DO YOU have to be an asshole to succeed in business? Many would answer 'yes' - the rueful witnesses to the fact that in business, as in baboon troops, alpha males (and females) end up on top, where the combination of success, domineering natures and fawning underlings quickly turns them into horrible creeps.
This is why in a list of the world's greatest assholes, business would take a disproportionate share - Kozlowski and Ebbers, 'Chainsaw Al' Dunlap, Trump, Eisner and much of the top management at Enron. Although in the UK maybe only Maxwell would make the A-list, we could supply a richly unpleasant supporting cast, including many trading managers in the City of London.
But the asshole imperative is self-serving fallacy. As Bob Sutton notes in his entertaining and important The No Asshole Rule (Sphere), succeeding in business is not the same as having a successful business – in fact without careful management, the abrasive qualities that the unscrupulous use to elbow others out of their way as they move up can, and often do, tear the fabric of the organisation to bits. Assholes may 'succeed', but they often wreck the business in doing so.
This forceful plea by Sutton - management professor at Stanford and co-author of Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths and Total Nonsense - for workplace civility is founded on a mass of psychological and management research demonstrating that the idea of 'the brilliant bastard', the star who is also an asshole, is, organisationally speaking, an oxymoron.
In terms of hard cash, one business estimated only the most obvious management, legal and HR costs of dealing with an 'untouchable' but obnoxious performer at $160,000 a year; adding in the indirect losses to the firm through stress, demotivation, absenteeism and knock-on effects for customers takes the Total Cost of Assholes, or TCA, multiples higher. More cheerfully, high TCA means the results of getting rid of assholes are invariably less financially damaging than expected and often more than offset by the positive effects - freer flow of ideas, fewer leavers, better morale and more time to spend on customers rather than staying alive.
There are, Sutton admits, one or two exceptions to the 'No Assholes Rule'. Managers sometimes need to do 'bad cop' as well as 'good', not least to deal with the clueless, spiteful and lazy - assholes, in fact. In some people it's hard to tell whether good or bad cop predominates. When he googled 'Steve Jobs', Apple's mercurial chief, with 'asshole', Sutton got 89,000 hits compared with just 750 for Oracle's equally notorious Larry Ellison. Jobs is undeniably both brilliant and impossible, capable of making underlings believe he is either the devil or a hero. But research shows that fear motivates less well than positive reward. Playing the asshole, Sutton concludes, is a dangerous game, the most likely outcome of which is that you are one, in which case you'll almost certainly do far more harm than good.
The reason is that human emotions, including fear, contempt and rage, are contagious while conversely, personality has little influence on how people behave in particular circumstances. Negative interactions have five times more effect on mood than positive ones.
The upshot of this triple whammy is that 'assholes breed like rabbits'. Worse, if the plague isn't stifled at birth, it can kick off a vicious circle in which asshole behaviour becomes institutionalised, generating expectations that reinforce it. Managers who rule by fear and loathing foster cynicism, resistance and indifferent performance that seem to justify yet another turn of the screw.
In some areas - Wall Street and the City of London, Hollywood, the music industry and increasing swathes of the UK public sector - asshole management is endemic, raising the spectre of the horror-film scenario in which our organisations reprocess us in their own malign and shrunken image. In Sutton's chilling phrase, 'Assholes are us'.
This is not an idle threat. While the reverse process also holds - civilised behaviour begets civilised behaviour - many of the things organisations do in the name of management encourage rather than dampen asshole tendencies. For example, hundreds of research studies confirm the adage that power corrupts. Increasing status and power differences turns alpha natures into assholes (who as a result make worse decisions) and inferiors into underperforming wimps.
Powerlessness corrupts, too. Many organisations aggravate the problem with 'performance cultures' that constantly rate and rank people, garland a few stars and ignore the rest. Yet the evidence is clear and easily understandable: 'if you want to have fewer assholes - and better organisational performance - reducing the status differences between the highest- and lowest-status members... is the way to go.'
Oh, anyway, sod it - this book is a blow for humanity as well as management. Life is too short.
The Observer, 20 Many 2007