If you are an academic or a high-level hamster, you’re probably smart and talented. Yet the smart and talented can also be infected with the asshole virus. The rule of thumb is that talent is not an excuse for assholery. Receiving a bunch of awards doesn’t mean you don’t have to act like a normal human being. Alas, Bob Sutton warns, ” Beware that giving people–even seemingly nice and sensitive people–even a little power can turn them into big jerks.” Yes, you could be an asshole, but it doesn’t have to be that way if you know how to conduct yourself.
Don’t get personal. Ever. Focus on arguing about ideas. Work is about completing a task in a successful fashion, not about winning or losing. If you screw up or drop the ball because you want to show up someone else or make a point, chances are good you’ll both lose your jobs or your funding. Was winning an argument or proving a point worth it?
Watch how you treat those with less power than you. Sutton says that a person’s true colors shine when they interact with those who are lower on the totem pole: “… the difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.” It might seem easy to yell at an intern or a grad student because you think you are teaching them a lesson, but what you’re really teaching them is that you’re an asshole.
More after the jump! Screengrab from the movie “Viva Zapata!” Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The best way to stop assholes in the workplace is to avoid bringing them on board in the first place. Alas, assholes are often successful precisely because they are assholes, and others might think their bad attitudes are an asset. It can be tempting to hire an asshole if she has an eye-catching resume. But is it worth it if you run the risk that everyone in your office will bail or reduce their efforts? How do you keep assholes out?
Get involved with hiring. If someone is an asshole in the interview or has an asshole reputation, that person will be an asshole in your workplace. Don’t hire that person, no matter how prestigious. As Sutton writes, ” … negative interactions had a fivefold stronger effect on mood than positive interactions–so nasty people pack a lot more wallop than their more civilized counterparts.” Even if it means extra work for you to be involved with hiring, the results will be worth it.
Assholes breed assholes. Once you hire an asshole, other people in your workplace will act like assholes at worst or slackers at best to protect themselves. The asshole will also try to hire people who are similar to him- or herself. They know their behavior is wrong, so having more assholes in the workplace is insurance. Keep them off hiring committees. Sutton describes this situation in memorable fashion: “Assholes tend to stick together, and once stuck are not easily separated.”
More after the jump! Caricature of Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast from the 1870s. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
So you’re stuck with an asshole in the workplace. The best advice for dealing with a workplace asshole is to quit and work elsewhere. For advice on that, check out Post Academic’s tips for getting another job while you’re working for an asshole. If you really are stuck, Bob Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule” has superb advice for coping:
Stay emotionally detached. Yeah, like that’s easy when someone is calling you names and humiliating you in front of others. However, setting up a wall between your job and your personality is a crucial skill. That way, when you go home, you’re still you, and the asshole can’t take that. Also, by staying detached, you’re less likely to give the asshole the reaction that she wants, which means she is more likely to leave you alone.
Stop working so hard. Do the base amount that you have to do, but don’t go the extra mile until the asshole shows you some respect. Sutton writes, “When your job feels like a prolonged personal insult, focus on just going through the motions, on caring as little as possible about the jerks around you, and think about something more pleasant as often as you can–just get through each day until something changes at your job or something better comes along.”
More after the jump! Caricature of Boss Croker by John S. Pughe from Puck, 1901. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Reading the No Asshole Rule So You Don’t Have To: “Petty But Relentless Nastiness” — The Academia Angle
Bob Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” is perhaps the best workplace survival guide one can have. It could be reprinted repackaged as “The Worst-Case Survival Guide for the Office” and sold at Urban Outfitters. Everyone could use this book, grad students and academics in particular.
In fact, Sutton leads with a two stories about his own experience academia, one good and one bad. First, the good: “Our small department was a remarkably supportive and collegial place to work, especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.” Yet his tale doesn’t follow the usual path of a department hiring a star who also happens to be a raging asshole. No. Instead, the department rejects the star in favor of someone who is a decent person. That is heroic.
And then Sutton continues with the bad story. He describes the time he won a best-teacher award. The students applauded him, and enter the asshole, who declares, “Well, Bob, now that you have satisfied the babies here on campus, perhaps you can settle down and do some real work.”
What an asshole. So, why is it that academia has such a reputation for being rife with assholes?
More after the jump! Image by foundphotoslj from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
One of a bully’s best tricks is to make the victim blame herself. You may get confused as to what is your fault and what is the bully’s. Eventually, you will need to step back from the situation to determine whether or not your boss or a colleague is a bully.
This can be harder in academia because academics aren’t known for having the greatest social skills in the world. But a “creative temperament” is no excuse for acting like an idiot and treating people badly. Yes, creatives are emotional, but part of getting through life is learning how to interact with and compromise with others. If a person with a “creative temperament” also has an anger management problem, he shouldn’t be in charge of anyone, no matter how talented he is.
These cues can help you tell the difference between a bully or a creatively inclined person who is having a trouble managing others:
A bully always has a target. David Yamada of Minding the Workplace says, “In my judgment, the main line in the sand is whether the behavior becomes targeted and malicious. Once it reaches that level, questions of bad social skills, standard-brand incivility, etc., dissolve and what you’re left with is a form of abusive treatment.”
More after the jump! Caricature of Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Our post asking “Can being a lowly grad student kill you?” provoked many comments and responses. When I wrote the post, I hadn’t heard of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who committed suicide several days before the post went up. While the post discussed the relationship between workplace status, power and health, it didn’t cover outright bullying in the ivory tower.
Perhaps it should have. According to news reports, Morrissey may have been pushed to the brink by his former boss, Ted Genoways, the editor of VQR. All charges against Genoways are alleged, and no one can change the circumstances that drove Morrissey to take his own life, but a picture is emerging of what it was like to work at VQR–and it’s ugly.
On the “Today” show, one of Morrissey’s colleagues called the behavior of Genoways “egregious.” If you want more details, by all means dive in at the Hook and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. More than likely, you’ll be grateful for your boss and your workplace.
But what do you do if you are faced with a bully at work? After reading Morrissey’s story, you might think these situations can be hopeless because UVA’s HR department was allegedly unresponsive after Morrissey complained.
So I asked David Yamada, who runs the blog Minding the Workplace. He is a law professor, Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School, and author of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. He says, “Right now one does not have a right to sue for severe workplace bullying.”
But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. He advises, “For those who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, union intervention may be a possibility and should be explored early.” If you don’t have a union, Yamada recommends reading The Bully at Work by Gary and Ruth Namie.
A few other suggestions for what to do in a tough work situation after the jump! Image of Boss Tweed from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.