Why leaders need to manage assholism in the workplace

It’s true, there are assholes in the workplace.  Well, in some… and you could have one or more lurking around you now.  Assholes in the workplace suffer from assholism and if a workplace tolerates assholism, the effects can be seriously damaging.

So, what is assholism?  A simple definition of assholism is: consistent anti-social behaviour. There are loads of different examples of assholism in the workplace.  The actions of an asshole can be loud and obvious, or silent and underhanded. 

A client recently consulted with me on a matter that she was concerned about.  She explained her colleagues behaviour made her feel uneasy and she wasn’t sure how to manage it.  The client gave me a few examples of her colleague’s behaviour.   

  • “When I’ve completed a task, she takes credit for it by emailing our manager and team suggesting that it was her work.”

  • “She came to me to talk about a task I was working on and asked me when I thought I’d have it finished. I gave her my estimated date of completion.  Without me knowing, she went and did this task on her own, completing it 2-days earlier than my estimated date of completion.  She then emailed the team to share “her good work”.  It essentially made me look like I hadn’t prioritised the work.”

  • “When I’m sharing an idea with her, she talks over the top of me and says things like “well, I think…”, basically repeating the idea I had just shared with her.”

  • “When I come up with an idea, she makes it look like hers, by sending me an email sharing “the idea”, which was originally mine and asks for my feedback.  She copies in people such as managers and the team.”

To me, the behaviour certainly seemed like it was of the assholism-variety.  I questioned the client why she was hesitant to address it, even though her gut was telling her the behaviour was not OK.  In short, she felt that because her colleague’s behaviour was silent and underhanded, the colleague might just deny it, and if raised with the manager, they may not have ‘observed it’, so unlikely to address it, making my client feel more uneasy and isolated.

I asked the client how this behaviour has made her feel.  In summary, she explained it was mentally tough, making her feel:

  • Isolated

  • Demotivated

  • Anxious

  • Humiliated

It made her question her ability and considered whether she needed to the play the same game (dog eat dog).

Having assholes roaming the workplace can be destructive to workplace relationships. It is a mental health risk to workers and can impact poorly on workplace culture.  Like any inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, assholism needs to be quashed.  There are a legal and moral obligations to protect the mental health of workers, and if assholes are a potential risk in the workplace, then you have a duty to do something about it.

Robert Sutton, Organisational Psychologist, offers some insightful approaches to dealing with workplace assholes in his book: The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt.Robert explains that Netflix’s Patty McCord (who led the “People Department” there for 14 years) told him that she was proud of the mantra Netflix built the company culture around:

no bozos, no assholes
— Netflix

He reports that the company routinely fires people who “were competent, but were jerks”.

Taking a closer look at Netflix’s culture, they strive for their employees to help each other.  This is a very different to the situation my client was in, where she felt she was in some sort of competition with her colleague.

Robert explains that action doesn’t always have to come from the top either.  “You can band together with peers to enforce the rule in your corner of the world, here’s how a reader and his colleagues did it: Assholes are like cockroaches.  If you shine a light on them, they run for cover.  At our workplace, we’re starting to insist on more transparency, less backroom chatter, and an end to the secrecy that allows our resident asshole to carry on his antics.  We share information with each other, refuse to let him trap us into private discussions of our co-workers, and generally don’t give him permission to manipulate us.  It’s driving him nuts! He’s run out of allies (who were never very willing to begin with), and he doesn’t know what to do next.”

What’s your workplace’s tolerance for assholism and how are you monitoring and managing this workplace culture killer?