In Praise of Assholes

30 September 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

In 2007 Robert Sutton, professor at Stanford University, wrote a book called The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. It quickly became a phenomenal success and a business bestseller, winning awards and getting rave reviews. The book was very attractive to a lot of people, emphasizing that being a bastard was bad for business and that being nice could improve your bottom line. And, frankly, for many people the notion of having no assholes in the office probably seemed a nice, if somewhat utopian, change of pace.

However, all this prompts a question: Is a team/office/organization completely devoid of “assholes” efficient? Sutton obviously referred to the importance of removing toxic colleagues, those who through obnoxious or even sociopathic behavior can poison the morale and the atmosphere. This we can probably all agree on being a good thing, but where does one draw the line? An organization that removes all those who would question, prod and challenge will in all likelihood be a nice place to work, but will it be any good?

The problem with the “no asshole rule” is that it is easily misused. We tend to think that all those who do not agree with us are being a bit difficult, and much prefer people who like our ideas and our views. But here be monsters. An organization where everyone agrees is one where new points of view are rarely introduced, lest they cause someone to feel bad, one where ideas are never brought to full fruition, as they are not forced to improve due to being challenged, and one where people rather than develop become evermore comfortable in the general loveliness of the office.

So we do need bastards. We do not need them for their destructive potential, but because they introduce the kind of challenge and friction that all real development thrives on. We need them so that we have someone to hone our ideas against. We need them so that we feel that pushing an idea through is meaningful, rather than an exercise in pleasantries. We need them because without resistance we cannot develop and grow.

Now, being a productive asshole is not easy, and managing the same is a leadership challenge of the highest order. But this does not mean that we should shy away from the task of handling this side of the creative process. Far too many organizations treat creativity and innovation as a game of niceties and lovely ideas, when they should be focusing on how difficult people challenging each other’s ideas can lift the organization out of its comfortable doldrums.

Sometimes an asshole is what you need in order to be shocked out of your complacency. Sometimes an asshole is the thing that can turn a mediocre idea into a great one. So don’t trust the “no asshole rule” – focus more on nurturing your productive bastards.

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