WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Adam Grant: Alright, Geoff, start with your name and occupation.

Geoff Nunberg: My name is Geoff Nunberg. I'm a professor and a linguist.

AG: How in the world does a linguist end up writing a book about assholes?

GN: Well, who better than a linguist?

AG: Heads up: this episode is going to use a lot of that word.

GN: Linguist. AG: No, not that one.

GN: Bounder. AG: No.

GN: Cad. AG: No.

GN: Heel, phony. AG: No and no.

GN: Those words all articulated a certain sense of the moral life. And "asshole" comes along and kind of displaces them.

AG: Today, we're talking about assholes.

GN: Somebody who cheats on his wife but not necessarily on his expense reports. The asshole is somebody whose efforts to expand and swell his own sense of privilege is hurtful to others: the other employees, whose work he takes credit for, the secretary who he has picking up his laundry, whatever.


AG: Look, I know it's not a polite word. But it's not going away. And neither are assholes. And the word itself evokes a feeling in us that something tamer like "jerk" just doesn't. So we're going to use the word, because that's what the pros do.

Bob Sutton: I said, "I want to use the word 'asshole,' and you would never publish that in 'Harvard Business Review.'" She said, "Try me."

(Theme music)

AG: I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make the people you work with not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work. Today: assholes, a field guide. Everyone's worked with at least one. How do you deal with them? And is it possible to create an asshole-free office?


Thanks to Bonobos for sponsoring this episode.


So, apparently there's a difference between being an asshole, an asshat and an assclown. Yep, the Oxford English Dictionary has recognized all three. But "asshat" and "assclown" don't have the same sting. They're mostly synonyms for "obnoxious." An asshole is someone who disrespects and demeans other people and either denies it or just doesn't care. Think about the assholes you've had to work with. How did they show it? Sometimes, it's passive-aggressive: stealing credit, doling out blame unfairly, invading privacy, breaking promises. Other times, it's active-aggressive: badmouthing, screaming, ridiculing.

Bob Sutton: My father used to say to me, "When you grow up, whatever you do, don't be an asshole and don't work with them and don't work for them."

AG: Meet Bob Sutton. He's an organizational psychologist at Stanford. He's become something of a connoisseur of assholes at work.

BS: An asshole is somebody who leaves you feeling demeaned, de-energized and disrespected — somebody who leaves you feeling like shit.

AG: In 2007, he wrote a whole book on assholes, and, well, he touched a nerve.

BS: I got thousands of emails from people who felt as if they were victims of assholes.

AG: Turns out, workplaces are full of them. And through his research, Bob has learned that it's pretty tough to be an asshole to the people above you. Being an asshole has to do with how you treat the people across from you and especially below you.

BS: Abuse does seem to roll downhill. When I looked at my emails and also the research, in about 80 percent of the cases, the person who was named as the asshole in their life was their immediate boss.

AG: The more Bob heard from employees and leaders about the impact of this kind of behavior, the more he became convinced that it must have an actual, measurable cost.

BS: Just in the last decade, studying all forms of abusive behavior in the workplace has become sort of a growth industry. And if you and I started doing the list of all the costs that nasty people impose on the people around them, both the fiscal and mental health costs, it's just stunning.

AG: One notable experiment was done with medical teams in Israel. Each team had a physician and two nurses from the newborn intensive care unit, and they were brought in to work with a visiting expert. Some teams were randomly assigned to be berated by the expert. He told them he wasn't impressed with the quality of medicine there, and they wouldn't last a week in his department. After being insulted like this, the accuracy of the team's diagnoses was almost 20 percent lower. And the procedures they did were 15 percent less effective. I'm guessing you wouldn't want a 15-percent-less-effective heart transplant.

BS: I mean, this is one of the biggest problems with treating people like dirt: they're less likely to call out errors done by others.

AG: To avoid mistakes, people have to communicate, especially about things that might go wrong. An asshole creates an environment of fear, where people stay silent to avoid rocking the boat. And if getting demotivated isn't bad enough, get this: working with an asshole literally makes you dumber.

BS: There's some evidence that after one has been abused or disrespected, that one's cognitive ability is temporarily affected.

AG: One experiment is especially revealing. Students showed up for a study, only to learn that they were in the wrong room and had entered a professor's office. For some students, the professor just directed them to the right room. The other half of the time, the students got this:

(Clip) (Door opening)

Professor: Excuse me, can't you read? There's a sign on the door that tells you the experiment will be in room 123, but you didn't even bother to look at the door, did you? Instead you prefer to disturb me and ask for directions, when you can clearly see that I'm busy. I'm not a secretary here, I'm a busy professor.

(Door slams)

AG: What an asshole! The poor students who were randomly assigned to that treatment were then asked to solve some anagrams. And they solved a quarter fewer anagrams correctly. Then the students saw someone drop a bunch of books. The ones who had just been verbally abused were nine times less likely to help. Assholes undermine our ability to think clearly and creatively. But what seems absolutely damning is that they also leave us with more negative attitudes toward others.

BS: Prolonged bullying turns other people into assholes, so it's a contagious disease that spreads.

AG: Of course, everyone has a limit. At some point, people just give up. They quit. Occasionally, they even get revenge.

BS: There's research from fast-food restaurants that when people have an abusive supervisor running the restaurant that employees are more likely to steal.

AG: (Laughs) Although, if they're stealing fast food, they're only punishing themselves.

BS: (Laughs)


When I talk about the cost of assholes at work, there are people who push back. They say, sometimes you just need to be an asshole to be successful. And there's one example that pops up every time. Let's call it "the Steve Jobs question." Recently, I had a chance to sit down with someone uniquely qualified to weigh in on it.

Walter Isaacson: Well, he was a deeply spiritual, very intense person, who had rough edges and was nasty at times and mean.

AG: This is Walter Isaacson. He wrote the definitive biography on Steve Jobs, spending countless hours with him and hundreds of people who worked closely with him.

WI: When I started working on "Steve Jobs," Woz — Wozniak — said to me, "The main question you have to answer is: Did he have to be so mean?"

AG: "Ruthless," "deceitful," "cruel" — these are words that have often been applied to Jobs, very frequently by his closest friends. Early on, Jobs screwed his cofounder out of a big bonus and lied about it. He screamed and swore at colleagues, belittled employees and harassed interviewees by asking about their sex lives. This kind of behavior was what led Jobs to get forced out of Apple — his own company — in the 80s. Take it from one of his longtime collaborators, Apple engineer and designer, Jony Ive. He told Walter Isaacson that when Jobs got frustrated, his way to achieve catharsis was to hurt someone. According to Ive, Jobs felt he had a liberty and a license to do that.

WI: Working with him, you know, I was subject to watching him sort of, have that very "mercurial" personality, as he put it.

AG: I think we both know a fair number of entrepreneurs who have held Jobs up as their role model and said, "Look, he wasn't the nicest guy in the world. And that's proof that this is sometimes how you have to be." Did he succeed in spite of or because of his cruelty, in your view?

WI: I guess my answer, in retrospect, is no, you don't have to be that mean. You don't have to be cruel to people.

AG: There's a huge difference between being demanding and being demeaning. Being demanding is having extremely high standards and pretty low tolerance for work that falls below them. Being demeaning is devaluing other people as human beings, treating them with such disrespect that they feel worthless.

WI: When I asked Steve, "Did you have to be so mean? Did you have to be so cruel to people?" He said to me, "You know, when people do something that sucks, I just have to tell them it sucks, because I'm just a middle-class kid, trying to make sure I don't have B players on my team. And so I can't afford to be gentle and nice."

AG: Research suggests that leaders who demean their employees have learned to rationalize aggression. They see that it sometimes gets short-term results, while the long-term damage is often invisible to them. So they justify it as necessary to achieve their goals. Which means, if you think you have to be an asshole to be successful, you might be an asshole.


When you've had to deal with an asshole at work, what have you done? If you don't have the power to get rid of them, what should you do? Sometimes, you just have to learn how to have a hard conversation.

Sheila Heen: Yeah.

AG: You're a lawyer by training, aren't you?

SH: (Laughs) Do you mean am I an asshole by training? Yes, yes I am. (Laughs)

AG: Sheila Heen is a recovering lawyer who teaches negotiation at Harvard Law School. She cofounded a company that specializes in conflict mediation and coauthored the book "Difficult Conversations." Basically, Sheila's job is teaching people how to deal with an asshole — and how to avoid acing like one.

SH: Part of the job of lawyers in society is to help people with conflicts. And the way that we / they sometimes go about it often ends up escalating the conflict rather than helping resolve it. And that's essentially the definition of asshole-like behavior.

AG: But sometimes the conflict happens because one person is just an asshole. How often is that the case in your experience as a mediator?

SH: Well, it is true 100 percent of the time that each side would say that the other side is being an asshole.


We all hurt each other, upset each other, embarrass each other in front of other people, publicly — just misstep and contribute to the other person feeling really badly treated, sometimes in ways that we don't intend, usually in ways that we don't intend, but occasionally in ways that we do intend.

AG: Sheila has three key recommendations for having that conversation. The first is to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

SH: People will say, "You know, you just have to assume good intentions." And I think that often that's true. But I think assume good intentions is just a little too strong. I think instead it should be: assume you don't know. And that's the conversation that we need to have, because I don't know what was up with you, but whatever it was, it's a problem. So let's figure that out and see if we can fix it.

AG: That's fantastic. Yeah, because that motivates me then to go and find out whatever I'm missing. I'll go and try to learn: What were you thinking? What was your intent? What was going on in that situation? That's really helpful.

SH: I love the orientation that that just created for you, which is that now you actually have a little bit of curiosity. And so the conversation isn't about, you know, letting her have it and straightening her out and letting her know she shouldn't be an asshole next time. The conversation is about, "Now I'm just curious what was going on with you, because I was surprised by it, and we should address it so that we just won't have this problem next time." That's an orientation that is much more likely to produce a better conversation and to solve the problem, if it's solvable.


AG: But Sheila, if you think someone is just a total asshole, how should you deal with them?

SH: The dilemma is that the worst thing you can do, in many ways, is to do nothing over time. But the second worst thing that you can do is to fight back in the moment. They've been playing that game, if they're a certified asshole, for a very long time, and so you are agreeing to basically play the game on their turf. But as soon as you are able, whether that's an hour later or the next morning, you come back to them to have a conversation.

AG: Sheila's second tip for talking to office assholes is to make sure you don't put them on the defensive.

SH: What you're going to want to say to them is something like, "I don't know why you feel the need to undermine me or demean me. I don't know why you feel the need to humiliate everybody and control everything." That's what you want to say to them.

AG: Wait — I'm not supposed to say that?

SH: You can say it in your head. And you can say it in front of the mirror, if it will make you feel better. But what you're doing is, you're telling them something about their intentions and their character, and you can bet that they're going to argue with you about that. What they can't argue with is about the impact that it's had on you. So, the most important thing is to separate intentions and impact.

AG: Sometimes assholes aren't aware of the impact of their own behavior.

SH: We know what we're trying to do to get our point across. What we don't see and people sometimes don't share with us is just how upsetting, demeaning, unprofessional it was, and the ripple effect that it had throughout the team and the organization.

AG: Sheila's third suggestion is to help them find a less demeaning way to accomplish their goals. I once worked with a colleague who was known to yell at people occasionally in meetings. The first time I saw it happen, I called afterward to explain that I found it disrespectful and unprofessional. My colleague said, "Well, it was necessary to get my point across." And I realized this was someone who had rationalized aggression. I wasn't sure what to do at that point. So I asked Sheila how we should think about responding in a situation like that.

SH: If you want to use a little bit of humor in that moment, if you can think of it, when he says, "Yeah, people feel that way, but that's the only way for me to get my point across," you can say, "Really? It was my impression that you were smarter and more creative than that, so I bet you could come up with ways to be just as clear, without having to actually rip somebody else apart. But maybe I'm overestimating you, maybe that's not true."


AG: Oh, I love that. So I could actually gently give them a better way to accomplish their goals.

SH: Yeah, it's a little ... The story in their head is, the ends justify the means. Right? "It was important for me to get my point across, and if some people's feelings were hurt, boo-hoo, that's not as important." OK. I actually am going to challenge whether that's true.

AG: Sometimes, you can use humor to challenge it without even saying a word. Back in the 1990s, the CEO of a tech company, Gordon Eubanks, was known for an unusual brand of insult. Gordon was working to grow Symantec into a Fortune 500 company. And for some reason, he had a habit of comparing people unfavorably to vegetables.

Mark Bailey: "That guy's dumber than a head of lettuce."


AG: Mark Bailey was working for Gordon at the time. Did he have other vegetable phrases?

MB: Yeah, he would refer to a zucchini as well, but the head of lettuce stuck. That was the one that I remember him using pretty regularly. You knew exactly what he meant when he said it. He did not think highly of the person when he said that.

AG: Was it always about a person, sometimes about an idea?

MB: It was usually about a person.

AG: After everyone on Gordon's team had been compared to a farmer's market's worth of produce, they finally decided to do something about their boss's behavior. So Mark and his colleagues went grocery shopping before their next staff meeting.

MB: We arranged it so that we were all gathering outside the conference room, and then Gordon shows up for the staff meeting and kind of growls, "How come everybody's not in the room, yet? Are we going to get started?" We all nod and then we let him walk into the room first.

AG: Gordon stepped inside and saw that every seat at the conference table was occupied by a head of lettuce. Some of the lettuce heads had mustaches, some were wearing sunglasses. What would you do if you were Gordon? When people get called on bad behavior, there's a real risk that they'll get defensive and start calling people names worse than vegetables.

MB: And when he comes in and sees all the heads of lettuce on the table, he just starts to laugh out loud.

(Laughs) And we all got a big laugh out of it.

AG: What was so clever about the heads of lettuce prank is that it was nonthreatening. And Gordon realized that Mark wasn't just playing a prank. He was also making a point.

Gordon Eubanks: He thought it was funny and probably would be helpful. It would unite a group of people.

AG: And maybe most importantly, Gordon ended up reflecting on his behavior.

GE: Well, I'm sure people would think, yes, I was probably really an asshole. If you mean if someone can be very difficult and unnecessarily abrasive, I'm sure there were times when that happened. I've mellowed, of course, over the years. If someone steals your parking place, that's a different kind of an asshole than someone that's trying to achieve something with a group of people. Demeaning, though, is wrong, and I'm sure there were times I was demeaning. And that's a problem in an organization.


AG: Yep, demeaning is a problem. What if you could get rid of it altogether? Is it possible to create a workplace with no assholes?


More on that after the break.


OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I've played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today, we're going inside the workplace at Bonobos.


D. Fooks remembers the first time Carla and her husband Aaron walked into his Bonobos shop in Scottsdale. Carla was on a mission.

DF: She was on the hunt to really trim down his pants.

AG: She had been in the store before and told D. she was trying to change her husband's look. But he wasn't having it. If she ever got him in there, Carla said, she and D. had to team up and seize the day.

DF: Carla loved for Aaron to wear some of the brighter, more fun prints. Aaron was a little more conservative and liked some of the more plain patterns. So there was that fun little battle between them.

AG: Carla won. And that first visit was the beginning of a routine. Aaron and Carla would go golfing together, grab some lunch and then come into Bonobos and shop.

DF: They'd always have this playful back-and-forth, and there was always that fun exchange of Carla pushing the boundary and Aaron realigning and resetting where that line is drawn in the sand.

AG: Everyone in the store loved watching them together. They seemed like a real team.

DF: You know, when you see a couple who loves each other that much, it gives you hope in more ways than one. And I think they had an effect on all of us in the shop.

AG: There's evidence that customers find ongoing service relationships more satisfying than one-off encounters with a different provider each time. But building that relationship isn't always easy. At Bonobos, the guides in their shops are encouraged to make meaningful connections with customers, while of course respecting their boundaries. As Aaron and Carla became regulars, they developed a real bond with D.

DF: It extended much more than just a customer. They were kind of like family, in a way.

AG: But sometimes, even regulars take a break. Months went by where D. didn't see Carla and Aaron. He didn't really think too much of it. Then, one day, Aaron walked into the store.

DF: He had come in and said, "Hey, I haven't been in in a while. I kind of wanted to get resized because I've lost some weight."

AG: D. went to pull up Aaron's purchase history, which was under Carla's name. And he suddenly had a sinking feeling about why Aaron was shopping alone.

DF: It was almost like a crazy, crazy feeling, just dawned on me. I feel like I intuitively just knew. And everything in me just kind of dropped.

AG: Carla had passed away a few months earlier of breast cancer. It had been quick — only a month after she was diagnosed with a recurrence. D. offered his condolences and asked Aaron how he was holding up.

DF: You know, he smiled, and it was one of those where you can tell there was some pain behind it. But to feel his strength and to feel his positive energy was indescribable.

AG: Aaron was just there for some everyday shopping. But he happened to mention that he had a black-tie event later that week. He'd lost a lot of weight so his tux didn't fit, and he was just going to rent one. After Aaron left the store, D. leapt into action. He had noticed Aaron admiring a particular tux — the Capstone Italian Wool in navy. So he rush-ordered the tux as a surprise gift to Aaron. It arrived on Aaron's doorstep the next day, along with a letter signed by everyone at the store. That afternoon, D.'s phone rang.

DF: "Hey, how's it going, Aaron?" And his response was, "What do you mean, how's it going? Man, I can't believe you guys did this." He was just floored. It was one of the most heartfelt thank-yous I can remember ever getting in my life.

AG: It's what you do, D. says, when you believe in the idea that customer relations really are about just that — a relationship.

DF: We hope that you'll get, you know, at least put a smile on your face for even that split second. So, it was just something that felt right.

AG: Bonobos makes great clothes that can fit every guy. Ordering on their website is easy, they ship fast, and if it doesn't fit, they want to know. Visit, enter promo code TED at checkout and get 20 percent off your first order. That's and promo code TED for 20 percent off.



I'm always shocked when I hear stories like these.

Cindy Hess: The partner was really upset and took his briefcase, he was enraged and threw it against the wall. Made a dent in the wall.

(Clip) Woman: I had a manager who told junior members of the firm, verbatim, "You should spend your 20s sucking up and doing your manager's work for them."

AG: My students have had to work with some real jerks.

(Clip) Man: My boss's boss once punched me in the chest and publicly berated me for not wearing the correct hat outdoors. Asshole.

AG: After decades of working with companies and combing through the research, Stanford's Bob Sutton eventually concluded that assholes make us all less productive.

BS: Organizations that don't hire people who treat others like dirt and who call out one another when they act nasty, they're more effective places and they're more humane places to work.

AG: So Bob decided to put a stake in the ground. As the expert in the field, he's called on organizations to set a zero-tolerance policy for demeaning and disrespectful behavior. No bullying, no sabotage. A "no asshole" rule.

Luis von Ahn: I love this rule, I live by it.

AG: This is Luis von Ahn.

LvA: In general, in a company, it's better to have a hole than an asshole. So it's better to not have — if there's an asshole, it's really better to just not have the person there. That basically means, don't hire assholes or you should fire assholes.

AG: Luis is the CEO and cofounder of a company called Duolingo. It's an app that gamifies the process of learning a new language. It has more than 300 million users, and it can teach you practically every word you need to know in French, Korean, Navajo ... even Klingon. Well, almost every word.

LvA: I'm not sure how to call somebody an asshole in Spanish, even though it's my native language.

AG: It's not "pendejo"?

LvA: So, "pendejo" is very Mexican. I'm from Guatemala. In Guatemala, we use "cerote," but that's very regional slang.

AG: What about French?

LvA: I would not know how to do this in French. I'm too remedial for that in French.

AG: Well, I heard there's an app that could fix that.


LvA: In Duolingo, we do not teach the word for asshole.

AG: Duolingo is not just a hugely popular app. It's a highly desirable place to work. In 2018, it was named one of the best workplaces by "Inc." magazine and one of the top company cultures by "Entrepreneur" magazine. When Luis and his cofounder were launching the company, they were very conscious about being anti-asshole.

LvA: He said, "I mainly just want to have a place where I go to work every day, and I'm really happy to go to work. I just want to look forward to go to work." That made a lot of sense to me, and that is what I strive for.

AG: Luis is a computer scientist. Earlier in his career, he invented reCAPTCHA. It's that little box on a website where you retype the squiggly letters you see to prove you're a human and not a bot. The purpose was to protect websites from abuse. Now at Duolingo, he's determined to build a culture that protects employees from abuse.

LvA: I have made this mistake many times in my life, where there really is somebody that's just like, brilliant. But really, they're an asshole. What I have found over time is that generally you can find somebody equally as brilliant who's not an asshole. As I get older, I just have much less tolerance for assholes than I used to.

AG: So, Luis and his cofounder have tried to keep assholes out of the front door through their interview process. Did you get it wrong early on, at all?

LvA: Yeah. It is not the case that no asshole has ever worked at Duolingo.

AG: So how did the false positives sneak in the door?

LvA: Well, it's hard, particularly when you start hiring more and more people. At first, you can hire people who you either directly know or you know somebody that knows them. Eventually, you start hiring randos off the internet that apply to work at your company. And it's much harder to know whether they're an asshole or not. It is rare that anybody will tell you, "Do not hire this person, they're an asshole." That is rare. That almost never happens.

AG: When you're hiring, one of the weak links in the asshole filter is referrals. Job applicants get to pick their best references, people who have seen them in a positive light, people who want to help them, or in the worst case, get rid of them, by foisting them on someone else. But when talking to references, you can learn to ask the right kinds of questions and spot the nuances in the answers.

LvA: A really great question is, "Do they work well with others?" Nobody tells you, "No, they don't work well with others." That's rare. The answer you want is, "Oh, my God, yes, they're great at working with others." That's the answer you want. The one you don't want is, "Yeah, um ... for most people, they are." Like, that — that means, "Nah, they're actually not good at working with others, and they've had trouble."

AG: I've found that you can get references to be more honest by forcing them to choose between two negative qualities. What's more likely: that this applicant will be a total pushover or maybe a little manipulative?

LvA: Hiring mistakes, where you hire a person that you shouldn't have hired, are significantly more costly than the other way around, which is, you didn't hire somebody you should have hired. Those are mistakes, too, but they're not very costly.


AG: Here's a question: in your team, what's more productive: replacing an average performer with a star or replacing a toxic worker with an average one? One study looked at the performance and turnover of more than 50,000 employees. It turned out that just replacing a toxic worker with an average one can be twice as profitable as upgrading an average one to a star.

LvA: I don't think I've ever come across somebody that is so brilliant, so irreplaceable, that it can justify them being assholes.

AG: So you wouldn't hire a Steve Jobs?

LvA: Well, I think Steve Jobs was an amazing founder, I don't know how good as an employee he would be. My guess is, he'd probably be a shitty employee.

AG: Who knows whether Jobs would have been a good employee. But one thing seems clear: he probably would have been a vocal one. And giving employees a voice might be just the thing that workplaces need to truly lock out assholes.

CH: It really gives them a chance to feel empowered and to be empowered.

AG: This is Cindy Hess. She's a partner at a law firm. And one day, she got some unexpected feedback.

CH: OK, so the envelope comes, it's a sealed envelope, you open it up, there were boxes to check that said, "Would you want to work with this person again?" And I think one person at least said, no, they wouldn't want to work with me again. And my heart sunk when I saw that. "Oh, gosh, what have I done to make that person feel that way?"

AG: The anonymous person who filled out this form was a junior associate who reported to Cindy and apparently thought she was selfish.

CH: I was nice when I needed to be nice, took interest in somebody when that would serve my needs, but maybe that was transparent, that I wasn't being genuine in that interest.

AG: So I have to ask you, then: Do you think that in the past, before you got this feedback, you were kind of an asshole?

CH: (Laughs) Well ... I guess I would say that sometimes I didn't act in the best way.

AG: So do you think other people called you an asshole?

CH: Maybe. I hope not.


AG: So I will say, by my definition at least, I think you are not an asshole.

CH: Thank you. You know, I think my reviews have gone way up, because I really realized that the behavior I was exhibiting wasn't always the best behavior. And so I changed it.

AG: Unfortunately, many people aren't as open to feedback and course correction as Cindy. If you want to stop the assholes in your office, you have to address the thing that lets them get away with it — the reward system. It's a mistake to just incentivize individual achievement. You have to reward and promote people who elevate others, rather than undermining them. which means paying special attention to how those in power treat those who lack it. To prevent bosses from acting like assholes, you have to give subordinates power. When I gave a talk at Cindy's law firm, Fenwick & West, I discovered that they have some unique tools for doing this. They actually let junior associates pick which senior partners they work with.

CH: It's truly a free market. When you're a partner and you have a new client coming in the door and you need to staff it with an associate or two, you have to go and ask people, and it's across the entire corporate group. For example, I'm a corporate partner, so I would go and ask various associates to work with me on that client. And they have the unfettered ability to say no.

AG: Which means that when a partner is a "bosshole," word spreads fast.

CH: Associates are going to choose to work with the people that they enjoy working with, who they're going to learn from, who are going to mentor them, who are going to take an interest in their career. And those people who don't act in that way, those partners who don't act in that way, are going to have a really difficult time getting their matters staffed.

AG: So that means, if there's a partner I think is an asshole, I can just choose not to work with that person?

CH: That's exactly right.

AG: That's amazing. How do I get that job?

CH: Yeah, and we've had situations with partners with a significant amount of business saying, "I want to have a designated group of associates to work with me." And the firm said, "No. We're not going to do that. We're not going to modify our free-market approach because you're having a more difficult time getting your work staffed."

AG: To make sure leaders know how they're being viewed, they do anonymous upward reviews, where junior associates rate senior partners — which doesn't happen in many law firms.

CH: When I was interviewing with law firms, I could tell when a law firm was really catering to a star. I remember being a first-year associate and I would see big corner offices with vestibules to get into that office, like of the secretary. You could tell that those were the sorts of places where they were really catering to particular partners who had a lot of power.

AG: Assholes thrive in certain kinds of workplaces — places where leaders say they want teamwork, but only pay and promote on individual results. The classic term for it is "the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B." For one example, look at a company that was huge in the 90s.

(Clip) Man: It starts with good people.

AG: Its stated core values were communication, respect, integrity and excellence.

(Clip) Man: There probably are times that there's a desire to cut corners, but we can't have that at Enron.

AG: Enron may have claimed to value good behavior, but they actually rewarded ruthlessness and selfishness.

BS: One of my favorite diagnostic questions that I like to ask in organizations is, "Who is a superstar here?"

AG: Psychologist Bob Sutton again.

BS: And if the superstars are pretty consistently people who are jerks, people who are takers, that's a sign to me that the game is that those people are getting rewarded, despite the rhetoric. It means that they're forgiven, and to me, that's the real test.

AG: Most important question.

BS: Yes, sir.

AG: Do you believe that there is such a thing as an asshole-free workplace?

BS: No.

AG: Damn it! (BS laughs) Damn it. You asshole! (BS laughs)

BS: I think —

AG: I was really hoping you would tell me there's one.

BS: I think there are workplaces where there's very few or maybe no certified assholes, but there's always going to be some temporary jerk behavior, just because we both know it's so easy for us to accidentally leave people feeling disrespected. We're going to be tired, we're going to be grouchy, in a hurry, somebody's going to yell at us — it's going to happen. But the difference is, what happens when there's a transgression?

AG: When the belief that it's necessary to be an asshole doesn't get challenged, behavior often becomes normalized, not only by the perpetrators, but also by victims and witnesses. Here's conflict mediator, Sheila Heen, again.

SH: The people who say it's actually a big plus to have an asshole in your organization, the people who would say the no-asshole rule produces cultures that are very polite but are not as dedicated to excellence or quality, part of what they're identifying is this tension, which is that in polite cultures, if our main goal is not to hurt anybody's feelings, well, then we don't actually give each other feedback or point out, "Actually we could be doing this a lot better." And so things get driven underground, and it takes an asshole to come along and say, "What are we thinking? This is stupid." Right?

AG: Do you think that workplaces should have no-asshole rules?

SH: Do I think workplaces should have no-asshole rules? Yes. If the implicit rule behind the no-asshole rule is, "nobody should ever feel upset," that's not really a workable rule. I think, in workplaces, the rule should be that how you treat people matters. A lot. And it doesn't mean that we won't sometimes have hard conversations.

AG: I think every leader has a responsibility to strive for a no-asshole culture. It's the smart thing to do if you want to attract, motivate and retain talented people. But more importantly, it's the right thing to do. We spend so many hours at work, and we have a right to be treated with dignity during those hours. So, screen assholes out of your hiring process. Make sure you don't reward people who get individual results at the expense of others and create a toxic culture. And when someone is demeaning, see if you can find a respectful way to let them know what impact they've had. If you don't have the power to remove or reform an asshole, your best bet is to minimize your interaction. And if that isn't an option, you can at least control how you view that person. Bob Sutton has a colleague who has some fun with it.

BS: He pretends that he's sort of an asshole specialist, and he just considers himself really lucky to see this spectacular, amazing specimen.

(Theme music)

AG: WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Jessica Glazer, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Media. Special thanks to our sponsors: Bonobos, Accenture, Hilton and JPMorgan Chase. For their research, thanks to Arieh Riskin, Amir Erez and colleagues on rudeness hurting medical team performance; Christine Porath and Amir on rudeness disrupting cognitive processing, creativity and helping; Ben Tepper on abusive supervision; the late Larry James, Michael McIntyre and their collaborators on rationalizing aggression; Michael Housman and Dylan Minor on toxic workers; Barbara Gutek and colleagues on service relationships; and Steve Kerr — the chief learning officer, not the basketball coach — on the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B.


Next time on WorkLife: how to remember anything.

(Clip) Josh: It is absolutely true that when you learn these memory techniques you can perform astounding feats of memory. And this is verified not just by my own experience, but by 2,500 years of people using these techniques, and by a whole bunch of science.


AG: Are you deliberately avoiding using the word "asshole"?

CH: (Laughs) Yes, I am, actually. I don't think I want to use it. I just think, if my mother ever listens to this podcast, she wouldn't appreciate if I use that word.

AG: ... as opposed to my last interview who said "asshole" every four words.