REVIEW: A Stanford Professor's Guide to Handling Workplace 'Assholes'


The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt by Robert I. Sutton

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 224 pp. 

By Charlie Gofen

The crowded genre of workplace bullying books features clever titles (Snakes in Suits, The Schmuck in My Office), psychologists expounding on the pathology of tormentors (narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, paranoia), and endless advice to help victims maintain their sanity and self-esteem amid brutal bosses, backstabbers, bean counters, and other bothersome beings.

The best of the authors in the category is Stanford Professor Robert Sutton, who published The No Asshole Rule a decade ago and returns now with a more fully developed plan of action to deal with people “who leave others feeling oppressed, demeaned, disrespected, or de-energized.”

Sutton presents four broad strategies in The Asshole Survival Guide. While much of his guidance is intuitive, it’s helpful to see the range of options laid out:

1)    quit your job or find another way to entirely avoid the perpetrator, such as moving to a different department in your organization;

2)    if you can’t get out, reduce your exposure to the extent possible (“don’t engage with crazy”);

3)    change your way of thinking about the problem to make it less upsetting; and/or

4)    fight back.

Different approaches are required based on the particular circumstances, but assuming the bullying is significant and persistent, Sutton’s message is: Do something!

“People deceive themselves (and sometimes others) with half-truths and lies that prevent them from accepting just how bad things are, how long it has lasted and will go on, or how much damage is being done,” Sutton writes. They act as if they can compartmentalize the stress without it affecting their family, their friends, and their own well-being.

Sutton quotes a perceptive line attributed to Twitter user “Notorious d.e.b.” that went viral when it was retweeted by science fiction writer William Gibson: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

Research studies find that assholes in the workplace cause enormous damage both to individuals’ physical and mental health (insomnia, anxiety, depression, heart problems) and to performance (productivity, decision-making, creativity, teamwork). Assembly-line workers respond to rude supervisors with lower productivity. New nurses who are bullied give less effort and develop less empathy for patients. An Ohio State University study from 2006 pegged the financial cost of “abusive supervision” at $23.8 billion per year, based on absenteeism, health care costs, and lost productivity.

Sutton acknowledges that engaging in asshole behavior can sometimes help people succeed but adds that it’s usually at great cost to others and ultimately to themselves. As extreme examples, former American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, and cyclist Lance Armstrong all prospered for a time but caused enormous pain to people around them and ended up disgraced.

One of the most damaging aspects of asshole behavior is that it can be contagious. “Bad moods, insults, rudeness, and sabotage spread like wildfire,” Sutton writes. “Either people don’t realize they are turning mean just like everybody else or they become strategic assholes – returning fire to defend themselves from the creeps that surround them.”

You may think you’re above engaging in this kind of behavior – personal insults, threats, rude interruptions, dirty looks – but Sutton warns, “If you work with a jerk (or, worse, a bunch of them), you are likely to become one too.”

Sutton also notes that assholes breed other assholes. Abusive senior leaders tend to select abusive team leaders. (In his 2007 book, he advised that because assholes tend to hire other assholes, it’s wise to minimize their involvement in the hiring process.)

Each of Sutton’s broad strategies in The Asshole Survival Guide comes with a range of more specific tactics.

For the first two Sutton strategies – escaping from or avoiding assholes – you may be able to steer clear of certain people by learning to look for warning signs or by finding “safety zones” within your office that offer protection and support.

Keeping your distance can help. Studies show that if you can put even 20 to 30 more feet between your office and that of your tormentor, you may get significant relief.

Sutton suggests slowing the rhythm of angry exchanges with bosses, colleagues, clients, and customers. Don’t respond immediately to every provocative e-mail. If you’re engaged in a confrontational conversation, tone it down and “talk softer.”

One of my favorite stories in the book comes from an interview Sutton conducted with a Disney executive “who described the employees, or `cast members,’ in guest relations at Disneyland as `full-time asshole handlers.’”

“When a guest is rude, angry, swearing loudly, or visibly upset, cast members not only try to calm him or her; they are adept at reducing the exposure of other guests to such un-Disney malice and misery. The executive emphasized that cast members are taught that separating unhappy guests from others is crucial because negative emotions are so contagious. Cast members nudge upset and irate guests to talk with them in less-crowded nooks and crannies of the park; guests who become especially unhinged are led into a `cool-down room’ in City Hall on Disneyland’s Main Street – so they can discuss concerns, vent, and compose themselves without contaminating others.”

Sutton’s third strategy – changing your way of thinking about the assholes in your midst – isn’t a means of fixing the problem but rather of reframing it. He offers several “mind tricks” including downplaying the threat, using humor, and, if necessary, emotionally detaching yourself so that you “give them as little of yourself as possible.”

If you decide to follow Sutton’s fourth strategy and fight back, he advises that you “squelch your desire for immediate gratification, chill out, and prepare a battle plan.” Document the abuse, find allies, and aim for a constructive outcome rather than being hellbent on revenge.

Calm and rational confrontation can work well with jerks who “pride themselves on being civil.” Aggressive confrontation may be more effective with “Machiavellian personalities” who manipulate honest and fair people without compunction but “back off when they encounter uncooperative and selfish people like themselves.” And strategic flattery can work with narcissists, who “desperately need to believe they are beloved.”

Fighting back may be ineffective and even hazardous, but Sutton notes that it may also “bolster your dignity, pride, and sense of control over your fate and help you avoid feeling like a powerless victim – even if you don’t win the war.”

Like other authors in the genre, Sutton asks his readers to look in the mirror and make sure they’re not part of the problem. Factors that might encourage asshole behavior include working around a lot of assholes and wielding power over others, but don’t expect people to own up to being jerks. “The research suggests that if you act like an asshole, or protect or enable others’ demeaning and disrespectful behavior, you aren’t likely to admit these unflattering facts to yourself or anyone else,” Sutton writes.

To reduce the odds that you will let power go to your head, Sutton recommends practicing humility, expressing gratitude, and “having truth-tellers in your life who bring you down a notch.”

Perhaps the most difficult advice to follow is Sutton’s plea to hold assholes accountable for their behavior regardless of how powerful they may be. “If you want people to believe the system is fair and effective, it’s essential to be tough on the most powerful, profitable, and well-known jerks. If you enforce the rule only with the weak performers (or) people who are easily replaceable … – and you allow powerful assholes to run roughshod over anyone they please – people will smell your hypocritical bullshit from a mile away.”

Treat the powerful with respect and give them chances to change, he advises, but don’t allow them to make people’s lives miserable indefinitely.

Finally, if you do end up quitting your job, Sutton advises that you be smart about it. Don’t burn bridges or bad-mouth colleagues. Assholes are likely to hit back. “They not only may take out their anger on you via backstabbing and bad recommendations; they may exact revenge on the friends and allies that you leave behind.”

If you’re quitting a job you despise, you may want to tell your boss or HR why you’re leaving, but “you might be better off keeping things upbeat, brief, and vague – and just get the hell out.”


Charlie Gofen is an investment counselor in Chicago who has taught high school and been a newspaper reporter.