Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Being civilized in the workplace

So here I am at 38,000 ft over Utah, flying out to San Francisco. I was reading Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.Despite its quite aggressive title, the author is a Stanford Professor who has studied the problems caused in organizations by the selfish and tyrannical.

No matter how productive an asshole is, he says, you need to change them or get rid of them. They poison a culture and cause more problems than they are worth.

He gives two keys for recognizing an asshole. The first is, after an encounter with the individual, does the 'target' feel "oppressed, humiliated, de-energized or belittled" by the person? Does the target feel worse about him- or her-self?

The second test is how they treat those with less organizational power than themselves. Do they consistently aim their venom at only their subordinates, and "kiss-up/kick down"?

Everyone can be an asshole every now and then. The issue is people who are nasty and venomous as regular character traits. And the answer is not to replace them with wimps and clones, either.

I can think of one particular asshole where I work, as most people can. Fortunately, I hardly ever have to deal with him, and have made it clear I never want to. So I don't suffer on a daily basis.

But so many people do suffer because of this petty nonsense. Sutton cites research that about a third of workers in Western countries have to deal with an asshole at a point in time. And few things are more destructive of job satisfaction, daily happiness, and ability to sleep at night.

Making societal progress often comes down to making small changes that improve the texture of daily life.

People need some sense of purpose in their lives to feel happy. For many, at least some of that sense of purpose and challenge comes out from their job (even if it is a mistake to base all your aspirations on a job).

So looking for ways to identify and reduce petty tyranny is more than just a matter of workplace productivity or saving money. It's essential for making progress work for us. It is certainly more important, if you think about it, than another 3% wage growth or consumer spending in a particular year.

Human nature will always be with us and some people will always be assholes. But more cultural intolerance of such petty tyranny is a very good thing.

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