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Donkin on Work - Management Theory

April2007 – 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 meeting.

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 workplace.

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 company.

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 power.”

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 own imperfections.

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 their failings.

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,” he says.

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.

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