The No Asshole Rule


Categories: Personal GeekStuff

I recently picked up a copy of Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule.

It’s pretty interesting. The basic thesis: People who are demeaning, hostile, and basically bullies, make work less pleasant and overall harm performance. The widespread belief that such people are worth it if they perform better than other people is, it turns out, not particularly justified.

This resonates with things I’ve experienced. One of my first jobs had a tendency for derision, bullying, and hostility. People who screwed up had fast food job apps left in their inboxes. I was doing testing, and one of my bug reports (a program crashed if you clicked a button too often) got posted in someone’s cube with “QA Hard At Work!” on it. Well, let me tell you, that sure wasn’t motivational in any positive sense. I didn’t help by being pretty blunt with criticisms – but then, how was I supposed to know better? It’s not as if I had a lot of prior work environments to compare them with. I do remember being particularly frustrated that, although I did get admonished once for being too critical:

1. Nothing was done about the bugs. Not much point to having testing if you ignore the bugs the testers find, right?
2. So far as I can tell, the problem wasn’t “being too critical” but “being too critical while a junior employee”.

Fastforward a while. I’m now pretty good at this stuff, and I have reputation and experience. I have a fair amount of room to pick what I want out of a job. I’m working with people I like, in a corporate culture I like. Some thoughts on that.

I don’t think we explicitly have a “no-asshole” rule; if we do, I’ve not been told of it. We do, however, have a corporate culture which undermines the things that are essential for bullying. There’s a total lack of interest in blame, so far as I can tell. People certainly can, and do, try to figure out how something went wrong – but not for the purpose of assigning blame, just for the purpose of fixing it. No one expects that people won’t make mistakes, or yells at them for making mistakes. As a result, people are more comfortable than they might otherwise be coming forward with information about problems which were caused by their mistakes. Net result: Less time trying to shift blame, less time before the problem is fixed.

Beyond that, openness about the existence of mistakes and problems makes it easier to fix things. Try to correct a mistake you can’t admit that you made, and watch how hard it is. Now look what happens when you can admit that you made a mistake; you have a much easier time addressing it and correcting it.

One of the things I found most fascinating in this book is the discussion of how bullies and status relationships go together. I’m mostly status-blind; I’m aware of the concept, but I don’t seem to process it. Life at Wind River has been a good fit for me. No one cares whether I’m junior or senior. If someone asks me a question, I try to give a good answer. If I ask someone a question, they try to give me a good answer.

When I was at that job long ago, and I said something looked wrong, it was treated as a violation of protocol, because I was wasting the time of people who were better paid. Well, at Wind River, some of my coworkers are fresh out of college… and live in China. I dunno what they get paid, but it’s a lot less, I suspect, than we get over hear in North America. (Both because of cost of living and because they’re relatively inexperienced.) But no one expects them to refrain from questioning us. They do, and sometimes they’re right. If we were gonna be bottom-line focused, that would be enough. It only takes me a few minutes to answer a question from someone who thinks I’ve made a mistake; the one time they caught something that would have cost a week’s work for the whole testing team, which I’d (incorrectly) dismissed, that more than paid for the next twenty or thirty times.

But, ultimately, that’s not the right question. The question is not whether my time is worth more than their time; it’s whether my time is worth more than their dignity as human beings. And it frankly isn’t. Once you understand that, the rest falls into place.

It’s not that there’s no teasing at work. It’s that the teasing is friendly. If people are actually upset, they don’t tease, they criticize calmly, politely, and usually in private. Public criticisms are carefully directed away from the person who happened to do something, to the general pattern of the action, or the reason for which it was a problem. We have a relaxed and informal culture, where people are encouraged to speak their minds without regard to nominal status, or some perception of the “value” of different peoples’ time. It works; we have a good time, and we get stuff done.

This book is awesome, not because the conclusion is particularly surprising or unexpected, but because Sutton did a great job of finding statistics, studies, and evidence to show that the conclusion is good even if you don’t care about people. In other words, even if you don’t care about people, just about the bottom line, the way to success is to learn to care about people. Not hugely surprising, but nice to have stronger evidence for it.

Comments [archived]

From: Seth
Date: 2010-06-08 11:32:15 -0500

It’s not just the relative value of time, but also the ratio. If 5 minutes from someone worth $500/hour saves a day of someone worth $50/hour, that’s a benefit.

How much is the 10 minutes for a junior guy that saved a senior team a week worth?

For pure bottom line, the optimal strategy isn’t so much caring about people, as acting as if you did and were competent at it. For someone who doesn’t care, “treat people according to these rules . . . and you’ll make more money” is self-justifying and relatively easy to achieve. “Learn to care about people” is more difficult and slower to achieve, and even more slower in accomplishing changes in behavior, and therefore much slower in achieving the goal (more money). Besides, “learn to care about people and you’ll make more money” is more likely to run into “I don’t care about them, and changing is more effort than the money is worth” than “Adopt these policies and you’ll make more money” is.