How to deal with a**holes at Christmas and all year long
Stanford professor Robert Sutton has advice for avoiding objectionable people
Robert Sutton: 'My father always told me to avoid a**holes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others.'
’Tis the season to be jolly, but ’tis also the reason to come up against any number of annoying tyrants, too. There’s the bloke in accounts who chances his arm next to the photocopier at the Christmas party, and then holds it against you for the rest of the year (although, given events in recent months, results may vary). There’s the old schoolfriend you bump into during Christmas Eve pints in your hometown, regaling you with stories of their Beemer/tracker mortgage rebate/how Atticus is doing really great in his baby Latin classes.
The aunt who won’t relinquish control of the telly remote for the whole festive season. There’s the 12 Pubs Of Christmas brigade. And the person that nearly slugged you for getting your hands on the last Sylvanian Village in the city. Goodwill to all men? Hardly.
Come to think of it though, there’s been a slow build happening for months now. Blame Trump, trolls, handsy film executives or your garden-variety phone-shouters, but the fact is undeniable. The world has reached Peak A**hole.
My father always told me to avoid a**holes at all costs, because I would catch their nastiness
Back in 2010, Robert Sutton published a book The No A**hole Rule, on how to cultivate a civilised workplace, and to navigate one that isn’t. Several American companies, tech start-ups in particular, followed suit, implementing a "no a**hole" policy. And it’s a policy that Sutton, too, put in pace in his industrial engineering faculty at Stanford University.
“In our department we had 11 faculty members, and we said that we wouldn’t hire scholars if they had a reputation for being nasty and disrespectful,” recalls Sutton.
It may seem in this dog-eat-dog world that such behaviour is necessary to get ahead: not so, according to Sutton.
“Companies like Uber get all the bad publicity [for having a toxic workplace culture] but there are organisations that are really good about treating people well, like Airbnb. Brian Chesky made it his business to set the tone when it came to treating people with respect. They show it’s possible to be a decent human being and helm a very competitive company.”
Still, those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of an a**hole’s behaviour, Sutton says, observe a massive decline in general wellbeing.
“If you’re being treated rudely and have ongoing abusive interactions with a supervisor, you’re likely to experience anxiety, elevated blood pressure, sleep disturbance, and even family problems. You’ll work less hard. Good people in the workplace either leave or don’t bother to go the extra mile.
“My father always told me to avoid a**holes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others. I learned, as an organisational psychologist, that his advice is supported by research on ‘emotional contagion’: if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one. There’s good evidence that the closer you sit to a jerk – within 25 feet – you’re likely to catch the disease.”
The question begs to be asked: how can you tell if you yourself have become one? Sutton refers to an a**hole rating self-exam, created after the publication of his first book (ARSE, available on electricpulp.com), but notes the worst offenders are often none the wiser.
“There’s a lot of research on self-awareness, and it shows that people are very bad at being aware of their weaknesses,” he says. “The best person to ask is someone you know well enough and you trust to tell you the truth.”
According to Sutton, an a**hole is someone who consistently leaves others demeaned and de-energised. Anyone can have a bad day and take it out on others: certified a**holes repeat their behaviours, and take pleasure in it.
“Others say that people who are completely selfish are a**holes,” he says. “They think that their job is to get as much from others as possible and make others suffer as much as possible.
“The worst ones for me to deal with are the strategic smart ones. They can be the most successful, too, because they’re the ones who know when to turn it on and off.”
In some cases, we tend to actively gravitate towards them. With dating in particular, you’re likely to have heard mention, often with damning faint praise, of the Nice Guy. Solid, reliable types are dismissed as boring, while the charming alpha with a glint in his eye and line up his sleeve is more likely to enjoy dating success.
Sutton writes mainly about the place of the a**hole in workplace politics, but on the idea that people are romantically drawn to unpredictable, flaky types, he says: “There are situations where people are attracted to these aggressive, cool types. The kids in high school that were the top of the pecking order, like the head of the football team, have tended to be people who were cool, and who tended to bully other people. It had a lot to do with gaining status.”
Seven years on from his groundbreaking first title, Sutton has returned with a new book, The A**hole Survival Guide. Much as one might expect, it’s a how-to guide on navigating the narcissists, the energy vampires, the Machiavellian and the plain pushy types.
“I had been working on other stuff in the last decade, but I kept getting emails from people who had these types of people in their lives, and what to do about it,” he says. “When I followed the peer-reviewed academic literature, the amount of people doing research on rudeness, air rage, phubbing (snubbing someone in favour of a mobile phone), abuse in the workplace and trolling amounted to about 200,000 studies in the last decade alone.”
And this wealth of research has proved revealing. The vagaries of modern life have certainly brought us towards Peak A**hole.
“When you go through the research, you realise that we do lots of stuff online, and in open offices we never have eye contact with each other, which does affect civility,” says Sutton. “Because of growing income inequality, there’s a bigger difference between the haves and have-nots. And we’re always, always in a hurry. If you want to turn someone into an a**hole immediately, put that person in a hurry.”
‘Thin skinned-ness online’
“I do think there’s this ‘thin skinned-ness’ online where people are defensive and angry and ready to be offended the whole time,” he continues. “It’s part of the solution and part of the problem. If you’re ready to have your feelings hurt all the time, it will happen. Plus, it’s hard to have empathy and understanding for people when you don’t know who they are.”
If it always feels as though a**holes wreak emotional havoc with little kickback, fear not: the good news, says, Sutton, is that a**holes get their comeuppance in the end.
“Certain firms do reward people for this behaviour with a sort of ‘winner takes all’ logic, but – and you see this with President Trump – you destroy or undermine the collaborative relationships that made your success possible in the first place,” he says. “You undermine the collaborative behaviour and the information-sharing necessary for the system as a whole to be effective.”
There are several ways to deal with a**holes: avoiding them, outwitting them, disarming them, sending them packing, and developing protective psychological armour. First and foremost, don’t deceive yourself about how terrible life with an a**hole in it really is.
Psychologists say to live in the moment, but sometimes it’s not that good an idea if the moment you’re in sucks
“I call these the mind tricks that protect your soul,” laughs Sutton. “With narcissists in particular, keep going with the a**-kissing because if they sense disloyalty, or even criticism or disapproval, they become very thin-skinned.
“There’s also a tactic where you turn your hater into a friend,” he adds. “A lot of times we’re in situations, especially if they don’t treat everyone like dirt, where it feels like they’re having a negative emotional reaction to you. In this instance, flattery works and killing them with kindness is an especially effective strategy. This works especially well on people with a small amount of power over you, but are overall in low-prestige roles.
“Another good way of dealing with a**holes is to find a way of being emotionally detached,” he adds. “Think, ‘why stress about an a**hole doing a**hole stuff?’
"I heard one guy say that when he was being hazed [harassed], he’d look the person in the face, but concentrate on their eyebrow.
“Psychologists say to live in the moment, but sometimes it’s not that good an idea if the moment you’re in sucks.”
The A**hole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton is published by Portfolio Penguin (€14.99)