Oct 30, 2020

An open letter to all the Certified Assholes

Robert Sutton is a behavioural scientist and an organisational psychologist.

He is also a professor of management science at Stanford University. His specialist field of research is evidence-based management.

Those may merely read as a list of facts to you, but for me, they’re tantalisingly, awesomely exciting statements. And on the basis of those credentials alone, Robert Sutton would already sound like a total badass to me.

Now, I don’t know Robert Sutton (I kind of wish I did!) but I think he’s great and despite never having spoken to him — and regardless of my undoubted fangirling, I feel it’s safe to say he’s NOT an asshole*. The reason I am confident he isn’t an asshole is that he is SO DAMN GOOD at describing and defining people who are.

This blog post is a combination of things. It’s an ode to Sutton’s work; it’s an ‘open letter’ to the type of trauma that assholes in leadership can create AND it’s a description of my personal mission — to shine a light on the impact of this utter assholery at work and to put a stop to it.

Finally — if nothing else, I’d like to empower people to believe that it’s not us… it’s definitely, definitely them.

*US spelling… if that should read ‘arsehole’ to you then apologies; I’m breaking my usually pretty tightly observed rule on UK English spelling for this blog post, because that’s how much I love Robert Sutton.

We’re talking about CERTIFIED Assholes.

Everyone reading this (and dare I say, the person writing this) can be, from time to time, an asshole. We’re all human and sometimes the stresses, strains, massive to-do lists and constant notifications of life can make us irritable, tired, anxious… the list goes on.

None of those things on their own make us Certified Assholes, but occasionally they might tip us over the edge into being what Robert Sutton calls a ‘temporary asshole.’ I like to use ‘occasional asshole’. Like an occasional chair you dig out when you’re hosting a dinner party (remember them?!) and someone has brought their flatmate who wasn’t invited, that occasional asshole comes out at times when the number of ‘visitors’ to our headspace makes our equilibrium shift out of kilter. The key thing here is how being an occasional asshole makes us feel. Maybe we’re disappointed in ourselves, hopefully we’re keen to apologise, but whatever the case, the awareness of having become an occasional asshole is not where things stop… that awareness evokes an emotionally intelligent response.

Certified Assholes (the type that Sutton has studied and defined) are different. Sutton describes Certified Assholes as being persistently nasty. They are bullies. They are breeders of incivility. Sutton’s definition of a Certified Asshole is as follows: “a person who leaves another person feeling oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled.” We’re talking about someone who makes another person “feel worse about themselves after interacting with them.” These people don’t create psychological safety — instead they proactively tear it to shreds.

In “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”, Sutton has also been able to unearth the frequency of demonstrations of this kind of asshole behaviour at work, and highlights that this persistent nastiness is predominantly a leadership concern — with perceived “downward” nastiness estimated to account for 50% — 80% of occurrences. Certified Assholes sit high up in hierarchies, and they demean those who are ‘beneath’ them.

And that makes sense, on the basis that Certified Assholes have a real problem with acknowledging their power as privilege and opportunity (my words) and they instead allow their power to turn them into insensitive and selfish jerks (Sutton’s words) and use their power to abuse and take advantage. They’ve allowed themselves to fall foul to ‘asshole poisoning’. What’s worse, is that thanks to emotional contagion, if you continue to work for an asshole, or are in close proximity to one or a bunch of them, the odds are that you too will become one. His father’s advice to avoid assholes at all costs (because if he didn’t he would ‘catch’ their nastiness and impose it on others) is one of the reasons that Sutton took the step (as, I imagine, a relatively mild-mannered University professor) to call these assholes out for being just that; Total. Fucking. Assholes (I added the F-bomb.)

An Open Letter to all Certified Assholes; You’re Causing Trauma.

I’ve worked for two Certified Assholes in my career to date. I’m going to talk about the first one, because it was long enough ago that I feel safe to do so publicly; that said, I’ve never told this story before. (You can’t work out who this is. This isn’t on my CV and it’s not on my LinkedIn. It’s to this day so traumatic that I still feel some sort of strange, parallel universe type of shame for letting this happen to me. My hands have gone a bit shaky as I’m typing.)

Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule” was published over a decade ago, in 2007. At that time I was still doing my undergraduate degree. I wish I had read the No Asshole Rule before I graduated, and certainly before my first ever proper job which I took just a couple of years after the book came out. It was a tough job in a brutal environment. I was working at a recruitment agency where the CEO proactively bullied her employees. She crossed every boundary of workplace respect you can imagine. She made her employees cry, often. She took great pleasure in ignoring us as we came into work in the morning and said hello. I’m almost 100% sure that she recorded our phone calls and read our emails.

She once stood behind me, silently, and over my shoulder read a text message I’d received — she was reading it with me in real time. The sender, my mum, was at the time in another country with work and was informing me that my elderly grandmother had fallen and broken her leg, and was asking me if I’d be able to call the hospital she’d been taken to as mum was in another timezone about to catch her flight home. As I got up to walk outside and make the phone call, a terrifying voice over my shoulder said “DON’T. YOU. DARE”. She growled it at me. I wasn’t allowed to make that phone call. I had to wait until my lunch break… That’s one example, and it’s the tip of an iceberg of daily, pernicious asshole behaviour.

I can hear what you’re saying… “why did you stay and put up with that?” and now, as I approach my 35th birthday, I wonder the same thing. I was young, I’d just moved to London, I had no money and had bills to pay. I was vulnerable. I also knew it wasn’t right… But I did stay. I worked there for over two years. I put up with this bullying for those two years. What’s worse is that while the total headcount of the recruitment consultants never got above four people, in those two years roughly twenty people came and left. Were they stronger than me? More sensible than me? More intelligent than me? …Maybe. Or maybe, I was traumatised.

Recruitment consultants typically earn commission. I had a tiny basic salary and most of my earnings were variable and based on hitting revenue targets. In the second year of my time there, I was put into a bonus scheme… well, a competition against my colleagues really (don’t get me started on negatively competitive sales cultures!) to last the next 12 months and to see who could over-achieve the most against an annual revenue target. By the time it came to me over-achieving that target, everyone else who had been entered into the competition had resigned (because of this Certified Asshole.) However, I’d met the requirements, I’d overachieved, I was still there and I stood to be given a £10k lump sum, in my early twenties while renting an overpriced studio flat, sleeping on a crap sofa bed. It was my ticket to something better. On the day I qualified for that lump sum, I was told the scheme was being extended for another year so that more consultants could be put into the scheme.

It was the last straw. I had tolerated 12 months of hell for this, and I finally bucked up the courage to say something. What followed included being screamed at, personal insults that I won’t repeat here, a glass meeting room door being slammed in my face and ultimately, a couple of days later I just went numb. I stopped feeling. It was like autopilot mode kicked in. Without being very consciously aware of it, I just stood up, packed up my things, and I walked out. I got the DLR (best mode of transport in London) back to my flat, and I sat on the sofa and I phoned ACAS, I phoned citizens advice, I pulled in a favour to speak to an employment lawyer who would give me advice for free. All of them told me to pursue this. I didn’t. Instead I just cried. Maybe I was dumb. But, maybe I was traumatised.

Robert Suttons’ most important reason for writing “The No Asshole Rule” is because of this fact; “… demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies.”

This Has To Stop

Companies are micro-societies. We put people together and we need them to work effectively with each other. We hope they form strong bonds as part of self-correcting, high-performing teams. We hope they will make the right decisions and we hope they will use their initiative for positive impact. We should assume they will. To achieve that, what they need most from their leaders is for them to listen, to be a role model, and to respond.

People people, like me, through various means and methodologies and theories and models and approaches, but mainly through applied emotional intelligence and starting with empathy, try to create psychologically-safe, inclusive spaces and cultures. We try really really fucking hard to do that, so that businesses can be successful, so that scaling companies achieve their growth, so that everyone in an organisation has opportunity to progress. We are People people, and that means we are also in commercially impactful roles. We work hard to ensure that work can be a source of meaning and fulfillment and connection — because it’s the right thing to do, and because that’s how businesses are the most successful they can be.

And all the while, Certified Assholes are causing trauma; a unique form of workplace trauma that sticks with people. That damages people. That makes my job as a People person so much harder.

The good news? Our friend Robert Sutton says that we can outwit these Certified Assholes (that’s a link to a one hour lecture with Robert from 2017, and here’s a link to his follow-up book The Asshole Survival Guide.) The solutions include the idea of temporal distancing; framing experiences on the basis of how you’ll feel about them in the distant future and, what you could describe as ‘managing up’; some form of ‘how to train your certified asshole’ to slow the pace and the rhythm of asshole behaviour and in doing so, make it less proximate to you as an individual.

For some people though, ‘surviving’ this asshole behaviour takes a solution that is rooted in the fundamentals of our behaviour as human beings — an exit. Whilst this is potentially obvious to the outside world, as you can see from the personal experience of trauma I’ve described, it’s far from easy. Particularly in a world where the power dynamics of being gainfully employed are certainly skewed.

I’d like to see a shift in mindset that means individuals don’t need to go through the trauma of finding the strength or the core survival instinct to get out — or further away from — Certified Assholes.

I’d like Certified Assholes to be held to account.

I’d like Boards to remove them.

I’d like VC’s not to give them money.

I’d like the people who sit high in hierarchies to be the ones who realise that kindness isn’t a weakness; it’s a prerequisite and it’s a leadership responsibility.

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