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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / December 2019 / Book Review of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You like Dirt Authored

Book Review of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You like Dirt Authored By Robert I. Sutton

By Isreal Moreno, PhD Candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Everyone deals with jerks. They are a part of life in our country/culture. Jerks are everywhere from grocery stores to buses to airplanes to dentist offices. They can be anyone no matter race, age, gender, or wealth. However, dealing with jerks in the workplace can be the most unbearable. There are many books on workplace relationships, but one author who is able to articulate the problem and provide helpful advice is Robert I. Sutton, professor of Management Science at Stanford University. Sutton’s research is on leadership, innovation, and organizational change, but his book The No Asshole Rule published in 2007 was a soiree into a world of office relationships that hit a nerve with people. His second book on the topic The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You like Dirt is a playbook on how to deal with workplace jerks…or assholes as he calls them. This book is a necessary read for everyone, those with assholes in their lives and those without.

The main point that Sutton makes in this book (that I thoroughly like and will try to remember to use in life) is that there is a difference between a Temporary Asshole and a Certified Asshole. There are many situations in which people are jerks; however, to classifying them as a Certified Asshole, they need to be creating and maintaining a hostile work environment. If you experience an angry co-worker, you must first determine if this person is always like this or are they just having a bad day? If it is the latter, then they are being a Temporary Asshole and you really do not need to do anything. This book largely focuses on the Certified Assholes who create sustained toxic and hostile work environments (or public environments like airports/airplanes or grocery stores).  In addition, his mantra of “be slow to label others as assholes, but quick to label yourself as one” is something that everyone needs to hear. I really enjoy that Sutton relies heavily on scientific data to make many of his points. He shares some research that showed many people believed they worked with Assholes, but very few people admitted they, even occasionally, are the problem. This means, in many cases, the Assholes in your life likely do not know that they are Assholes. Dealing with these individuals is relatively easy, as they just need to be confronted and “put in their place”.

There are four solutions proposed by Sutton in the book on how to deal with assholes: quit (or switch departments), avoidance, mind games to deal with it, and - only in the extreme cases - fight back against the asshole without becoming one yourself. Quitting is not a sign of failure. Avoidance or “don’t engage with crazy” is based on the idea that behavior/mood/asshole-ness spreads like a contagious illness. Do not get infected yourself by reducing your exposure to the behavior. He states interesting research that says if there is 150 feet between your desk/space and the assholes, then you might as well be in different states. Therefore, if you can add distance between you and the asshole, you are likely to experience the abuse less, even to a tolerable level. Although I think this is good advice, there are many work situations that this technique would not be appropriate. He does go on to give more advice such as “ducking strategies”, hiding in plain sight, and using human shields as strategies that can help if you are unable to put physical distance between you and the asshole.

One thing that I dislike about this book is that the author seems to rely heavily on “victim blaming” and perhaps being too restrictive with his definition of a Certified Asshole. I also disliked his advice on when to “suck it up” rather than acting. One statement that he makes several times throughout the book is “you may just be too thin-skinned”. The implication here is that you are just too sensitive and need to suck up what is happening and move on.  While it is true that what is offensive or insensitive to one person isn’t to another doesn’t mean that you somehow need to change or become more like the person, who may actually be an asshole. There should never be, in any work environment, the need for someone to grow a thicker skin. Why can’t everyone remember that all people are human? I suppose this is especially true for customer-employee interactions in stores or airports or any customer service situation for that matter.

The last chapter of the book is especially important: Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem. He turns the tables on the reader and implores them to look at their lives and actions. Be slow to anger and sincerely apologize if you know you have been an asshole. Probably the biggest “danger” (for lack of a better word) is that “Assholes breed Assholes”. So if you are in a situation where you find yourself surrounded by them, you are likely one yourself.

Sutton is able to concisely and effectively detail the problem and give solutions. I highly recommend this book for everyone to read, even if you don’t currently work or interact with Assholes, you inevitably will.

Tracey Baas | 12/13/2019

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