Do you have a prize shithead in your life? Are they making your job, relationship or daily existence a living hell? Robert Sutton says he can help.
Sutton has become the bestselling go-to-Professor on dealing with the world's most toxic people with evidence-based strategies he's spent a decade-and-a-half developing. His new book, The Asshole Guide, is based on the conversations he's had with more than 8,000 desperate victims of assholery.
I talked to Sutton about what it means to be an asshole, how to get one sacked and why he, a respected Professor of Engineering at Stanford, accidentally came to be known as "The Asshole Guy".
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VICE: I hear they call you "The Asshole Guy"?
Robert Sutton: It wasn't exactly a career goal, but I guess I've become the go-to Stanford professor for people who need help with the assholes in their lives. A decade ago I wrote a book called The No Asshole Rule and it sold almost a million copies in the States, and more abroad – much more than anything else I'd ever written or written since. Since then I've had about 8,000 emails and social media messages from people who are besieged by assholes. They're desperate, they want a solution, but one that's based on actual research, so, over the years, I studied and developed strategies to the point where all things asshole have become a full-time job. I enjoy it and try to be compassionate and optimistic.
So is an asshole just a jerk or worse than that?
If you ask 25 academics you get 25 different definitions, but, broadly, it's somebody who leaves you feeling demeaned, de-energised and disrespected. They're bullies, backstabbers and idiot pranksters who enjoy ear-flicking, shouting, swearing, intimidating body language and invading your personal space or ownership. The quiet ones treat people as if they're objects or nothing – invisible.
And assholes can be male or female, right? Political correctness aside, does assholery manifest in different ways depending on a person's gender?
The evidence suggests there are slightly more male assholes than female ones, but women tend to be more socially skilled – they tend to be more subtle and more sophisticated. Women are better at taking two or three steps back, and involve a degree of planning in their strategies.
For people who've had a really bad day today, give us some examples of some terrible assholery?
The news anchor who flicked ash from a lit cigarette at his producer on air. The [guy who asked an] African-American, "How does that make you feel, as a nigger?" during a discussion about the murderous rampage by an African-American sniper in Dallas which left five white police officers dead. And check out @passengershame.
And an asshole can have a devastating effect on your existence. You could end up depressed, traumatised – a shell.
It's what we call Asshole Poisoning: sleep and mental health problems, health issues. You might deny there's a problem – "Asshole blindness: 'It's me, not you'." Asshole poisoning spreads like a common cold. If you're in a toxic environment, you'll catch the asshole bug. For example, nasty customers have a domino effect on sales staff. Several studies show people who work in healthcare are very susceptible. Poor nurses – working with angry, disturbed, hostile patients… over time, it takes its toll.
Where else are you most likely to come across them?
When a conglomerated bunch of people who are socially similar [get together], terrible things happen. They look down on people outside their group as "other". Fashion PR, the military, Silicon Valley – high tech companies that don't hire women or people with different academic backgrounds. It's so difficult to break through because they're so blind to it.
What happens if you can't get away from the asshole in your life: your boss, your neighbour, your child.
Either emotionally detach or reframe the situation. Temporal distancing is when you keep your focus on the future – whether it's getting home tonight to your favourite TV show, or two years down the line when you've moved on. You can also minimise your exposure by what's called "ducking". Ducking worked for me when I was stuck with a horrible colleague. Attending her meetings was actually making me ill so I would duck out of them early. Other colleagues started doing the same. Maybe she even got the message.
You're an American living in California. Surely British assholes are in a category all of their own? They're even spelled differently. The favourite weapon of British arseholes is passive-aggression. Damning with faint praise, "forgetting", negging, putting the milk in first when they make you a cup of tea.
The "Passhole" is one of the most difficult to combat, because a lot of their behaviour is deliberate error or omission, so it's crazy-making and difficult to prove. Being blunt can work, as long as you don't humiliate them. Find a quiet moment and tell them how you feel. Another argument says get them to the point where they are sufficiently upset that you break through.
And the Passhole who denies wrongdoing?
Evidence suggests that if someone does you a favour, it's really hard for them to then dislike you. This doesn't work so much with narcissists, but for most people there's a cognitive dissonance between "I don't like you" and "I did you a favour". Asking people for advice is a good way to force them into doing you that favour.
Tell us a bit more about problems you've helped people to recover from.
Research shows that the combination of low prestige combined with high to moderate influence on other people's lives creates a particular type of sadist: the petty tyrant. They're the ones on the helpline who can approve or decline your request; the PA, the disgruntled restaurant chef; the rule Nazi or minor official who wants to make your journey through bureaucracy a form of torture. Love-bombing is the most effective way of getting them onside.
"If you're going to fight back against someone more powerful than you I would recommend keeping an asshole diary and not tackling the problem on your own."
Your book describes assholes thriving in unexpected contexts: asshole volunteers at a local church, for example, and you had a very unhappy Rabbi ring up once.
There's this notion that when you do something good it entitles you to bad behaviour – moral licensing: "Look at me, I've done the good deed of the century so I don't have to tip or be faithful to my wife."
I picked up some useful vocab in your book. "Pedestrian aggressiveness syndrome", "Bossholes".
"Boardhole" is another good one – an asshole member of the board.
If I'm married to an asshole, what should I do?
Are they a temporary or permanent asshole? All of us are guilty of being temporary assholes. I've been told once or twice I'm one myself. But if someone has a consistently high asshole score, get another spouse.
How do I know if I'm part of the problem?
It's the human condition to see ourselves as better than other people and blame them when things go wrong. Be slow to label other people and grow a thick skin. If you're the only person who has a problem with a person, maybe it's you. Of course, in a cross-cultural situation things can get lost in translation. What's considered normal in Jeddah might not go down well in Kyoto.
Are assholes instantly recognisable, or does the fact they're about to ruin your life creep up on you?
Get them on a plane. Everyone's packed together, in a hurry, physically and emotionally exhausted, and there are big differences in power – first class versus cattle class versus cabin crew versus pilots; envy and scorn goes up.
You talked about narcissists…
The biggest problem with narcissists is that if you fail to flatter them, they'll see you as the enemy. If you're going to fight back against someone more powerful than you I would recommend keeping an asshole diary and not tackling the problem on your own. I heard a wonderful example from an academic who described how the faculties at his university joined forces to bring down their narcissist chancellor. They began by giving him a daily ass-kissing, then carefully wrote down and filmed his abuse and incompetence. The asshole diary was presented to the board and he was sacked: exactly what happened to Roger Ailes, the total sexist pig-head of Fox News, when staff recorded multiple incidents of him engaging in sexual harassment and he was toppled.
Would you recommend revenge?
The problem of exacting revenge is you start ruminating. Upside: you avenge yourself on your ex girlfriend. Downside: you never get over her.
Please say karma exists..
Research would suggest that karma does exist, as long as you play the long-game. Takers tend only to reap gains short-term.
Robert I Sutton is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Business School. You can follow him on Twitter here.
The Asshole Survival Guide is available through Portfolio Penguin.
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