The No Asshole Rule: A Reflection

July 30, 2007, 3:00 pm

As you know if you make a close study of Tenured Radical 2.0 in all of its features, I have been reading Robert I. Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. And to get to the punchline quickly: you should read it too. It is short, it is well written and Sutton — a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University — has written a book that nicely bridges the worlds of business and intellectual work.

What occasioned my purchase of this book? Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it, because I loved it and I wish something like it had been available to me years ago. I would also say that the bulk of my labor this year will be administrative, and because there is no formal mentoring in this kind of work, I do what I can to learn management techniques, either by observing adminstrators at Zenith closely and seeing why they do or do not succeed, or by reading. This is the point at which the post could sprawl and take all morning but let me give you a few highlights that should get you to read this book, whether you are an administrator or a faculty member, whether you are an administrative assistant, a full professor, a student or a dean.

First, Sutton emphasizes that we can all be prone to acting badly, and that it is important to distinguish between temporary assholes who exhibit nasty behaviors occasionally (losing one’s temper, telling a gossipy story as passive-aggressive revenge or as a self-agrandisement strategy, glaring at and belittling others, yelling) and certified assholes, who deploy bullying, intimidating and demeaning behavior toward others as a matter of course. He also notes that the first step in thinking about this is to categorize oneself. Be honest: are you an asshole? What have you done in the past that resembles this behavior, and how often in the course of daily life do you behave like an asshole? One of the differences between temporary and certified assholes is not just frequency of behavior, but that temporary assholes have enough objectivity and empathy to perceive the effect they have on others, understand that what they have done is wrong, apologize and change. Certified assholes believe that they are always right, often do not remember what they have done, and if they do, justify it as a normal response to being in struggle with stupid people who are a threat to them, their values, and the good of the institution. They don’t change: they force the rest of us to accomodate to them, and because of this, create an atmosphere of fear and loathing among both the direct objects of their bullying and those who observe it second hand.

We’ll start here: I can be a real asshole. Read some of the posts on this blog, prior to the 2.0 edition and when I thought I was anonymous, if you don’t believe me. Better yet: don’t. Just believe me.

But that said, I am not a certified asshole, and because it is too self-congratulatory — even for me — I’m not going to tell you why I know this. But here are some asshole behaviors that are particular to the academy, in my experience, and at one time or another I have been guilty of several:

1. Yelling at people to win an argument or force everyone to do things your way. Now, we all yell at people occasionally — often when provoked by an asshole or an airline employee — but not uncommonly yelling occurs in meetings, because that is where faculty do most of their business. Certified assholes use this as a consistent tactic, and it sometimes extends to tantrums. I have a friend elsewhere who has described a colleague that, when on the brink of losing his temper, begins to turn a different color, become physically tight and tense, and then, immediately prior to the explosion, appears almost to levitate. The threat of what is to come, she argues, is as oppressive to the atmosphere as the eventual outburst itself, and often results in people strategizing what they say in order to prevent the tantrum, not to discuss the issue at hand in the most open possible way.

2. Physical intimidation. This means getting in someone’s personal space while yelling, saying intimidating things that threaten someone’s future directly or obliquely, commenting on someone’s appearance and/or weight relentlessly, and inappropriate or unwelcome touching. It can include telling people to shut up, interrupting, name calling, and persistent profanity. It can also include trapping people: demanding that someone “report” to your office, or entering theirs (worse in my view), and closing the door without permission.

3. Describing people as “not smart,” and dismissing their intellectual work because you don’t like them or you don’t like their politics or they are in a field of which your disapproval is so vast that you read nothing in it. I am sorry to say that people on the left are just as guilty of this as people on the right, with the difference that people on the left –perhaps as the residue of feminist consciousness raising, historic leftist sexism and homophobia and Marxist criticism/self criticism sessions — do it to each other as well as to their political opposites, whereas people on the right, in my experience, are willing to excuse a range of sins within the group in order to keep everyone who is conservative voting together.

4. Lying. Certified assholes use this as a consistent strategy to get what they want, which includes lying on behalf of their allies to promote their interests over the interests of those who are not their allies. They excuse it because they think what they want is always right, and when other people get in the way, they should be defeated by any means necessary. George W. Bush and Nanny Dick are like this, I think. And let me say — I think lying can sometimes be a subset of gossiping, because often when people spread gossip, for whatever reason, they are often spreading damaging information that is not true, or has been twisted for a particular effect. When I was a newbie at Zenith, a friend told me that she made it a point never to gossip, and although I thought at the time it was kind of prissy — I was in an information-gathering stage of life after all and needed gossip desperately — much later in life I came to understand that this was, in fact, a highly ethical position. And by the way, if you are well-known as an indiscriminate gossip, you will also be well-known as someone who cannot keep a secret and should not be brought into a position where secrets need to be kept.

5. Accusing someone else of lying, publicly or to a third party, without confronting the other person privately. This is also something of which I do not believe I am guilty, but I have been accused of lying by others, and I have seen other people accused. At its best, it is a careless act; at its worst, I think it is one of the nastiest things one academic can do to another because personal integrity is so crucial to the scholarly world. Now, if someone has committed a serious ethical breach, that is one thing, but the things I have most frequently seen classified as lies are often far better characterized as
misunderstandings, miscommunication, or someone leaping to a conclusion. Most frequently, in my experience, it is faculty accusing administrators of lying, in a conscious or unconscious move to disempower and humiliate in retaliation for some real or imagined slight.

6. Hitting on people sexually when they have evidenced no interest in either recreational sex with you or romantic love towards you. I would extend this to hitting on people sexually who have expressed this interest, but are interested in a kind of short-term personal gain or thrill that you know perfectly well will lead to tears. I would extend even this further to the whole question of responding to advances from those — students, very junior faculty — whose attraction to you is really an attraction to power, or some idealization of what you are or could be in their lives. Long-time readers might recall a series I did on the Pokey Chatman case, in which Chatman, a very talented basketball coach, appears to have had her resignation forced because a tangle of affairs with players and assistants came to light: click here and here. Several of my readers chastised me for not being hard enough on Chatman for this: well, I still don’t think she should have had to leave her job. But there is no question that she was an asshole, and that LSU was willing to tolerate her messy love life until it became public information. That’s the part that I think is a little more complicated, and needs to be examined and discussed, because Chatman may not have been an asshole in other ways. And other asshole behaviors persist at LSU that are not stigmatized, including what is commonly called sexual harassment, because the institution clearly tolerates assholes — as nearly all academic institutions do.

7. Students can be assholes, to each other and to their teachers: it is a large, and ugly, subtext of the academic blogging world. And of course, some graduate students are assholes in training, and they learn to do it by watching professor assholes gain advantage over others through the range of tactics described here. Student asshole behaviors include: passing notes, giggling and whispering while other students are talking; repeating what someone else just said as if it were your idea; directing their remarks only to the teacher and not acknowledging the other students; interrupting; telling other students that something they have said is “wrong” or interrupting with a loud “no” when someone else is talking; publicly calling someone a bigot as a routine way of commenting on their lack of sophistication, their analysis or their apparent ideological position; saying thoughtless things about identity groups represented by people in the room; delegitimizing other students’ right to speak because of their identity position or lack of sophistication in the field; and — my favorite –anonymous, cruel attacks on others that are justified by a self-professed or actual lack of social power in a given situation. There is no justification, except perhaps being invaded and/or colonized by a foreign nation, for an anonymous attack, and what it expresses is rage and fear of the consequences, not actual powerlessness.

What is great about The No Asshole Rule is that Sutton’s examples help identify the asshole behavior that is particular to one’s own workplace, how to identify it in oneself, and how to resist it. He also demonstrates the damage caused by assholes, several of which seem particularly relevant to academic institutions, in my experience. One is that asshole behavior is contagious: if effective interventions are not made, people who are not certified assholes become more prone to temporary asshole behaviors as they try to resist domination and seizures of power.

Potentially, entire departments and faculties can be taken over, by assholes and by people who are forced into asshole management. Another crucial point — and of course this resonated to my experience during the Unfortunate Events — is that people who must resist being constantly demeaned and emotionally battered pay a terrific price in their energy and creativity, and do less and less well professionally, are less able to write, and often less able to function as teachers, scholars and colleagues on a day to day basis. Thus, what is often touted as a hierarchy of merit can also be a hierarchy of – can we say oppression? – where decent people are subject to the rule of the ruthless, and as a result their talents become hidden or submerged, and their capacity to function as university citizens who can and should be rewarded is severely eroded. Very often they simply withdraw and focus their lives at home: they come in, teach their classes and leave; do not come to meetings; and are not available for the work of running a department or a university. One of the benefits of going through a period of being bullied relentlessly by assholes is that you develop a kind of compassion for people who of whom you may have been previously dismissive.

Sutton can be visited on line at his blogs: click here and here. You might also want to look at a report on a conference on academic leadership, where a colleague of mine is quoted on the topic of “academic bullies.”

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