25 September 2023

Sitting target: How to deal with the a*s*hole of the office

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Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Muditha Dias* say a Stanford University professor has plenty of practical advice for dealing with the arsehole in your office.

Photo: Paul Bradbury

If someone in your life — your colleague, boss, neighbour — consistently makes you feel demeaned, de-energised and disrespected, chances are they’re an arsehole.

That’s according to Stanford University Professor Robert Sutton, who has devoted part of his professional life to studying this particular breed of human.

He’s even written a book on the topic, The Asshole Survival Guide.

We’ve cherry-picked some of his choicest tips on how to understand arseholes — and prevent them from bringing you down.

Perfect breeding conditions

The perfect storm of conditions can turn an ordinary person into an “insensitive jerk”, Sutton says.

“If you put people in a hurry, if you make them sleep-deprived, if you give them power and then have them not communicate face-to-face — those are some of the most reliable ways to turn human beings into insensitive jerks,” he says.

He says these conditions describe the working culture in Silicon Valley, near his university.

“We have at least our share of arseholes … it’s almost like Silicon Valley is designed to create them,” he says.

“We’ve sort of created to be cynical, almost a perfect petri dish for creating arseholes here in Silicon Valley, at least in our companies.”

More power equals less empathy

There also is a “very strong body of evidence” to suggest a correlation between arseholes and power, Sutton says.

He points to a series of studies at the University of California, which show power and sensitivity are inversely proportional.

“As people become more powerful they become more selfish and nastier,” he says.

“[Powerful people] tend to focus more on their own needs, less on the needs of others.”

“They tend to act like the rules don’t apply to them.”

“They have less empathy in caring for people.”

However, Sutton says power in the hands of a jerk is a fragile thing — and treating people poorly doesn’t always pay off in the long run.

“The CEO of Uber, he did get deposed, and Elon Musk has actually got problems and is on the verge of getting pushed out because of his arsehole-ism problems,” he says.

They’re multiplying

Are you noticing more and more awful behaviour?

That could be thanks to the faceless internet, Sutton says.

“There’s so much evidence — experimental evidence, field studies — that when you don’t have eye contact with someone … you are more likely to slam them, to be less empathetic, to be less generous,” he says.

“With social media, with Twitter, all of these different technologies that we use, we have more and more communication, including within organisations, email, that is not face-to-face.”

Sutton says US President, Donald Trump is “a good illustration of the social media problem”.

“His behaviour is interesting,” Sutton says.

“He’ll go to a meeting with the world leaders, like the G7, and he will actually be fairly civilised in person.”

“And then he’ll start writing insulting tweets about other world leaders afterwards.”

Context matters

Sutton says Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs had different temperaments in different environments.

“It’s pretty clear that he was known far and wide at Apple as an arsehole and acted like a jerk,” Sutton says.

“People would joke that if they saw Steve Jobs getting in an elevator … they wouldn’t get in the elevator with him.”

But when Jobs was at Pixar, the animation company he chaired, he was apparently much more likeable.

“[Pixar co-founder] Ed Catmull, who worked with him for 25 years, didn’t really find Steve to be an arsehole,” Sutton says.

That’s because Jobs was less concerned about the goings-on of Pixar, says Sutton, and because the company had a different working culture from Apple’s.

He says it demonstrates the power of context, and our susceptibility to bad behaviour, if left unchecked.

“All of us are capable of being an arsehole under the wrong conditions,” Sutton says.

Tactical avoidance

If you’re surrounded by arseholes, one option is to flee.

“Try to get the heck out of there,” Sutton says.

“I’m a big believer in quitting and finding another environment.”

Or, if you’re the boss, you can flip that and fire the arseholes — like at Netflix.

Netflix has a “no bozos, no arseholes” motto, says Sutton, and the company routinely fires people who are competent but are jerks.

But if you’re not the boss, and can’t escape?

Well, you have to get tactical.

One strategy Sutton recommends is to physically distance yourself from the person or cut your contact with them.

He says studies have shown that the nearer you sit to a toxic person, the more likely you are “to catch the disease”.

“Schedule things at different times of the day,” he advises.

“Have the executive assistant warn when the person — this happens in all sorts of organisations — is coming to the office.”

“Reduce your actual contact with them.”

Or, fight back

Sutton believes that, in most cases, people aren’t aware they’re treating others poorly.

He says if the person you’re contending with is “clueless” rather than “Machiavellian”, it might be worth speaking up.

“If it’s someone you feel safe with or somebody who actually sees themselves as a good person, pulling them aside and having the quiet conversation that ‘you are leaving me and others feeling hurt’ sometimes does work.”

But, Sutton says, do your groundwork first.

Document what’s been happening and consider who you’re fighting and how much power you have, he advises.

“Because we know that if we are just viewed as a lone nut we get in trouble,” he says.

“You can see, to take more extreme cases, the Catholic Church, what’s happened with the #MeToo movement with people like Harvey Weinstein.”

“People always wonder, well, it seems like nobody says anything and then everybody says everything all at once.”

“There really is strength in numbers — there is both protection and power.”

* Anna Kelsey-Sugg is a digital producer with the ABC in Melbourne.

Muditha Dias produces TV and radio programs in Sydney. She tweets at @Mudithadias.

This article first appeared at www.abc.net.au.

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