How to manage assholes

Every office contains at least a few of these 'stupid, irritating or contemptible' people. How do you put up with them?

by Aaron James
Last Updated: 11 Jan 2019

'Asshole' or as we Brits would say 'arsehole' is a rude word that wouldn't normally grace the pages of Management Today, but as every office contains at least a few of these 'stupid, irritating or contemptible' people (as the online Oxford Dictionaries defines them), we thought we'd risk your opprobrium and offer some advice as to how best to deal with them from professor of philosophy Aaron James, the author of Assholes: A theory.

Although there is no easy way to mitigate the toll on morale and productivity that assholes often make, it can be helpful to be philosophical about the predicament they present.

Asshole management should begin with an understanding of what exactly assholes are. If we become clearer about why we find them so disturbing, we are more likely to find a way to deal with them.

What is an asshole?

How, then, is the 'proper asshole' (who isn't a borderline case) different from the mere ass, jerk, twit or prat? What defines their particular type of vice?

I propose this definition: the asshole is the man (yes, assholes are mainly, but not exclusively, men) who systematically allows himself advantages in social relationships out of an entrenched (and mistaken) sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people.

So, for instance, Steve Jobs parked his car in disabled spaces, curbed philanthropic giving and intentionally savaged his associates - just to let off steam.

His friend Apple design chief Jony Ive has summed Jobs up nicely: 'When he was very frustrated ... his way to achieve catharsis was to hurt someone. And I think he felt he had a liberty and licence to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he felt, didn't apply to him.'

But Jobs was surely mistaken if he assumed that intentional cruelty was justified by his having turned Apple around. Maybe he did revolutionise the world we live in, but this only proves that we give assholes who do good things a lot of unjustified leeway.

Everyone pulls the occasional asshole move. The proper asshole acts like an asshole systematically: he [it's usually a he] interrupts too often, belittles his colleagues, and he barks orders when a polite request will do. He drives as if he owns the road. A mere jerk may do similar things, but not for the same reasons, and he might well apologise because he isn't immune to other people's sensitivities.

The asshole on the other hand thinks that he is entitled to show up late for meetings, dominate the conversation, and set normal courtesy aside. He'll vigorously and brazenly defend his behaviour, and certainly won't apologise.

It is he, in his view, who isn't getting the respect he deserves.

On the other hand, the asshole isn't just any 'difficult person'; he's not necessarily what FT columnist Lucy Kellaway calls a shit who is quite welcome or one of the SOBs ('Shits on Boards'), who goes for the decisive objection, can't hide a strong opinion and who might have unwittingly hurt someone's feelings, but, all told, tries to help the group meet its goals.

Nor must the asshole be as bad as the corporate psychopath such as 'Chainsaw Al' Dunlap, who instigated mass layoffs while enjoying the rewards heaped upon him by investors, without showing concern for the resulting human toll, while perhaps being delighted by the exercise of power.

If the psychopath merely feigns moral concern, the asshole really is morally motivated, albeit in a partial way, by his moral 'sense of entitlement'.

There are different ways of being mistaken about what one is entitled to. These correspond to different asshole styles.

If the 'grandiose asshole', like Jobs, feels justified by all the good he supposedly does for the world, the 'smug asshole' feels superior in his personal qualities or workplace performance.

The work-a-day 'asshole boss', like David Brent of The Office (illustrated right), may, by contrast, be an otherwise unassuming person who simply takes privileges that do not necessarily come with the job.

He barks orders when a polite request will do, 'knows' that being the boss means never having to say 'I'm sorry', and regularly reminds everyone who is in power. When questions arise, the asshole boss has a ready answer, 'Tough: I am the boss.'

Now that we have defined assholes, how can we learn to manage them?

Accept that he probably won't listen or change

The fact is that most proper assholes will not change, except in a rare existential crisis. Being an asshole works for them, so you shouldn't expect them to behave differently. Spare yourself needless frustration.

However, without expecting the asshole to change and without working toward his reform, do at least hope he eventually comes around. If nothing else, a measure of hope and sympathy will keep you from becoming consumed with rage. Beware, however, of the opposite danger: justifying what he does. You have to stay clear in yourself about your right to better treatment.

Affirm your own worth

Calling a wrong a wrong is an important way of respecting yourself.

If you struggle with this, seek agreement and affirmation from colleagues and friends. If you risk overburdening your friends or spouse, find a similarly afflicted friend and form an asshole support group.

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If an asshole treats you badly, then it's easy to feel angry and resentful but it's important you take time to calm yourself down before doing something you'd only regret. It's much better instead to spend your energy on working out how you should have been treated and how you are going to stop that situation happening again.

Ask politely

Ask the asshole to treat you as you prefer to be treated, making a specific request, in a polite way. Wait until any anger subsides. You may disarm him and he might comply. He may even respect you a tiny bit more but don't be surprised if he shows no sign of reform. (Repeat this step, but only for as long as you can stand it.)

Simultaneously follow a policy of co-operation. You don't have to completely avoid the asshole or refuse to co-operate with him but make sure you co-operate only for what you regard as good reasons.

If a polite conversation with the asshole will uphold a tone of civility at work, you can have the chat for the sake of that worthy cause.

Stage a small protest

At the right time, take a public stand to uphold your rights or the rights of your colleagues. For instance, if he's made a rude joke, you might adopt a stony silence, or make a cutting remark or joke at the asshole's expense. You might refuse to shake the asshole's hand, or withhold help you would otherwise give.

The point is not to get him to listen or understand, but to stand up for the norms of respectful conduct - to affirm everyone's rights.

Mildly retaliate

This can be risky, but mild 'tit for tat' retaliation can sometimes lead the asshole to co-operate better. If he interrupts, interrupt in return - until he is reminded of the point of taking turns.

Don't seek retribution, and make sure your response is safe, proportional and productive. The goal is not war, but civil peace.

Aaron James is author of Assholes: A Theory, published by Nicholas Brealey at £14.99


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