Sunday, June 16, 2013

Good Books about Bad People

I just finished (in audio format biking) Robert Sutton’s “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t.   He had fought with the publisher of Harvard Business Review, which published the seed article, to keep the word Asshole in the title.  That no doubt helped with sales, but there are other words for the same thing.  I looked up synonyms and found A jerk; an inappropriately or objectionably mean, inconsiderate, contemptible, obnoxious, intrusive, or rude person.
I think “mean-spirited” captures it nicely.  To be clear, Sutton points out, the “Chronic Assholes” are not people who are having a bad day -- these are nasty people by nature.  To be Chronic “they have to show a persistent pattern, to have a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves.”  They are mean to peers and especially to those beneath them but they often suck up to superiors.  These are kiss-up/kick down bitches and here is how they do what they do:
  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one's personal territory
  3. Uninvited personal contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and non-verbal
  5. Sarcastic jokes and teasing used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering email flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or status degradation rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible
Sutton gives quite a few examples of high-profile assholes -- often bosses, CEOs and business people I'd never heard of, but with chilling, despicable stories.  Steve Jobs and Bobby Knight come to mind, but he names lots of others. On the noble end of the spectrum find Men's Warehouse, Costco, Southwest Airlines, Ideo, and Google. 

Ironically, I suspect from little comments, anecdotes, and admissions, that Sutton can be a bit of one himself.  In a revealing interview after the audiobook he snickered a bit that a co-worker glares at his visitors for him so, they'll leave him alone but will still think favorably of him.  And get this: he advises all new Stanford faculty members to choose a few people to completely ignore.  If you're not pissing a few people off, he said, you're not doing your job!  And he seemed proud of that.  So this fun little book is authored by an expert, and here're some of his insights:
  • Why are there assholes in positions of power?
    • They may bully their way up, especially when they have redeeming qualities that are considered essential.   And then, if they can, they may hire or promote others like them.  
  • How do you determine if someone is Certifiable? 
    • We're all assholes sometimes, but if it's repeated, demeaning, and it mostly targets people with lower status, the person may be Certifiable.
  • What do they think of themselves?
    • Some are aware of it, some not.  Because their employees are often cowed, they often kowtow, leaving the person him/herself with an inflated self-image. 
  • What do their superiors think of them?
    • They may not know, because no one dare tell.  The jerk is often well-behaved upward, and by force and manner may appear to be smarter and more essential than they actually are.
  • How do you deal with a mean-spirited boss or coworker, or employee when you can’t just fire them?  
    • Avoid them; disengage, psychologically detach, and anticipate abuse even if punctuated with periods of niceness. Align with other victims for mutual support.  Interesting advice: care less about the organization. 
  • How do you weigh the value of a skilled employee who is also an asshole?
    • Within an organization being mean-spirited is incompetence. Usually that outweighs everything else.
  •  How does an asshole hurt witnesses and bystanders?
    • Those who intercede become targets, and intimidation drives good people out as well.  Morale and trust decline through the whole organization. 
  • When should you confront the behavior, when ignore it?
    • It may depend on how badly you need your job.  if the person is above you, drawing attention to the situation, even to peers, can be dangerous.     
  • How can you devastate an asshole?
    • Publicize their behavior in an external venue.  Pride and humiliation are powerful motivators.  This could be suicide, too.
  • What should you do if you have employed an asshole?
    • Get rid of them quickly, don't promote them, and if you can't dispose of them, make them a public example of what not to do.  
  • Where do you find assholes?
    • Look for the close associates of known assholes.  They find others like them, and then they stick together. 
  •  Why is it much better to not have a “no asshole rule” than to have one that is not enforced?
    • It draws attention to the toleration of mean-spirited people, and it parades institutional hypocrisy.
  •  Just how costly are they? 
    • Targets, bystanders and witnesses quit.  Those who remain become indifferent or hostile. Theft rates increase. Absenteeism increases, and so on.  The cost has been measured with a "TCA" analysis -- "Total Cost of Assholes"
  •  Are the advantages of acting like one? 
    • You do get attention, when you absolutely need it, and some assholes even manage to claw their way upward. 
  • What happens after an organization purges one?
    • There is a often palpable feeling of relief and a realization that they were not so valuable to the organization as they had appeared to be, after all.
One of the most disconcerting things I learned is how easily a "culture of mean-spiritedness" can develop.  For one thing, if they are on hiring committees they will tend to hire people like themselves.  Second, when they meet another asshole they adhere with a bond that is not easily broken.  Third, their behaviors and attitudes are infectious -- regular people are easily sucked into acting like jerks, too.  So, as Sutton put it, assholes breed assholes, and before you know it you have a veritable snakepit.  There is nothing like a "swarm of assholes," Sutton wrote, "to suck the life out of civility."

Negativity is powerful.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Dan Kahneman pointed out that people value positives much less than negatives; that is, if you find $50 it’s nice; if you lose $50 that's much worse ... and so it is for interactions. According to Sutton one negative interaction can offset five positive ones.  "It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with a single asshole."  
As practical as the Sutton book is, the next one I’ll mention is just plain unsettling.

Evil Genes, by Barbara Oakley, has a subtitle “Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.”  Machiavellian personalities, the “sinisterly successful,” she explains, are people with a particular mix of personality disorders which work together effectively – but not so well for other people.  Hitler, Mussolini, and Pol Pot had it.  Ceausescu, Somoza, Hussein, Amin, Mao and Satlin, too, and Oakley’s sister, apparently.  Oakley, an associate professor of engineering, a fellow of the American institute of Medical and Biological Engineers, and obviously a Renaissance Woman, is an excellent non-fiction author to boot.  Every time I pick this book up, I want to read it all. 

The Machiavellian has 1) personal charisma. 2) a keen ability to read people and 3) a profound lack of empathy.  They view others as objects to be manipulated, they are not bound by conventional morality, law, or social norms and so they can lie, cheat, steal and deceive without guilt or conscience.  They use aliases, they con others for pleasure or profit, they’re impulsive, irritable, aggressive, they have a disregard how others feel and don’t care about their safety either.  They lack responsibility and they lack remorse.  These are really, really Assholes with a capital A, to the core.  And here is her thesis: psychopathy of this kind is genetic.  According to twins studies, it’s 81% heritable -- just 19% is influenced by environmental conditions, such as a tortured childhood or traumatic experiences.
It is well known that genes affect personality; 30-60% of most personality traits are due to genetic code; twins studies are fairly conclusive.  Oakley goes some depth explaining how exactly this works, in the brain, with some technical but well-written detail: how genes affect serotonin transporters, for example, and how a deficit of these predispose one to anxiety, impulsivity, suicidal thoughts, instability, bulimia and binge drinking.  Genes affect the brain, which in turn influences memory, stability, mood, fear, the ability for abstract thought, trust, shame, resentment, forgiveness, empathy, moral reasoning, hostility, the ability to learning from punishment, and the ability to see the big picture.  It’s a competent, if dark, introduction to evolutionary psychology.  And why aren’t these maladies stripped from the genome by natural selection?  Because sometimes they do benefit the organism.  If the brain is wired just so, the person is almost psychic in their ability to read others, she said, with particular attention to their triggers and vulnerabilities.  And because they lack empathy there is no end to what they will do.  It’s a powerful mix, but a very bad one, for everyone else. 

Machiavellians have their own view of right and wrong.   They enjoy manipulating and humiliating others, they are often charismatic and superficially slick but prone to violence. Those with borderline personality disorder – highly associated with Machiavellianism -- have mood swings, are emotionally unstable, often have strong fears of abandonment, are impulsive and inconsistent, and they tend to flip between idealizing others and devaluing them.  This makes personal relationships, shall we say, unpredictable.

Oakley then  goes into fascinating detail about Slobodan Milosevic, Caligula, Stalin, Mao, Mugabe, Hitler, and Martha Stewart – each one a twisted story of power, cunning, and lack of empathy.  It’s a chilling thesis which I’ll characterize as “The Perfect Genetic Storm.”  But not every storm is perfect, and not every Machiavellian turns into a Hitler or Mao; the same story plays out, on a smaller scale, in organizations everywhere.
So how do you know if your school board or union president is Machiavellian?  Oakley recommended looking for inconsistencies between public and private life: a loveless marriage for power or wealth, small private scandals, cheating, plagiary, and so on.  She advises listening to what is being said behind backs, i.e. gossip.  “While a … hoodwinked supervisor may rave about the Machiavellian’s sincerity and talent coworkers, underlings, janitors, roommates, teammates, cellmates, or simple acquaintances may have a very different story – if you happen to get their confidence.” (337)  In other words, keep your ear to the ground.

However, she warned, the good ones are so crafty that finding them is like spotting a cat in a house of mirrors.  But it’s good to know they are out there.  Good to know.

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