How To Deal With (Ahem) “Difficult” Colleagues
Mr Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the second series of The Office, 2002. Photograph by Mr Liam Daniel/BBC Photos
Expert tips for dealing with assholes in the workplace.
Mr Robert Sutton is a professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, a fellow at design agency IDEO, and has had over 150 articles published in newspapers and academic journals such as the Harvard Business Review, McKinsey Quarterly, and the Financial Times. However, despite these achievements, even he accepts that he will always be known as “The Asshole Guy”.
Professor Sutton is not an asshole (he is a very nice man), but one of the world’s leading experts on the phenomenon. Since first writing about the subject in 2004 for the Harvard Business Review, he estimates that he’s received something in the region of 8,000 emails from people who have been left exasperated by abusive colleagues and individuals. That article led to the publication of his bestseller, The No Asshole Rule, which sold 800,000 copies and offered advice on how to build organisations free from bullying and abuse. His latest, The Asshole Survival Guide offers practical guidance on identifying and tackling assholes at a one-to-one, personal level.
Despite the seeming jokiness (and admitted NSFW-ness) of the term, Professor Sutton believes that “asshole” is the only word capable of accurately conveying the sheer misery these types of people cause. Other words such as “tyrant” or “jerk” are euphemisms for what we really want to say when we encounter them. So excuse our language.
The suffering caused by assholes, says Mr Sutton, is no laughing matter. All kinds of long term health problems, including heart disease, are associated with the stress of repeated exposure to assholes. Here are Professor Sutton’s top tips for dealing with these awful people.
“An asshole is someone who leaves you feeling the three Ds: demotivated, de-energised, and disrespected. Be quick to label yourself as part of the problem and slow to label others. If we all did that, the world would be a better place. The best people to ask if you’re being an asshole, are those closest to you. If you really are the victim of an asshole, then you’ll have to do something about it.”
“You don’t have to leave the organisation – instead, you could find another job in a different department within the same organisation. There are often ‘micro-cultures’ within big companies, and you can find out where and who the good people to work with are more easily if you already have a job there. Another tactic is just to move yourself 15-20ft away from them, or 30-40ft in an open-plan office. Just doing that will feel as though you’ve moved to a different country.”
“Often the best ways to disarm someone and make them like you is to ask them for help, or get them to do a favour for you. If you persuade someone who doesn’t like you to do a favour for you, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance in their mind. You’re sort of honouring them when you ask them for help. It was named the Benjamin Franklin effect after he used it to turn one of his biggest enemies into a lifelong friend and ally.”
”One of the most effective strategies for coping with an unpleasant experience is to imagine how you’re going to feel about it in the future. In one or two months’ time, will it be so bad? Probably not. Another way to protect your soul is to make a funny game out of the asshole(s) you’re dealing with. I have a colleague at Stanford who deals with it by pretending to be a doctor studying ‘assholism’ as though he were in a zoo. Any mind tricks you can do to emotionally detach yourself from the situation will help take the heat out of the situation.”