Monday, July 30, 2007

The No Asshole Rule: A Reflection

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."


The Combat Philosopher said...

Thanks for this. I guess I will have to give this book a look. It sounds like a handbook for some of the people at our place. There are a couple of points that you do not raise though that are of interest.

1) Many of those who are certified arseholes with us are people who have been promoted beyond their true level, or who have been asked to do a job that is really a bit too much for them. The phrase "A Corporal doing a Captain's job" is salient here. These are individuals who are academically insecure. They seem to believe that by asserting themselves, they ensure proper respect. I have a sneaking feeling that for many certified arseholes, this is the cause of their affliction.

2) You mention those folks who have been subject to oppression and have thus faded as academics. I have seen such folks. Indeed, it is sufficiently common in my neck of the woods that there is a whole subculture of those who have been subject to oppression, but have somehow managed to survive with their credentials and publication records intact. Of course, this can then lead them into further trouble, as they then get oppressed for publishing too much and making others look bad. However, what is even stranger is that we have a few folks who claim to have been oppressed, but have not. As best as I can tell, they are just idle. Yet, they claim the mantle of oppression whenever their record is subject to scrutiny. Have you ever come across such a thing? This appears to be some bizarre and novel method deployed by the certified (and maybe certifiable) type. I wonder if it is a common phenomenon.

Anyhow, thanks for this post. You provide a very handy taxonomy.

Finally, (and totally off topic) if you look at my post for today, it seems that we know people in common.

The Combat Philosopher.

Irie said...

I almost bought the book when I was having some problems at work. I may need to pick it up before the fall semester starts. Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

This suggests that my knee-jerk disdain for management books needs to be rethought!
I'd agree with Combat Philosopher that the Certified Assholes are often in over their heads. The one I had to deal with most recently was clearly unhappy in his job. Unfortunately, his solution was to talk only to people who agreed with him: you'll have to admit that in the academic world, that quickly narrows your world.


Horace said...

I'm in a department where the most recent chair worked very hard to suppress asshole behavior, and as a result, there is very little in my experience, and actual assholes are difficult if impossible to identify.

The problem may be that the chair worked so hard at getting people to play nice that very little else has happened.

We have a new chair now, one who is (I'm guessing) not unlike you--not a "certified asshole," and not prone to public asshole behaviors even temporarily. I suspect though, that he can bully when he needs to, and this strikes me as being a very productive thing. I am looking forward to seeing a smidgen more bad behavior in the department, because it will be a sign that people care about what's going on there, and are invested in making it better, not just calmer.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ooh, I've known some of these text-book assholes! I think I've been them on occasion myself.

What a great sounding book. I will definitely have to get ahold of it because I often find myself in the employ of assholes, and that tends to bring out the asshole in me, which I loathe.

Like Susan, I had a complete disdain for management books; but a management class requirement for my last degree led me to the conclusion that they have their place. They aren't great literature, or great psychology, or great sociology, or anything particularly "academic" or deeply analytical. They are more like and instruction book or "Hints from Heloise" in providing tactics for dealing with a variety of individuals and situations down in the trenches of human interaction in the workplace.

Anonymous said...

I found this book at an airport bookshop last year, and read the first 30 pages standing up. It did look terrific, though I admit that I read it so quickly I was hesitant to buy it.

But the argument is absolutely convincing, and I could point out examples left and right at my institution. Not that they don't exist elsewhere. But I tend to think that institutions with a historical legacy of success produce produce one kind of asshole behavior, and those without that legacy (like mine) produce what I like to call "institutionalized self-hatred."

And each form of asshole behavior seems to reinforce those institutional self-images (narcissism or self-loathing) very effectively.

Dave Mazella

Anonymous said...

What a good-to-think model of behavior in institutions. I'm most struck by the idea of contagion--though a little worried about it too (cf recent crazy nytimes articles on being fat). Is it for sure that tantrums breed tantrums, or does a structure that allows for tantrums breed more tantrums and bad behavior in one spot than another kind of structure or hierarchy? In my experience, the term borderline personality most of the time fits pretty snugly on people who are chronic assholes (sorry to have that anatomical term take on such negative connotations). It seems as if two decades ago we were talking about people without boundaries and this is a way of talking about that process of boundary making becoming externalized.

I guess one thing I've observed first hand is summed up as "build it and they will come." In droves. Maybe not contagion but clustering.

I think I know a little of the TRs experience with certain folks and can say that I myself wish the mystery of such behaviors could be explained, but think it first and foremost important to simply feel empowered to call someone out, and to make that contagious, if I may, is a very simple solution. Also Eve Sedgwick's notion that people are different is one I think folk in academic meetings forget, often in terms of accomplishment or specialization, but even more often in terms of levels of righteousness. Righteousness is always a red flag (not in the red diaper sense of course). Conviction doesn't dress so showily.

Anyhow, lots of food for thought and a great way to start to think academic management without falling too entirely into corporate models. Nice post.

Oso Raro said...

Intriguing, as always. When I was reading your post, I was struck by two thoughts: "Wow, it could be WORSE," and "Who are these people?"

The certified assholes I've known in the Biz have been/are always silent but deadly, smile-in-your-face types who then work behind the scenes to do you in. The actual openly aggressive types I find much easier to deal with, cause it's all on the table, with little mystery. And sometimes, that openness is refreshingly up front and honest.

Most academics have one or two people who they loath, for whatever reasons. The real question for me, as I suppose it is for all of us, is how to neutralise the damaging colleagues in our midst, and when to go toe-to-toe with them. I'm facing such a challenge right now, which is blissfully on hold for a bit. I'm torn between "Choose your battles" and "Take 'em down!"

Of course, the real answer is in trying to cultivate a more Zen-like approach. But Zen and spit-fire don't really go together much.

Anonymous said...

Yelling at people to win an argument rings true. Paul Rand is an asshole who yells at people to get his way. Stay away from this asshole from assholes. His dad is a notorious asshole and any search for Paul Rand and asshole reaps results that speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the real answer is in trying to cultivate a more Zen-like approach. But Zen and spit-fire don't really go together much.
Zen and spit-fire do go together.
Bushido anyone?

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