You have to like an author who has the testicles (or ovaries) to walk away from Harvard Business School Press because it wouldn’t let him use the word “asshole” in his title. (HBS Press also turned me down once, but I digress…) Robert Sutton is the author who did this; he’s a professor at Stanford in the engineering school. While I am not a big fan of profanity, “asshole” is the only word that delivers the proper connotative meaning in some situations, so forgive me for using it in this posting.

I have an early copy of Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, and it’s the definitive guide to understanding, counteracting, and not becoming an asshole. I am qualified to make this judgment because (a) I’ve been an asshole a few times and (b) been a victim of assholes more than a few times.

The first step is to recognize who is an asshole. Sutton’s blog cites one method. It’s called the Starbucks Test It goes like this: If you hear someone at Starbucks order a “decaf grande half-soy, half-low fat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet,” you’re in the presence of an asshole. It’s unlikely that this petty combination is necessary&#8212the person ordering is trying to flex her power because she’s an asshole.

A second method is to use Suttons’s dirty-dozen list of everyday asshole actions:

  1. Personal insults

  2. Invading one’s personal territory

  3. Uninvited personal contact

  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal

  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems

  6. Withering email flames

  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims

  8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals

  9. Rude interruptions

  10. Two-faced attacks

  11. Dirty looks

  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

A third method&#8212albeit the least reliable, scientific, and fair but the most fun&#8212is to search Google with a person’s name (or a profession) plus “asshole.” This yields some interesting results. For example, I am associated more with the word “asshole” than Terrell Owens.


How To Avoid Being an Asshole

The first $64,000 question is, “How does one avoid being an asshole?” No big surprise, but I’ve compiled a top-ten list to summarize what Sutton says:

  1. Face your past. The past is a very good predictor of future behavior. For example, were you a bully in school? If your parents and siblings were assholes, you may have caught the disease. Knowing that you’re an asshole is first step towards change.

  2. Do not make people feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled. If you find yourself having these effects, it’s time to change your behavior no matter what you think of yourself.

  3. Do not mistreat people who are less powerful than you. One of the sure signs of an asshole is treating people like clerks, flight attendants, and waiters in a degrading manner.

  4. Resist assholeholics from the start. The easiest time to avoid becoming an asshole is at the very beginning. Don’t think that you can do “what you have to” to fit in and can change later. It won’t happen.

  5. Walk away and stay away. Don’t be afraid to leave a bad situation. It’s unlikely you’ll change the assholes into good people; it’s much more likely that you’ll descend to their level.

  6. View acting like an asshole as a communicable disease. If you have any sense of decency, when you’re sick, you avoid contact to prevent spreading the disease. So if you act like an asshole, you’re not just impacting yourself; you’re also teaching other people that it’s okay to be an asshole.

  7. Focus on win-win. Children (young and old) think that the world is a zero-sum game. If another kid is playing with the fire truck, you can’t. As people get older they should realize that life doesn’t have to be a win-lose proposition–unless, that is, you’re an asshole.

  8. Focus on ways you are no better or even worse than others. Thinking that you’re smarter, faster, better looking, funnier, whatever than others turns people into assholes. Thinking that you’re no better or even worse keeps you humble.

  9. Focus on ways you are similar to people, not different. If you concentrate on how you and others have similar goals, desires, and passions, you’re bound to be less of an asshole. How can you treat people that are similar to you with disdain?

  10. Tell yourself, “I have enough stuff (money, toys, friends, cars, whatever).” Discontentment and envy is a major factor in becoming an asshole. If you’re happy, there’s no reason to stomp on others.

How to Deal With Assholes

Let’s say that you’re not an asshole, but you have to cope with assholes. What can you do? That’s the second $64,000 question that Sutton answers.

  1. Hope for the best, but expect the worst. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with assholes is that they disappoint you–making you wonder the very value of humans. Lowering your expectations can help reduce disappointment. Don’t solely lower your expectations, though, or you will slip into cynicism (and possibly turn into an asshole too.) Continue to hope for the best.

  2. Develop indifference and emotional detachment. Sutton may be the only author who has the insight and courage to recommend that being indifferent and detached may be a good thing in work environments. If it permits you to survive, then it is. In other words, don’t let the jerks get to you.

  3. Look for small wins. Small victories can keep you going. Most assholes pride themselves in total control and absolute domination. Any victory, no matter how small, can keep you going. Rest assured that small victories can lead to winning the war.

  4. Limit your exposure. You can do what you can to avoid meetings and interactions with assholes. This involves finding or building pockets of “safety, support, and sanity,” to use Sutton’s words. He cites an example of a nurse’s lounge as a refuge from an asshole doctor.

  5. Expose them. In Sutton’s blog he mentions Marge’s Asshole Management Metric. This refers to four-point system from 0 to 3. Marge, the boss, would point to people who were behaving like assholes and hold up one, two, or three fingers according to this code:

    • 1 = You are a normal person who can occasionally assert yourself on an issue you are passionate about, but you handle yourself in a non-confrontational way in nearly all occasions.

    • 2 = You can consistently assert yourself in a non-confrontational way and are occasionally an asshole, but you feel horrible about it afterwards, and you may or may not apologize (but you probably will have to confess your remorse to someone).

    • 3 = You can consistently be an asshole and you either do not recognize this or you simply enjoy it.

    By the way, 0 in her system means this:

    You are a very nice person, and very passive. No one can say a word against you and would never think to call you an asshole.

    If you are safe in your position, then calling assholes out is a good way to deal with them.

  6. De-escalate and re-educate. This strategy requires that the asshole you’re dealing with isn’t a “chronic,” “certified,” and “flagrant” asshole. It means meeting asshole behavior with calmness (instead of either similar behavior or fear) and trying to re-educate the person about how he’s behaving.

  7. Stand up to them. Funny thing about assholes: Standing up to them shouldn’t necessarily scare you. While I was an Apple employee, I was in a meeting with a highly placed Apple exec and Apple’s ad agency. The ad agency person showed the new television spots and said he’d give a copy to the Apple exec and me. The Apple exec told the agency person not to give one to me. I spoke up: “Are you saying you don’t trust me?” The Apple exec answered: “Yes.” To which I replied, “That’s okay because I don’t trust you either.” You know what? The sun rose the next day, and my family still loved me.

The book also explains how to implement a no-asshole rule in your company; how being an asshole can be a necessity, if not a virtue; and how to calculate the TCA (Total Cost of Assholes). I want you to buy the book, so I won’t reveal any details. (Another way to avoid being an asshole is to resist the temptation to steal other people’s thunder.)