“The Asshole Survival Guide: How to deal with people who treat you like dirt”
by Robert I Sutton
published in 2017 by Portfolio Penguin

When I saw this book on the shelf in the airport, I was immediately drawn to it. I’ve been lucky that most of our clients and the teams we work with are fantastic, but sometimes a curveball is thrown our way. Maybe a few extra strategies in my toolbox wouldn’t hurt…

Situation Assessment

The book starts with 6 diagnostic questions to determine how bad the situation really is:

  1. Do you feel as if the person is treating you (and perhaps others) like dirt?
  2. How long will the ugliness persist?
  3. Are you dealing with a temporary or a certified asshole? (definitions provided)
  4. Is it an individual or a systemic disease?
  5. How much power do you have over the person?
  6. How much are you really suffering?

This chapter is great for putting your situation in to perspective. On reflection of a few situations I’ve been through, I can see that some of the situations may not have been as bad as it felt, if I considered some of these diagnostic questions.

Make a Clean Getaway

Presuming that you discovered that the situation was bad, the next chapter advocates the author’s preferred strategy: make a clean getaway and quit. Avoid the situation entirely if you can.

If you don’t make a clean getaway, there are two key problems: firstly, you’ll suffer in the situation, but secondly, staying in proximity to jerks is contagious and almost inevitably leads to your behaviour deteriorating. The best solution is to identify jerks from a distance and steer clear.

There is also an interesting section in this chapter about problem clients and the importance of choosing not to work with them for the sake of your business and your team.

The author outlines some useful detection tips to help you spot a-holes and steer clear, such as listening to people who have previously worked with these people, trusting your instincts on your first and second impressions, and whether they are noticeably self-absorbed.

Avoidance Techniques

If making a clean getaway isn’t an option, then limiting your exposure is the key. The 3 strategies I thought were the most useful were:

  • Keep physical distance between you and the a-hole. The “Allen Curve” is a phenomenon that shows that we interact more frequently the closer we are physically located. Indeed, people are 4 times more likely to communicate with a colleague who sits 6 feet away compared to a colleague who sits 60 feet away. Once a colleague is on another floor or 150 feet away, they may as well be in a different city. This phenomenon applies to face-to-face communication, and also to emails, texts and social media, so it seems that out of sight is still out of mind, even in the digital age.
  • Duck and weave to limit the interaction with the a-hole, such as by working remotely, avoiding meetings or leaving meetings early.
  • Slow the rhythm of engagement, such as pausing before responding in conversation, saying you’ll get back to them later after you’ve thought about what they have said, taking a day or two to respond to emails, or maybe sending a consolidated reply to multiple emails if you’ve received a bombardment etc.

Mind Tricks That Protect Your Soul

The next chapter provides some ideas for how to cope when you’re in an a-hole situation. Most of the ideas revolve around reframing the behaviour so that it is less upsetting and less threatening.

Recognise that you aren’t to blame. Certified a-holes act like a-holes regardless of what you or anyone else does. Don’t stress about an a-hole doing a-hole stuff, just like you wouldn’t stress about a leopard having spots.

Focus on the silver lining, even though the treatment you are receiving sucks. Remind yourself of what you are learning, the resilience you are developing and whatever else you can think of. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Develop sympathy for the devil. Even if the a-hole doesn’t deserve, and doesn’t ask for forgiveness, you will feel less demeaned and de-energised if you can find it within yourself to take the high road and forgive their behaviour. Think of the person as a porcupine with a heart of gold or a person with a bad user interface but a good operating system. Search for the good and give them the benefit of the doubt. Forgiveness helps victims to let go of their resentment and move forward without the baggage and distraction of evening the score. Do it for yourself, not for them.

But my personal favourite is to use emotional detachment. The author describes a colleague of his that had an inspired approach to dealing with a-holes: he would imagine himself to be a clinician who was studying mean, stubborn and condescending behaviour and was tasked with diagnosing rare, intriguing and extreme cases of a-holism to develop the best treatment. When one of his colleagues did something particularly offensive, he would tell himself how lucky he was to observe such a fascinating case. “That poor devil is in such terrible shape, I feel so bad for him.”

Fighting Back

When all else has failed, or has at least been exhausted, it is time to fight back. But be warned: things can get ugly.

The first type of fighting back is calm, rational and candid confrontation. This is a civilised strategy that works well with temporary or clueless a-holes, and with people who pride themselves on being civil and would hate to be called an a-hole behind their back. The author provides a few examples of times when a-holes like these were able to be reformed after their colleagues gave specific and factual examples of their poor behaviour, such as the number of times the a-hole interrupted them in a meeting, or were tied to corporate values, such as times when the a-hole said something clearly in conflict with values such as respect and teamwork. The key is that the confrontation should be justified (based on evidence that the person is doing something bad) and constructive (aimed at improving the greater good).

Next up is aggressive confrontation. There is evidence that when dealing with certain types of a-holes, returning fire is the only way to hold your own. Pushing back hard – glaring, raising your voice, posturing, interrupting the other person – works with people who believe they can get ahead by stomping on others. These people often see kindness, cooperation and civility as signs of weakness, so a tougher attitude is might be required to gain their respect. (I can attest to the success of this strategy from my interactions with Krav Maga instructors as part of my personal and business interests in self-defence and martial arts. It would be hard to find a bunch of more arrogant, aggressive and sexist creatures than them and I struggled to cope with their outright rudeness, disrespect and lack of cooperation. When I ‘toughened up’ and started to speak to them in the same language they spoke to me, they typically pulled their heads in and behaved with more decency. But still they were a-class a-holes and I don’t regret my eventual decision to make a clean getaway. I should be clear that not all Krav Maga instructors are a-holes, but the decent ones are the rarity.)

In the opposite direction is the strategy of love bombing or kissing up. Buttering up people who treat you like dirt seems like an odd battle plan, but it can work in the long term. Killing with kindness can eventually wear them down.

Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem

The last chapter is a wrap up that outlines 7 lessons for how to live the ‘no a-holes rule’ as a personal philosophy. My favourite points are these:

  • Follow the “da Vinci rule”. As da Vinci put it, “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” If you live by the rule that you want to do business with people you like, and you actively avoid working with a-holes, you’ll be happier.
  • Protect others, not just yourself. Be a giver, not a taker. Use your influence to encourage others to be more civil. Break the cycle of abuse. Create safe havens for others.
  • Use the “Benjamin Franklin effect” to turn a-holes in to friends. I love this strategy. It is based on the theory that we come to like people that we do nice things for and to dislike people who we treat unkindly. Benjamin Franklin transformed a hater in to a fan by asking the hater to do a small favour for him, specifically to lend Benjamin a book from the hater’s extensive library. The act of performing a favour – even one so small – creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for the a-hole. Why would they perform an act of kindness? They did it willingly, so they must like the person after all.

This book was an easy read, and sets out a practical game-plan for tackling a-hole behaviour. The hundreds of examples given throughout might even make you feel that you’ve had it easy; or you might like to write to the author and provide him with some fodder for his next book.

At Aurora Marketing, we definitely subscribe to the ‘no a-holes rule’ and are fortunate to work with extraordinary clients in every State in Australia and across almost every conceivable industry. Even when the pressure is on, and deadline is looming and the stakes are high, I’m honoured to say that our clients are awesome. Thank you all for your courtesy, professionalism, integrity and respect.

For further information about Aurora Marketing and how we can help you win your tenders, call us on 07 3211 4299 or email info@auroramarketing.com.au.