Book Report: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve seen it many times. Too many, sadly. You get pretty good at your job, you start to get more responsibility, and before you know it you start acting like a jerk.

You start popping off at your team mates who aren’t as good at completing their deliverables on time as you are. Maybe you roll your eyes at the security guard who stops you from taking home a piece of equipment you forgot to fill out the paperwork for. Perhaps the catering people get an earful from you when they accidentally burn the bottoms of the cookies you had sent up as snacks for your meeting with that vendor.

We’ve all done it. At least, everybody I know has, including me. You start to feel entitled and begin to treat others badly. For that, or for putting up with someone who does it to you, Stanford Professor Robert Sutton is here to help.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t contains a pretty awesome quote, the kind that is reminiscent of good advice you might get from one of your parents:

“The difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.”

Pretty cool, huh? And that’s just page 25.

Dr. Sutton filled this book with scores of great tips for dealing with the intricacies of office interactions. Tips on how to keep from unleashing your inner jerk on others, how to survive environments where they can’t be avoided, and why you might want to keep one (but only one) around so you can use that person as an example to others for how NOT to act are presented with tons of examples and compelling research facts.

My favorite part of this book, though, is “Chapter 3: Implement the Rule, Enforce It, and Keep it Alive”. It presents overwhelming evidence on how asshole behavior can negatively contribute to your bottom line and recommends strategies for instituting your own No Asshole Rule throughout your organization. He tells anecdotes to prove his point on everything from sports teams to major corporations like Google and Southwest Airlines and urges companies to make this thinking part of hiring practices as well as performance reviews to ingrain better behavior into the corporate culture.

He points out that power has a tendency to corrupt and that if you don’t lay down rules for restraining that and enforce it at the highest levels of your organization, you can get yourself into trouble.

Sutton specifically cites a study conducted by Sanford colleague Deborah Gruenfeld that demonstrates in a very simple way how power can corrupt:

“The idea that power corrupts people and makes them act as if they are above the rules meant ‘for the little people’ is widely accepted. But Gruenfeld shows that it is astounding how rapidly even tiny and trivial power advantages can change how people think and act – and usually for the worse. In one experiment, student groups of three discussed a long list of contentious social issues (things like abortion and pollution). One member was (randomly assigned) to the higher power position of evaluating the recommendations made by the other two members. After thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. The more ‘powerful’ students were more likely to take a second coolie, chew with their mouths open, and get crumbs on their faces and the table.”

This book is filled with interesting examinations such as this and forces you to examine your own behavior and how others treat you. The longer you work and the higher you ascend in your career, the more important this book becomes.

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