– Applying the “no asshole” rule when
dealing with awkward employees
A recent bar room discussion looking at possibilities for
visiting Antarctica has led me to revisit one of the most
controversial episodes in polar exploration.
I’m keen to revive the discussion here because I
think it helps to shed some light on a group of people –
I use the term lightly – whose undoubted abilities
in the workplace are recognised, if at all, only grudgingly.
I’m talking about a group for want of a better phrase
I would call “the awkward squad”.
You know who I mean. You may even relate to the term personally.
I certainly do which is why I feel qualified to talk about
these people here. These are the employees who sometimes
find themselves labelled “difficult” when they
are heard muttering or making some sarcastic aside in a
They are the ones that persuade your team to join a trade
union. They raise objections to the most carefully prepared
plan; they ask “what if?” or say “this
can’t possibly work” and, on occasions, they
throw all semblance of tact to one side and tell you: “This
idea is rubbish.”
You know they might have a point but you can’t afford
their objections to undermine your strategy or the workings
of the team. Worse still, some of these people might be
pivotal to the team. You might not like them, but you are
forced to acknowledge their talent.
The presence of the awkward squad is one of the most persistent
challenges in leadership yet I rarely see it discussed in
books and seminars. It is almost as if the books assume
that leaders have ready approaches for dealing with these
people. They do not.
A recent book, The No Asshole Rule, Building a
Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,
by Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and
engineering at Stanford University, highlighted the dangers
of allowing too many difficult people to take root in the
The most obvious solution is to get rid of awkward people.
If they’re not team players, if they’re not
signed up to the direction in which you’re heading,
why keep them? A problem arises, however, if too many of
these people have reached positions of seniority. Some,
like Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, may have founded
The temperamental Mr Jobs was famously ousted by John Sculley,
the man he brought in to run the business in 1983. But it
didn’t help Apple in the long run. Only when Mr Jobs
returned did the company find a renewed sense of direction
that would differentiate it from its competitors.
Prof Sutton suggests that intimidating behaviour by those
in power is too often interpreted by others as a sign of
strength. He quotes research by Stanford colleagues that
the use of directed anger – outbursts, snarling expressions,
fixed stares and aggressive gestures such as pointing and
jabbing can create an impression of competence.
“More broadly,” he writes, “leadership
research shows that subtle nasty moves like glaring and
condescending comments, explicit moves like insults or put-downs,
and even physical intimidation can be effective paths to
In the past week I found myself on the receiving end of
most of these gestures over dinner in a small hotel. My
antagonist was a former company boss who harbours a pathological
hatred of the media.
Prof Sutton’s advice in dealing with such people
is to develop indifference and emotional detachment, to
hope for the best but to expect the worst, and, most importantly,
to get out as fast as you can. The third option wasn’t
available to me but the first proved useful. So did hiding
the gin bottle.
Sometimes the option of getting out simply isn’t
available. When Ernest Shackleton lost his ship, the Endurance,
in pack ice during his 1914-17 expedition to Antarctica,
he had no choice, but to work out a survival plan with a
group of individuals who, though hand-picked, included some
mercurial and difficult characters.
One of those was Harry McNeish, the ship’s carpenter.
In all the substantial Shackleton literature, McNeish’s
role in the subsequent survival of those on board, tends
to be underplayed. That he was a malcontent is well documented.
But it is arguable that the team would not have survived
without his ingenuity and craftsmanship. When one of the
ship’s lifeboats, the James Caird had to be made seaworthy
for a 600-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean to South
Georgia, it was McNeish who carried out the modifications.
Another member of the party, Leonard Hussey, did not find
many endearing qualities in McNeish. “I loved him
not,” he wrote, “yet in the course of a few
weeks I discovered him to be one of the most courageous
and skilful men I have ever met. My enthusiastic loathing
of him gave way to respect.”
Shackleton may well have respected McNeish but he never
forgave his carpenter for opposing a decision to haul the
boats over the ice. When Polar Medals for distinguished
service were awarded later, McNeish was among four crew
members whose names were not put forward for the honour.
Was Shackleton taking his grudge too far? One great leadership
quality is magnanimity. Another is forgiveness. Another,
perhaps, is the ability to understand and work with your
A recent Harvard Business Review article, In praise of
the Incomplete Leader by Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone,
Wanda Orlikowski and Peter Senge, highlighted the need for
bosses to concentrate on their strengths and to find people
who can make up for their own limitations.
First, however, it’s important to find out your limitations.
Not all executives possess sufficient humility to recognise
David Pendleton, founder of Edgecumbe, organisational
psychology consultants, works with companies to help them
bring the best out of their top teams. While people can
often work on their weaknesses, sometimes, he says, it is
necessary to “work around” shortcomings that
can be deeply ingrained.
“The difficulty with transforming problem teams is
that half the time they can’t be honest enough with
themselves or confident enough to admit there is a problem,”
We might all benefit, as Prof Sutton suggests, by taking
a long hard look at ourselves now and then. Ultimately workplace
harmony is preserved by the things that each of us do and
say – and sometimes by the things we don’t do
and don’t say.
“Having all the right business philosophies and management
practices to support the no asshole rule is useless, says
Prof Sutton, “unless you treat the person right in
front of you, right now, in the right way.”
The No Asshole Rule, Building a Civilized Workplace and
Surviving One That isn’t, by Robert I Sutton, is published
by Warner Business Books, price $22.99.
See Also: http://www.richarddonkin.com/blog/2007/01/lets-call-whole-thing-orf.html