In our last installment of “Sense & Sangria,” I gave advice to a first-year professor who wasn’t happy with his first tenure-track job. One of our commenters had some excellent advice for the professor:
I have been in the same situation for the last 13 years. What finally did the trick for me, I just decided it was a job, not a lifestyle. I go to work, do my job, get a paycheck and go live my life. It has made all the difference.
If you will recall in Post Academic’s past studies of the “no asshole rule,” Bob Sutton advised that victims of workplace assholes should do all they can not to let the abuse or endless slights “touch their souls.” Sutton shares a story about a woman who couldn’t leave her job but found a way to cope via a rather Zen approach:
… detached indifference, simply not giving a damn, might be the best that you can do to survive a workplace that subjects you to relentless humiliation…. Ruth was physically sitting at the table. In her mind, however, she wasn’t attached to her nasty and demeaning colleagues, their opinions didn’t affect her self-worth, their vile expressions and words weren’t touching her soul, and she was in a different and better world.
Your situation might not be as extreme. Your coworkers might be more irritating than vile. But the point is that, in order to keep work from bringing you down, you need to build up other parts of your life to boost your immunity against workplace strife. Family, friends, side projects, fitness, whatever is your thing, build it up and make it strong. Otherwise, work will just gnaw at you and make you miserable.
And if you give more in an effort to keep assholes at bay, it won’t work. You’ll probably still get laid off anyway or get assigned tasks that you hate, so don’t attach too much value to it. Attach value to what’s really important to you instead of impressing a bunch of assholes. Follow our commenter’s advice: Do your job, get your paycheck and live your life. After all, it is your life, not your boss’s life or your dean’s life.
Antique lap desk with hidden compartment. Image by Koppas from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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.
The response to “Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?” was intense and informative. One of the comments led me to Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule,” and this book needs to be shared with anyone who is about to enter the work force. Sutton argues that a) Assholery results in lost profits and b) Assholery is contagious, so unless you know how to handle a workplace asshole, you might turn into one yourself.
One of the best tips Sutton offers involves how to cope when you can’t escape an asshole. The Hamster World offers many more avenues of escape, but the Ivory Tower is difficult to navigate, and you may find yourself trapped with an asshole. You can’t fight back because assholes can wreck your career, but you can thwart the asshole by employing strategic detachment:
If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact. In my view, when organizations and bosses treat their people badly, they get what they deserve when their people respond by becoming emotionally detached and doing as little as possible without getting fired. In this imperfect world, there are times when learning “not to give a shit” is the best short-term solution available.
A seasoned asshole wants a reaction from you in order to validate his or her own power. Encouraging the asshole only makes matters worse. It is tough to resist punching someone in the face, even if it is richly deserved, but doing so means you’ve just been infected with asshole syndrome. The best survival strategy is to look for a new advisor, a new field or flat-out a new career. At the very least, the asshole will lose interest in you and move on to more interesting prey.
Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.