I just finished reading The No Asshole Rule , Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Stanford business professor Robert Sutton, PhD. You’re probably shocked by the title. And you probably know EXACTLY what he’s talking about. Out of all the points and principles in the book, here’s the two that knock my socks off:
1. Negative energy far exceeds the power of positive energy. So if a negative person is in the room, on the bus, at your dining room table – his or her power will swamp the positive energy of ten happy folks;
2. We put up with assholes. All the time. On the bus, at work, at our dining room table. We let them get away with uncivilized, mean-spirited, obnoxious bully behavior.
For the sake of the timid let’s use a variation of the internet word for asshole which is asshat. I kind of like that even better. And we’ll refine it further to just hat as in “Geez,, my boss is a certified hat.”
We’ve all had hats for supervisors. As a waitress, a secretary, a lawyer (wow, what a surprise!), a cowgirl, and an EMT I’ve been barked at, bullied, treated with contempt, told to “do your fucking job,” screamed at in front of other senior partners, treated like an idiot, a dolt, a “stupid woman,” and admonished to just “go home and make babies.” Welcome to the American workplace. In fact, as a lawyer I often worked in employment discrimination cases. Harried people would call me up, frantic about their jobs. They’d say:
“I work in a hostile work environment!” – this being the newest tort of the decade.
“So do I,” I’d respond. “If your boss treats everyone like yesterday’s cowshit, it’s not a hostile work environment. It’s just another day at the office.”
Of course most of the hats I worked with were lawyers but I have to say that in my short time in the teaching profession I never encountered a certified hat. Never had a supervisor treat me badly. But in every other workplace from the courtroom to the hospital to the restaurants or the corral – big fat hats everywhere.
Sutton advises people to just get the hell out of hat environments and I agree. I’ve quit jobs because of the nastiness of people around me. But what about life in general, those hats we encounter all the time in daily life outside the workplace? Aside from family – and hey, it’s family – why do we put up with hat behavior?
I once worked on a political campaign. Here’s what politics comes down to: the other guy is a flaming hat but you’re not allowed to talk about it. It always comes down to which hat gets the most votes. Always. Let's not follow these "leaders" okay?
You’ve seen hat behavior in the grocery store line, at the post office, at the traffic light. We’re afraid to call people on their nastiness because we could get whacked but you don’t need to be aggressive about outing an asshat. My son Billy lives in Seattle, a notoriously civilized city. He taught me to reframe “the finger” we had so refined in Jersey. When a driver in Seattle pulls a stupid move – and it’s not often, because they are generally aware and laid back – you don’t flip him off. Instead, you just give him a thumbs down.
I love that. Thumbs down. Bad move. As a human being, you are failing.
We ought to make it our business, of course, to be kind. We should consciously perform acts of charity. We should act and speak civilly, and encourage laughter and love. And we should out assholes, every chance we get. Nicely, of course, but clearly and directly. “Don’t scream at your kid like that. Ever.” Or when some hat is giving a teenage clerk a hard time, we look at her nametag and say “Norma, you’re doing just fine, honey. Ignore this guy.” Things like that.
Outing assholes is just as important as being kind. I read that the Dalai Lama does not suffer fools; and remember the money changers in the Temple? Jesus let them have it. Snakes, vipers, devil’s food. You go, Jesus.
Next time you see bad behavior, and that may be about ten minutes from now, think about standing up to the bully – safely, calmly, and from a place of unshakeable fearlessness. You’ll give other people courage and you’ll feel better too. We can’t let the asshats get us down. And two thumbs up to you, friend.