Are Assholes Winning?

(Warning: This post uses strong language because I highly recommend a book with strong language in the title.)

Sometimes Assholes Succeed

This year I’ve watched in dismay as some truly terrible people have scored business successes that seem to reward bad behavior. Clients report to me their confusion and frustration as some of the most toxic people are not only tolerated when they mistreat other people at work, but they are promoted into positions where they have even more power. In U.S. politics, Americans seem to elect narcissists and bullies and research shows that disagreeable people are often able to obtain agreement with their ideas because they seem confident and strong. All of this causes many people to ask, “Are assholes winning?”

Are Assholes Winning?

I asked Seattle area leadership coach and workplace expert Dr. Carl Robinson for his opinion and advice. He said, “Some assholes win because they are consistently able to find environments that support them. People will hire them because of the face validity of their track record. Hiring managers will ignore warning signs because they are more interested in getting results. However, some assholes are finally stopped because a Board or a CEO has a strong set of values and they decide not to tolerate bad behavior. In these cases, the asshole finally fails.”

How to Protect Yourself From Assholes

In the meantime, though, some people are stuck in work environments where assholes are wreaking havoc. I asked Dr. Robinson for his survival strategies. He responded, “First of all, you can’t be naive. Assholes do treacherous things and nice people are constantly surprised by the devious nature of assholes and the crap they will pull. You can’t just have a friendly conversation with an asshole and ask them to be decent. They will tell you to take a flying leap or they will retaliate in such a brutal way, nice people will have a hard time countering.”

Dr. Robinson says that the #1 survival strategy for dealing with assholes is to build a coalition of support so that if you stand up to the asshole, you aren’t standing alone. He cautions that you must be strategic, however, because if you try to push back against a bully and everyone abandons you, you will be the lone target of retaliation and you will lose. He also recommends that you gather facts in a methodical way because there has to be so much objective evidence, it will be difficult for the organization to ignore what you are saying.

Dr. Robert Sutton at Stanford University built a career studying the psychology of assholery and writing books about the topic. His recent book, The Asshole Survival Guide, is excellent. Dr. Sutton says that thousands of studies in diverse disciplines show that the cost to society is high when assholes are allowed to treat people in demeaning and disrespectful ways. There are negative repercussions at the individual, group, and organizational level. Leaders of companies should pay attention to this research and protect their organizations from assholes.

“…Treating others like dirt does so much damage that even if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still a loser as a human being…” – Robert Sutton

Like Dr. Robinson, Dr. Sutton has advice for how to protect yourself. A few of his recommended strategies include:

– If you can, simply escape. If you are being bullied online, ignore/unfriend/block. This is often the easiest and best solution.

– If leaving isn’t an option, use evidence-based strategies from cognitive psychology, including reframing and detachment, to reduce the intensity of your emotional response. This will free up some energy to use other action-oriented strategies to complement the mental ones.

– Assess the risk of fighting back. If you do choose to fight back, get support from others.

– Let go of revenge fantasies and plans because studies show revenge is rarely emotionally satisfying. (Dr. Sutton probably agrees with the famous saying, “The best revenge is living well.”)

– Do self-assessment to make sure you aren’t the asshole. For help with this, here is an Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE).

– If you are suffering to the point where your emotional or physical health is being affected, get help from a therapist or career coach. Ask for assistance with both the emotional challenge of being targeted and for developing a strategic plan to protect yourself and/or to change jobs.

Nice People Win, Too

The good news is that you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. If you are worried that you need to be an asshole to get ahead in business or in other high stakes settings, Dr. Sutton is reassuring on that point. There are plenty of people well-known for being nice and achieving success at the same time. He cites as examples: Tim Cook, Reed Hastings, Warren Buffett, the late Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Jenji Kohan, and Shonda Rhimes. Dr. Sutton says that even notorious Steve Jobs was more successful at Apple when he was more thoughtful and caring in later years than the early years when he was famous for mistreating people.

“It’s not true that nice people finish last. Nice people are winners before the game even starts.” – Addison Walker (adapted for gender inclusivity)


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