A Stanford professor’s advice on surviving the a**hole at your startup



If you’ve never worked for a complete jerk, consider yourself lucky. Roughly one in five people polled say they’ve experienced bullying in the workplace, according to a 2017 study commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The study — which is actually pretty fascinating — concluded that 61 percent of the time, the bully is the person to whom an employee reports directly. Bullies are also men 70 percent of the time, while 66 percent of the time it’s women who are targets of bullying.

None of this is news to Stanford Professor Bob Sutton, who co-founded both the d.school and Stanford Tech Ventures. He authored “The No Asshole Rule” a decade ago, and, relying on academic studies and thousands of email exchanges and conversations he has had with readers since, Sutton is now publishing a follow-up book next week called “The Asshole Survival Guide.”

We talked with Sutton yesterday about what it means to be an asshole, how to work alongside one and why startups likely have more than their fair share of them.

TC: You cover a lot of ground in this book, which is basically a guide to figuring out a way to survive a terrible human being based on how much power you have. Why write a second book on this particular topic?

BS: “The No Asshole Rule” was really meant to be about building relatively jerk-free cultures, but people from all corners have been approaching me ever since, saying, “I work with a jerk. What do I do?” I sort of became the Dr. Phil for people with asshole problems.

TC: Is this meant to mostly entertain? Is it anecdotal?

BS: I did want it to be entertaining and readable, but I take an evidence-based perspective. I’m an organizational researcher at Stanford, so I’ve carefully reviewed thousands of economic papers on bullying and abusive workplaces.

TC: You talk a lot about creating physical and mental distance from bullies. But I’ve interviewed one of your Stanford colleagues in the past, Jeffrey Pfeffer, who takes a very different stance. He argues that you’ve got to fight bullies or else lose to them. His thinking is that nice guys finish last.

BS: I’ve written two books with Jeff and although he loves making that argument, he’s in the minority. My personal philosophy is that if you’re a winner and an asshole, you’re still a loser as a human being. But further, if you look at Adam Grant, who’s perhaps the most respected researcher in our field, and a host of others of us, we think if you beat people badly, you may win in the short term, but your enemies lie in wait to bring you down.

TC: You hear that refrain a lot in startups I think — the founder who was wronged or underestimated and has an axe to grind so started his or her own company. 

BS: Sure! Look at Tony Fadell [who worked for Steve Jobs and later co-founded Nest Labs, which Google acquired for $3.2 billion]. Getting even can be a motivation, absolutely.

TC: You may know more about Fadell’s relationship with Jobs than I do. Maybe I should back up and ask what you mean by asshole. Is it another word for someone who’s “political” in a work setting?

BS: The definition I use is that you’re having interactions with someone who leaves you feeling demeaned, de-energized and disrespected. It could be because they are nasty to everyone. It could be that you’re egging them on. It could also be that you’re thin-skinned. In fact, you’re right that people are often political opponents, in which case the odds that I think they are an asshole and they think I am as asshole are pretty high. But even in that situation, there are things you need to do so that your productivity and mental health don’t deteriorate.

TC: New research suggests that it’s most often someone’s boss who they deem an asshole. Do you think that’s partly because people hate hierarchies?

BS: If you look at research on who tends to be a workplace bully, the most frequent culprit is the person next up the hierarchy from us. The notion that people quit bosses instead of organizations is well-documented.

There are also studies that show when you put people in positions of power, they become more focused on their own needs than others’; they become more rude. So if you’re going to pick the asshole, the most immediate culprit is someone’s immediate boss.

TC: So you get away from that person. But to Pfeffer’s point, if you opt out, isn’t it game over?

BS: If you’re going to work every day and someone is treating you with disrespect or you’re constantly exposed to bullying, it can lead to trouble with your family, mental health problems, sleeplessness. I think if you’re a quitter and a winner if you get out of that situation. By Jeffrey’s logic, people would never divorce abusive spouses, either.

One thing I do emphasize is the importance of how you quit. We love the idea of the person who says, “Take this job and shove it,” but we all need our social networks. Slowly figuring out your exit options in a way that preserves those is a much better way to go about it. Unless you’re rich, like Fadell. In which case it doesn’t matter. [Laughs.]

TC: Continuing to play devil’s advocate here, people like to think organizations care about them more than they might. Do employees sometimes mistake a focus on the bottom line for assholishness?

BS: If you look at our biases as humans, we do overestimate how much people care about us or how important we are to others, so I think that is an issue. [With pro basketball, for example] it might lead you to label someone as an asshole if they traded you and you thought you were important. Either way, you need to change the situation.

TC: What if you don’t have the resources to leave it?

BS: There are a number of mind tricks that I outline in the book. One centers on temporal distance. You look for the silver lining in a situation. It’s, “Gee, that person just treated me like dirt, but when I look back on it a year from now, it won’t hurt so much.” Reframing things in such a way that they can seem funny to you helps, too.

There are also ways to get rid of the local asshole, but you’ll need a posse.

TC: Before you go, do you think bullying is any worse at startups? We’ve obviously seen a lot of headlines about bad behavior this year.

BS: If you want to talk about situations where you’re going to turn people into jerks, yes. If you put someone under a lot of time pressure, make them tired and sleep deprived, place them in a position where they feel powerful — and they felt powerless before — then potentially add physical crowding, it’s a pretty good recipe for bringing out the worst in any human being.

It’s frankly amazing how civilized many startups are despite the pressure they face.



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