7 ways to deal with an asshole boss

How to deal with people who treat you like dirt.

by Robert Sutton
Last Updated: 12 Sep 2017

When I wrote my book, The No Asshole Rule, I received more than 8,000 emails from people worldwide – ranging from Jewish cantors to doctors, from tech workers in Silicon Valley to lawyers, teachers and train drivers – who asked me, in essence, the same question: ‘I'm dealing with an asshole (or a bunch of them). Help me! What Should I do?’

There are assholes everywhere – from the morning commute to social media. But it’s those that we encounter at work that are among the most damaging – and the asshole boss most of all.

But there are many ways to deal with them and, in The Asshole Survival Guide, I’ve looked to offer dozens of solutions.    

One key point to remember is that asshole behaviour is contagious. One of the best ways to deal with an asshole boss is to limit exposure where possible. 

Here are some contamination and contagion busters.

1. Ride the Allen curve 

In the 1970s, MIT professor Tim Allen showed that the closer people sat to one another, the more frequently they communicated, not just face-to-face communication, but via all media including telephone calls. Can you entice the asshole boss to move just a little farther away from you? As MIT’s Tom Allen showed, even an extra ten feet can help. And if you can somehow get them to move to new digs, in another building or on a different floor, it is almost as good as shipping them to another country.

2. Dodge and duck out

Can you avoid encounters with the asshole boss altogether? Can you figure out how to be home or on the road when they are around — or arrive late or leave early for meetings, collaborative work, or social gatherings that you can’t skip?

3. The rhythm method

Are you locked in a relationship with one of those assholes who takes pleasure every time you react with obvious unhappiness? If so, can you slow the rhythm? Try to delay and deny your tormentor reinforcement by waiting as long as you can before you respond to nasty messages and phone calls. 

4. An invisibility cloak

Are you stuck in an asshole-rich setting, where powerful superiors treat you as if you were invisible — except when you commit some real or imagined crime, and then they dump all over you? Perhaps that invisibility can provide you with protective camouflage. You might blend into the background by saying as little as possible, being boring, doing work that is neither terrible nor terrific, and hiding behind a bland and blank expression.

5. Tag-team partners

Can you develop a formal or informal rotation system with colleagues so that everyone gets about the same amount of exposure to the boss or to tasks that are more asshole-intensive? That way, everybody gets the fair share of abuse (and relief).

6. Go backstage for temporary relief

Find and use a 'safety zone' where the asshole boss isn’t allowed to go or can’t find you, where you have time to recover from the latest insults to your soul and prepare for the next, and can commiserate with and support fellow targets. It might be a dedicated place like a teachers’ lounge, or the local Starbucks or watering hole, or it could be just a quiet hallway or a nearby park.

7. Activate the early warning system

Work with your colleagues and comrades to warn each other of incoming assholes — so you can hide from them, be on your best behavior, steer them away from people and places that will trigger their disdain or rage, and perhaps prepare to screw your tormentor over. A sign on the boss’s door that says 'The asshole is in' probably will get you in trouble; but discreet use of phone calls, messages, emails, or social media just might do the trick.

The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton is published this month by Portfolio Penguin.

Price: £12.99, paperback.

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