing People Up
- The Last Dance
- Beware the Tit for Tat Trap
- How to Deal With Bad Coworkers
- How to Stand Up to Your Boss
Connect With Bob
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There are some people in life who are more than unpleasant, more than annoying, they’re real genuine a**holes. My guest today has written the pre-eminent field guide to identifying, dealing with and avoiding all of life’s jerks, bullies, tyrants and trolls. His first books, “The No A-hole Rule” the second one was “The A-hole Survival Guide”. His name is Bob Sutton, he’s a Stanford Professor of Organization and Management and we begin our conversation together with how Bob defines what makes a jerk a jerk, what causes their jerkiness and the cost of having such disagreeable people as part of an organization. We then get into the circumstances of when being a jerk yourself can actually be advantageous. We then turn to how to deal with all the jerks in your own life including distancing yourself from them, deciding you’re going to be better than them and imagining your jerk collector encountering a new species of jerk. Bob explains smart ways to fight back against jerks and gets into the wisdom of documenting their jerkiness, why it’s occasionally helpful to make an aggressive stand and how even Steve Jobs learned to be less of an A-hole. We end our conversation with how to build a jerk-free workplace, after the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/jerks.
Alright, Bob Sutton, welcome to the show.
Bob Sutton: It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of Management Science at Stanford University, but because of an article you wrote and then two books you’ve written, you’ve become known as the A-hole guy. The first book was “The No A-hole Rule” and then the most recent one was “The A-hole Survival Guide”. How did this happen, how did you become the A-hole guy?
Bob Sutton: Well, there’s two answers to that question, one is the way I was raised which is, my dad used to always tell me to not be an A-hole and because if you treat people like that you do two things, number one is you hurt people and number two is actually in life people hold it against you and they kinda lie in wait and stab you in the back. So there was that, and then in about 2004 I got an interesting call from a woman named Julia Kirby who was an editor at Harvard Business Review and she said, “Do you have any ideas for Breakthrough Ideas.” They used to run an annual Breakthrough Ideas section, and I said, “I have an idea I’m interested in. It’s not a breakthrough idea I’d heard it my whole life and it entails using a dirty seven-letter word that you would never publish in a respectable publication like the Harvard Business Review.” Well, Julia called my bluff and I sent in this article which by the way had the word in it too many times ’cause I thought they would cross it out and they didn’t, and I got more response to that than any HBR article I’ve written, actually, before or since and I’ve written quite a few of them, and so to me that was a sign that maybe I should write a book. And I wrote this short book, “The No-A-hole Rule”, that for better or worse has sold more than all of my other books combined, so here I am.
Brett McKay: Right, so this definitely… This is a topic that resonates with people, so lets talk about it, so what makes… Let’s say jerk instead of A-hole, what makes a jerk a jerk in your experience and thinking about this topic?
Bob Sutton: Well, so academics argue about everything, but this is my take, my take is that it’s somebody who leaves others feeling demeaned, disrespected and/or de-energized, and there’s an important distinction here that I think is useful to keep in mind. One is, there are certified jerks, those are the people in our lives who everywhere they go, they leave people feeling like dirt, usually that’s some sort of personality defect, but the fact is that all of us under the wrong conditions can be temporary jerks and perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly leave others feeling bad. So that’s how I make the distinction which is that people who make others feel bad.
Brett McKay: So there’s permanent jerks, people that are always… And then people who are temporary?
Bob Sutton: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay, so… Yeah, as we’re going through this, are there diagnostics to try to figure out if you’re dealing with a certified jerk or someone is just having an off moment?
Bob Sutton: Yeah, what the main diagnostics is essentially if everybody you know says, “Oh, he or she is a jerk,” and that’s just how they treat everybody, then to me that is a diagnostic sign. To give you an example of one of my favorite ones is, there’s a Hollywood producer named Scott Rudin and he was actually written up on Wall Street Journal as Boss-Zila. And just as an example, he went through literally an executive assistant every two weeks and apparently did fire one for bringing him the wrong breakfast muffin, and was just famous for that. And Chris Rock even said that Scott Rudin isn’t racist he just hates everybody. So I think somebody like that who just leaves a trail of everywhere they go, just raging and burning people I think that that’s a diagnostic question so we know who these people are.
Brett McKay: Right, but a point you make in “A-Hole Survival Guide” is when you are trying to figure out if someone’s an A-hole or a jerk you wanna be slow to give… You don’t want that to be the first answer you go to like, “Oh, that guys is just a jerk,” ’cause it might not be.
Bob Sutton: Yeah, so that’s also really true because one of the first things that happens is that we as human beings tend to have negative reactions to people who are different than us, who have opinions we dislike, who look funny. So yes, there’s all sorts of reasons, and in fact there’s another side to this, which is really important to talk about, that there’s all sorts of evidence that show that we’re really fast to label other people as jerks and really slow to label ourselves, and if you look at the biases it should probably be the opposite, that you should be fast to label yourself and slow to label others.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a good point. I’ve often asked myself, when I’m having… There’s a conflict between someone, I’m always asking, “Am I the jerk here? Is this is me or like am I… ” ‘Cause I never know… I’m always… I don’t wanna go to immediately, “Oh, that guy’s a jerk,” when it could be me.
Bob Sutton: So there’s both evidence and stories here that the best thing in life is to have people who love you and trust you [chuckle] who’ll tell you when you’re blowing it. And I even talk about… In the book, I had this boss, Peter Glen, my former department chair, who… I wrote a nasty email to one of my undergraduates. I don’t think I’m routinely nasty, but like everybody else, I sometimes lose it. And he called me into my office and said, “You do not treat students that way, and you will apologize to him,” and you know he was right. And so having people… There’s a different between people who say bad things to you just because they wanna hurt your feelings, but Peter was doing that out of caring for me and caring for the student, and he was right. And I also talk about this notion that Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, that was one of the functions that she served, is that when he was nasty or incompetent, she’d tell him. So for those of us who have partners in life who will tell us the truth, they’re actually quite valuable.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So it sounds like there’s sort of a Dunning-Kruger effect for jerks, sometimes jerks don’t even know…
Bob Sutton: Oh yeah!
Brett McKay: They’re jerks. But they think they’re less jerky and everyone else is just a jerk. So Dunning-Kruger is like you don’t think you’re dumb, you think everyone else is dumb.
Bob Sutton: Right. Yeah, yeah. And the other part about Dunning-Kruger is, the dumber and more incompetent you are at something, the more that you tend to over-estimate your skills and abilities. And that does turned out to be true for social skills too. So yeah, there’s definitely a Dunning-Kruger effect for jerks. And I think that sometimes some of the nicest people worry the most about coming across as jerks, and maybe even worry too much, ’cause then they start being afraid to tell the truth, if you will.
Brett McKay: So this might be… We’re gonna go into psychology here. What makes a jerk a jerk? I think we understand temporary jerks. Sometimes, you just have an off day, you’re in a bad mood, whatever, we… And you understand that. But we’re talking about the permanent jerks, what do you think is going on there?
Bob Sutton: So to me… Well, first of all, there’s a whole bunch of genetic ways that people are raised that have some sort of effect. But to me, if you look at somebody who tends to be a jerk over time and look at the situation they’re in, they tend to be in situations where they’re under constant time pressure, they’re really competitive, so if, you see, everything is a “I win, you lose,” game, that’s gonna make you a jerk, because your job is to sort of crush them. Sleep deprivation; if you are consistently sleep-deprived, that’s a great way to turn into a jerk. And maybe the most powerful and consistent effect is, it turns out that negative emotions, nastiness, anger, disrespect, they’re incredibly contagious. So if you are offered a job or get into a relationship with a bunch of people who are jerks, the odds are that you are going to start acting like them.
Brett McKay: So yeah, that was a… So it sounds like environment can have a big impact on whether you’re jerk or not. Yeah, I think you quoted some person who was talking about like, “Before you decide or diagnose yourself with depression, just make sure you’re not surrounded by a bunch of jerks.”
Bob Sutton: Yeah. Yeah. And one thing that I think we should talk a little bit about the evidence here is that… So I wrote, we’re calling it “The No A-hole” or “No Jerk Rule” in 2007, and then I wrote the next book, “The Jerk Survival Guide” or “A-hole Survival Guide” in 2017. There’s been an absolute explosion in academia, of all things, about jerks. And if you just look at the weight of the evidence, being around people who treat you like dirt, it’s bad for your physical health, it’s bad for your mental health, it’s bad for your relationship with your partner in life. And on the other side, there’s all sorts of evidence that it not only drives out the best people, it makes them less productive, it makes them more likely to steal. We can talk about some of the advantages of being a jerk, there’s one or two I can think of, but on the whole, [chuckle] it’s not a pretty thing for our physical or mental health or for our productivity.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah it is and going back to you… You’re coming at this from a management perspective. So you’re focusing typically on how being jerk or how jerks affect organizations and businesses. What are the costs? What are the productivity cost, etcetera, of jerks?
Bob Sutton: Well, so we can show, over and over again, in the laboratory, in field studies, that, for example, there’s a great study of some 250 fast food chains. And if the boss was nasty and treated the employees in a disrespectful way, the best ones would quit. They’d steal more food. They’d waste more food. They’d be less satisfied with their jobs. There’s all sorts of effects. But perhaps my favorite example, and this is one that goes way back, there was a… I gotta still disguise this firm some, but it was a firm that sold very expensive stuff, so imagine very expensive software. And the way that firms like this work is that the star salespeople get paid an absolute fortune, they can get over a million dollars easily. So they had this star salesperson, and we’re gonna call him Ethan. And Ethan was such a jerk that he would just flame everybody, he’d treat everybody with disrespect.
And so what [chuckle] happened was that finally the folks in HR got so mad at him, by the way, after his wife screamed at them about a co-pay for the health insurance and swore at them and said, “My husband’s the most important person in the firm blah, blah blah.” So the folks in HR got mad, and they calculated what I call the TCJ, the Total Cost of Jerks. And essentially, they figured out that this guy’s jerkiness, between all of the lawsuits they had to settle, all the new assistants they had to keep hiring, all the time they wasted on him, it was costing $160,000 a year. And to me, that’s just like, “Wow.” And to their credit, they did sort of pay him less the next year with a bonus. But, so you can see specific examples like that, and you can also see the academic literature as well. We could talk about the upside too, ’cause that’s always kind of fun.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ll get to the upside in a bit, but I wanna… We’re gonna hit this a little bit harder here.
Bob Sutton: Okay.
Brett McKay: But it also is not just co-workers where people can be jerks, it’s customers. And there’s lots of research that shows that people who have to work with jerky customers or clients, that can also be a big downer on productivity and well-being at work.
Bob Sutton: Oh, all sorts of negative effects and in fact, when people face nasty customers and clients, it does make them physically sick, they are more likely to quit, and there’s another… Just for those of your listeners who might be jerky clients, there’s another side to this, which is, there’s all sorts of evidence, for example, with consulting firms, that if you treat people badly… When you’re the customer, that you get a whole bunch of things happen. One is you tend to get charged more, and the other thing that happens, and I hear this from my students over and over again who go to the fancy, sort of blue ribbon consulting firms, is that, if a client is known to be a jerk, they tend to get the consultants who are least good because the consultants who are in demand and are great, they can go to whatever clients they want, so you gotta be really careful if you’re treating other people like dirt, you’re gonna have problems. And sometimes you also might get fired.
One of my favorite examples is there’s this guy named Rob Fry. Rob Fry is a hero in New Zealand, he turned around and saved New Zealand Air, and if you know about New Zealand, there’s not many ways off the island… Well, now there’s no way off the island with COVID, but there’s just a few airlines, and so there was a really rich guy in New Zealand who abused his staff, and so what Rob Fry did, and I was in the conference, I saw him read this letter to all of us, it was hysterical. And what he did was, he wrote this guy and he said, “You are not allowed to fly on our airline any longer, and he cc’d the email to his entire staff. Now that [chuckle] I thought that was absolutely brilliant.
Brett McKay: Yeah, standing up for his staff there.
Bob Sutton: Yes.
Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about the downsides of being a jerk, you mentioned there are some upsides sometimes of being a jerk, what are those?
Bob Sutton: Well, let’s start with kinda the temporary part. It is sort of interesting, and I know it’s being a jerk, but sort of losing your temper, treating people with disrespect, there’s actually some interesting evidence that, especially if you’re not a jerk all the time, that having strategic temper tantrums may actually work to motivate people when they’re feeling complacent or they’re being incompetent. And in particular, there’s this really interesting study done by a Berkeley professor I know well, named Barry Staw, and what he did was, essentially he put a tape recorder in the locker room at half time during college and high school basketball games, and he recorded the coaches speeches across the season. He did this for a bunch of teams, and what the finding was, was that the coaches who yelled at the teams all the time, that didn’t work, but coaches who usually didn’t yell, if they occasionally had a temper tantrum and gave them grief about how lazy they were being and how disappointed that he or she was in them and so on, that they would do better in the second half of the game.
The lesson there is kinda interesting, is that being all jerk all the time might not work for motivating people, but if it’s somebody where, who… It’s usually somebody who’s reasonable and they lose their temper at you, it actually might work occasionally. That’s one, we can talk about some other examples, but that always sort of fascinated me.
Brett McKay: I know that’s true, I remember… If I think back to when I played football, there were coaches who yelled at you all the time, and when they yell at you at half-time, nothing, but there’s really the coach is really cool and you just liked him a lot, and then he came in and just reamed you at half time, I paid attention …
Bob Sutton: Yeah, yeah, that’s kinda the… We used to have Jim Harbaugh as our coach here at Stanford, and then he went on to the 49ers, so I had a lot of students who had Jim Harbaugh… And that’s kind of the problem that Jim Harbaugh has, is he just yells at everybody all the time, and eventually it gets old. Yeah, that sounds right.
Brett McKay: So what are some other examples of where being a jerk could be beneficial?
Bob Sutton: If you think about it, any time you’re in a situation where it’s a zero-sum game, it’s kind of, “I win, you lose” sorta game, then leaving people feeling demeaned and de-energized, it probably works. And that’s the, kind of, Michael Jordan sort of effect in the… Actually the series about Michael Jordan and everything, is that, well, he was sort of in the situation of maybe he should have not been so nasty to his teammates, but if you’re in this sort of situation where by making other people feel like dirt, you do better and you don’t have to cooperate with them, then it actually probably works. And I’m not necessarily recommending it, but it actually can be effective in those situations. If you have multiple interactions with people, it doesn’t work though, and/or you ever need to cooperate with them.
Brett McKay: Right, I think like the tit-for-tat studies, that kind of… That sort of stories that if you know you’re not gonna interact with someone, then it’s in your interest to just be like, “I’m gonna go after this person and not be cooperative,” but if you know you’re gonna have to interact with them, over and over again in the long term, then you wanna cooperate.
Bob Sutton: By the way, that’s why selling cars just is terrible [chuckle] ’cause it’s like… And I feel sorry for car sales people, ’cause they’re mostly in situations where they’re never gonna see the customer again, and, “Ah… ” Yeah, so there’s some occupations where that does happen.
Brett McKay: Right. And then that can lead to some situations where if you’re getting taken advantage of and then you feel like you’re in a zero-sum game, you might start doing things that, just to cut off the nose to spite yourself and… Right, just so you send out a message. Even though you know you might not get back to the guy, you wanna send out a message to everyone else like, “Don’t mess with me, because I’m willing to just nuke myself just to get back at this person.”
Bob Sutton: Right. So to me that’s one of those downward spirals of human conflict, where, if you will, our worst angels or our worst selves come out and to me, that’s kind of the problem with situations where there’s A-hole poisoning, is that everybody races to the bottom. Just to think about this a little more, one thing I’ve thought about is, well, what are some of the hallmarks of successful jerks? Steve Jobs was one of them, by the way, and you can even argue whether or not he’s a jerk, if you wanna go there, but if you look at some of the things that he and some other successful jerks do, first of all, they’re not all jerk, all the time, they’re so much strategic about it. Some of the people who love Steve Jobs the most were the tech writers, he never was nasty to them. And so that’s once, ’cause if you’re all jerk all the time, people just sort of give up on you.
And then the other thing that smart jerks do, is they have… We call them toxic handlers, they essentially have people who after everybody’s all upset, to go sort of clean up the mess and calm down everybody. So, Larry Ellison was sort of famous and he’s calmed down in his old age, was sort of famous for having people who kinda, if you will, cleaned up the mess behind him. So, if you’re gonna be a jerk, there are certain things you can do, and one is to not be all jerk all the time, the other is to have a toxic handler, and the third thing is to be careful ’cause one thing that happens, and you see this in politics. I’m gonna stay out of politics, and in business too, is that when people are powerful and they treat other people badly, very often those people won’t fight back, but when they start losing power, then boom, it’s amazing how quickly they come down because their weak enemies are lying in wait, and then boom, when the moment comes, everything comes…
Brett McKay: It’s very Machiavellian, right? Let’s talk about this. So we know jerks aren’t great, but we have to deal with them, so how do we do that? What’s the first step of dealing with a jerk?
Bob Sutton: So, the question of how you deal with jerks, that’s essentially why I wrote “The A-hole Survival Guide”, which is that I wrote this book that I thought was kind of a management book about how to lead to create a jerk-free workplace. But then I got 8000 or more emails and they were different, but they were also all the same, which was essentially, “I’ve got a jerk in my life, what do I do?” And I’m a psychologist, but I’m not a therapist. So I started digging into this, and for me, one of the first things to do is to sort of assess the situation. And if you are in a position where you are encountering either for a short period of time or a long period of time, somebody who is abusive, my first bit of advice is if you can get out, get out of there. And there’s big ways, and there’s small ways. The big ways is quitting your job, moving your seat, anything you can do, just sort of get away from them, ’cause if you look at the evidence, it’s like a toxic substance. So that’s one is, is just simply leave the scene if you can. It’s not possible for all of us to quit our jobs or to leave the situation.
The second thing, and there’s great evidence that… It’s unfortunately almost too good, which is essentially, is that if you get within 25 feet for your job, sitting near a jerk, and this was done in open offices, the odds are you’re gonna sort of catch that contagious poisoning, so if you are sitting near a jerk, try to create physical distance from them. And to engage with them as infrequently as possible. So I talk about in the book, one of my friends, so she had a really nasty dissertation advisor who would call her and send her nasty emails at all hours of the day and night. And what she started learning to do was, to slow down the rhythm. So she’d wait a week and she wouldn’t answer any of them. She’d give a polite answer, and then she’d wait another week just to sort of slow the rhythm of the interaction. So, I guess that’s one.
A third one, which is really useful is if you’re in a situation where you can’t get out and you’re stuck with it, that… And this is kind of in the domain of cognitive behavioral therapy, finding ways to sort of reframe the situation so it doesn’t hurt your soul quite so much. That’s another solution. One of my favorites, and maybe we can stop here for… After I’m done with this one, one of my favorites is one of my heroes and friends, her name is Becky Margiotta. So she went to West Point, one of the early women at West Point, and she described how when you were a first year plebe at West Point, you have somebody in your face, an inch from your nose, scream at you, all the time, the upperclassmen. And so what she started doing was just seeing them as the funniest comedians she ever saw in her life, not taking them seriously. So sometimes reframing something as being funny rather than threatening, that’s one of the ways to deal with it. But this challenge of reframing something is not being quite so threatening. We can talk about fighting back a little bit too, ’cause I’m talking about these more passive ways.
Brett McKay: Yeah, well, let’s dig into this passive stuff, ’cause I thought that was really interesting. Some of the studies that you’ve uncovered with this stuff, so just avoiding the person in the first place, I think you highlighted a study, you don’t necessarily have to quit your job, it could just be, if you’re in a company like moving teams, and that can make all the difference in the world, just like, “Alright, I’m gonna go to this team instead of working with this guy.”
Bob Sutton: Yeah, yeah. So there’s a whole bunch of research that shows, once you get about 50 feet away from somebody in the sort of old fashion office, when we used to work in offices, many of us, once you get 50 feet away from them, you’re hardly ever gonna see them. In fact, if somebody works on a different floor of the same building, very often this is as good as having them in another country. So, [chuckle] yeah, so that’s one thing you can do.
Some of the other stuff that I think is really quite interesting in terms of this kind of coping stuff, is this notion of sort of framing yourself is better than the person. So, there’s a coffee chain out here called Philz Coffee, and Jacob Jaber, who’s the CEO of Philz Coffee, what he teaches his folks, and they really they have great baristas, is that when a customer treats you badly, what you do is you say to yourself, “I’m not gonna settle to their level, I’m gonna kill them with kindness to show that I’m a better human being than they are.” And he said that does two things. One is it actually calms down the customers and… And he doesn’t want baristas who are nasty. But the other thing is that it makes the employee feel as if they have control over the situation.
And then the last one, and I didn’t come up with this, but one of my colleagues at Stanford, who is… He’s so good at dealing with nasty people, what he does is he pretends that essentially he’s instead of being an insect collector, he’s sort of like a jerk collector, he collects different categories of jerks, and when somebody is treating him like dirt, he says to himself, “I’m so lucky I’ve got such an interesting specimen here.” So you’ve got the sort of weird reframing and oddly enough, even though I write all these books on jerks, I can’t do that, but he can. So that’s just, I mean, some of the weird things we do to our minds, to get through difficult situations, just amaze me as human beings.
Brett McKay: Yeah and with this reframing stuff, I think we’ve all done that before, where, okay, you try to find the humor in the situation, or you just sort of tune out and sort of turn into a robot almost just to protect your soul, but with… I get that one of the dangers with reframing is that it can allow you to be abused more than you probably should. Like I…
Bob Sutton: Yep.
Brett McKay: So how do you avoid that?
Bob Sutton: As I’ve already said, get out if you can, but it is interesting, so if you look at… There’s both studies and cases of people who successfully fight back against those who are abusing us, there are certain things that they do that are quite consistent, one thing that they do document. I’m not a lawyer, but every lawyer will tell you the more that you document, the better case that you have, and the second thing to do is to get allies. And just one of my favorite examples, it’s actually from an animal control officer who wrote me years ago, and she writes me, she said, “So we had this really, really abusive and by the way, racist, co-worker who was flaming all of us,” and so she said, “I went to my boss and I said… ” The abuser was also a woman… “I said she’s treating us like dirt she’s terrible.” And my boss said, “I can’t do anything about it.”
And what they did was they put together what they called the A-hole diaries, so these five or six co-workers, they just sort of kept a book where they wrote everything she did for two weeks, and then they brought it to their boss, and then that jerk was gone within about 24 hours. And it’s not always that easy to do it, but to me, you’ve got the bonding together with other folks and the documentation, and then go into people with power, that won’t always work, but sometimes it will be effective.
Brett McKay: Right, so that’s a way of fighting back, so you weren’t able to avoid, the reframing is not working, so you fight back, and so this is a smart way to fight back, document and develop allies, but I think particularly when they think about fighting back at a jerk, you’re thinking the George Costanza thing, like, “The jerk store called and they ran out of you,” and that typically…
Bob Sutton: Right, right.
Brett McKay: That typically doesn’t work.
Bob Sutton: That typically doesn’t work, especially if… And when people have more power than you, [chuckle] it usually doesn’t work. Although… So there’s a guy named Bennett Tepper who studies abusive supervision, and he does have some interesting evidence that when people have abusive bosses and they publicly call out the boss and fight back, that it actually is better for their mental health, which actually kind of surprised me, but and it surprised him as well, but there does seem to be some evidence that people who fight back aggressively, that in some situations it can be better for them, it’s a case where I think we need some more research, and that’s something that if I was gonna advise somebody I’d say be really careful not to do that to somebody who has more power than you, but sometimes that it might be effective.
There’s one thing we really should talk about here too, which is that we’re assuming, at least I’m assuming in this conversation for now, that the person who’s being abusive, knows that they’re being abusive. On average, most of the time when people leave others feeling bad, they aren’t aware of it, so one of the best and most effective ways to fight back is to at least try to have a backstage conversation with the person, where you say to him or her, you are making me and others feel badly, and here’s what you are doing, could you please work on your behavior? And that turns out to actually work in a lot of cases. And then something else that… And I’ve already talked about that’s really important, is that for people who are jerky or are leaving others feeling bad, if they can have mentors or people in their life to help turn them around that can be very effective.
In fact, that’s what happened with Steve Jobs, we hear all the stories about what a jerk he was and I have this… A very good authority, there’s a guy named Ed Catmull, president of Pixar for decades, who worked with Steve Jobs for 25 years, and one of the things that Ed argues is that as Steve got older, he actually got nicer and nicer, he would still be aggressive when necessary, but he got much more strategic and on average, treating people better, but he said the press hardly noticed ’cause all the old stories were out there. And what he had was, he had a coach, he had a guy named Bill Campbell, who was on his board at Apple, and it was a dear friend of his, who helped Steve become a better person. So even you hear the Steve Jobs story, it’s a sign that it’s possible for all of us to change.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good point. Instead of meeting your immediate thing, I’m gonna fight back aggressively, do the backstage thing, I think we’ve developed this culture now where you’re seeing instead of doing that, people just wanna go public with it and get back at the person, then it just… It backfires, nothing gets improved ’cause the person who’s getting trounced on or whatever, they dig in their heels ’cause they get defensive, which is understandable. I’m sure if they would have just had a private conversation, they could have fixed all that stuff.
Bob Sutton: Yeah, so ironically… So this is a great point. One of the best ways to turn somebody into a jerk is to call them one. [laughter] So it not only is a jerky move to call them one, it actually… Even if they’re not being one, you end up with… You were talking about the sort of tit for tat, it ends up the situation where everybody escalates and so that’s one of the ironies is I write these books about A-holes and jerks and stuff, but one of the worst ways to deal with them is to call them one, so there’s a… Yes, I agree with with what you’re saying.
Brett McKay: I guess the idea would be like inside saying, “You’re a jerk,” say, “Hey… ” And cite specific behavior or actions and say that’s… It’s having this effect, and they’ll be like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.” Or they might be a certified sociopath and just like, “I don’t care,” and that… At that point you realize, “Okay, well, I have to escalate this or just get out of here.”
Bob Sutton: Yep, yep. But so to me, when you say that you’re sort of describing the attitude, and by the way, this is evidence-based, most people who treat others badly aren’t doing it intentionally and aren’t realizing the impact they’re having on others. There might be sometimes, and we talk about in sports that essentially that there is strategic intimidation, and that does work in certain situations, it works in the military, it may work in some litigation, but most of the time in life, collaboration and cooperation, and treating people with respect is the most strategic move to make.
Brett McKay: Alright, again, this is something, I guess, it’s a skill to figure out when to do what, it’s a skill that takes practice.
Bob Sutton: I agree with that completely, and there’s no substitute for doing it, and I see this… ‘Cause now teaching at Stanford for 37 years, I see some of my most interesting students sort of go through periods where they come out and they’re really successful and they just think that they’re so great, and then they kinda go through a bit of a struggle where the world starts bringing them down a little bit, and they grow over time. It doesn’t happen with all of them. When we look at sports, we see some people who’ve become more and more mature over time, and then we see some people who don’t get any better at all. So it doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s certainly, as you say, having coaching and having mentoring and experience does make a difference.
Brett McKay: So we talked about surviving jerks, so just get away from them, might be quit your job, just distance yourself, fire clients if you need to, give the client to the bad person on your team, reframing the situation, so it doesn’t just affect you as much kind of practicing cognitive behavioral therapy, and then be strategic about fighting back when you do. But let’s talk about this, like how… Let’s be positive here. How can we develop, how can people create organizations where it’s just naturally jerk-free? It’s jerk-free and it’s anti-jerk-free or anti-jerk.
Bob Sutton: Oh, well, I love that. And by the way, that’s how I originally got into this topic, I said, “Well, can’t we have a relatively jerk-free site?” So how do you build a jerk-free workplace? To me, it starts with the behavior of the senior executives and the managers, when they treat other people with respect, it becomes contagious. So that’s kind of one solution to me. Another solution that I think is important is to be explicit when you’re hiring people that we don’t bring in people who are jerks. So I’ve actually, one of my favorite companies and unfortunately, he passed away is that there’s this guy Paul Purcell, who was a CEO of Baird, and Baird had… And they did not use the censored version, but they had a no-jerk rule, and they mentioned in hiring, and Paul Purcell one time I’m talking to him on the phone and he said, “So I tell them during an interview, if they act like a jerk, I’m gonna fire them,” and he does fire people, and very successful company.
The other thing that I think is probably the most important thing when I think about having a no-jerk culture, is that when somebody treats others with disrespect, that there’s not only permission, it’s essentially almost required to call people out for acting like jerks, and I think a good summary, is it… So one of my students, one of my wealthiest and most successful students, her name is Shona Brown and so she was number four at Google for about 10 years, the highest ranking non-product person, and so I’m interviewing Shona for “The No A-hole” book, and I said, “So tell me about Google.” And she said, “Well, so one of the reasons I think the culture works here is that it’s not efficient to be a jerk here, and so if you wanna get ahead, if you wanna get your work done, even if you’re not a nice person, you have to be nice to other folks.” And I think that’s one of the best overall summaries, because there are cultures that I know of and I suspect you know of, that treating other people with dirt is an efficient way to get ahead, but at least traditionally, at least in the old days, back-stabbing people, bad-mouthing people, treating them with disrespect, that was not the way to get ahead at Google.
Brett McKay: No, it’s I think that idea of just being upfront, leadership being up front that you’re just, a-holes are not allowed. And that can go a long way of nipping that stuff in the bud. Here in Tulsa, the headquarter, it is the headquarters of QuikTrip, the convenience store chain, and there’s actually this story, so the current CEO is Chet Cadieux, his father founded QuikTrip, and his father sent out a letter ’cause he had started hearing that some of the managers were treating customers like crap, so his father sent out this letter that says, “No one wants to work for an a**hole, and I won’t allow it,” to everybody.
Bob Sutton: Wow!
Brett McKay: And so they had like, so QuikTrip has an explicit no a-hole rule and they’ve had it, I think since the ’80s or ’70s, I mean it’s been a while, yeah.
Bob Sutton: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s fabulous.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and QuikTrip’s fantastic, it’s like my… I love going in there ’cause the customer service is super fantastic, they’re just friendly and they’re quick, and it’s my favorite place.
Bob Sutton: So that kinda reminds me, one of the biggest issues when it comes to this is, essentially, what do you do with superstars who are jerks? And honestly, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. Certainly in sports, we have this problem, but in companies too, law firms, my wife ran a large law firm for some years, when you’ve got a superstar sort of rain maker and he or she treats others like dirt, you’ve got a problem. And to me, that’s sort of the test of a culture, not if it’s somebody who’s relatively powerless, and in the healthcare world, the hospital I think of that’s really good about this, the healthcare chain is the Cleveland Clinic, and this is one thing and that for years, and they still have it, they had this model that you could be a superstar surgeon, that’s great, but if you treated people like dirt, we will get rid of you. And I heard this from Toby Cosgrove who was head of Cleveland Clinic for years and I also had surgery there, and one of the reasons that I chose, to be honest, to have surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, so I flew 1500 miles to Cleveland rather than staying at Stanford, was they had a lot of jerks at Stanford in the heart surgery department.
And when I went to Cleveland, it’s like, they actually were all sort of like these civilized, modest mid-Westerners and also their surgical outcomes were better too, so that definitely affected my decision too, but to your point, that being explicit about it and calling out people when they’re bad, very important, especially powerful people.
Brett McKay: Well, Bob, where can people go to learn more about the books you’ve written and your work?
Bob Sutton: So just probably my website, bobsutton.net and everybody can Google everything now, so you can find out all sorts of things about me, but bobsutton.net is where you can probably find the most efficient one-stop shopping.
Brett McKay: Alright, well, Bob Sutton, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Bob Sutton: It has been a pleasure. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Bob Sutton. He’s an organizational psychologist, Professor of Management at Stanford. He’s the author of the books, “The No A-hole Rule” and “The A-hole Survival Guide”. They’re all available on Amazon.com, you can find out more information about his work at his website, bobsutton.net. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/jerks, here you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition to the AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years, and if you like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so in Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code, MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial, once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS, and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, and if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member, who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.