Foresee and Steer Clear of Jerks: Asshole Detection Tips
Sure, Google them. Check respected sources of ratings and rankings. But beware that Glassdoor’s list of the 10 worst workplaces or Fortune’s list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” aren’t necessarily likely to match the experience you will have with any particular department, group, person, or client.
- Reliable gossip is gold. Who do you know who works with them now or has in the past? What can they tell you about the people and the place in general, and what insight do they have about the particular work you will do and people you will deal with?
- Past victims or enemies? Seek out those people who left because they were unhappy or got fired in particular. If they worked with the group or person you are considering, the information will be especially instructive.
- Exposure to other assholes? Have they worked with or been trained by known assholes? That’s a red flag. Assholes attract and breed more assholes.
- Bad first impression? When you exchange emails, messages, or early phone calls, are you getting any hints that they might be jerks?
- Bad second impression? During initial meetings or interviews, how do they treat you? Do they make you feel respected? Do they care? Or do they already show signs of being hostile, rude, or overly demanding? Things will only get worse.
- Damn with faint praise? Listen carefully to how underlings and peers talk about people in power. After all, if you are a stranger, they aren’t likely to bash their bosses or teammates. Do they say the right words . . . but without a hint of warmth or excitement? Do they change the subject quickly when you ask about leaders or other powerful people? Anything short of total enthusiasm is a red flag.
- Signs of a superiority complex? Listen carefully to how people in power talk about others. Is everyone else a jerk, idiot, traitor, or loser? Do they seem to bad-mouth or be dismissive of just about everyone except for those who kiss up to them?
- How do they treat each other? How do people with more power treat those with less? Watch how peers interact—is it a Lord of the Flies situation? Beware of aggressive teasing, rude interruptions, pained facial expressions, and glum silence.
- All transmission and no reception? Use two diagnostic questions proposed by my Stanford colleague Huggy Rao to help determine if people are self-absorbed: How much do your potential superiors, colleagues, or clients dominate the talking time? Do they let you or anyone else get a word in edgewise? What is the ratio of questions that people ask versus statements they make? If they never ask any questions, and just bark out orders, show off their knowledge, and don’t have much interest in what others say, that’s a bad sign.
If you’re unsure, remember the idea of a toe in the water. Can you start with a small commitment rather than a big one? A small project for a client or perhaps an internship or trial period? That way, you can learn if there is an asshole problem before you sign up for the long term.
12 Factors That Make People Look Like Assholes
- You are around a lot of assholes.
- You wield power over others—especially if you once had little power.
- You are at the top of the pecking order, and are a very competitive person who feels threatened by your star underlings.
- You are rich.
- You are seen as a “cold” person.
- You work much harder and sacrifice more than others—and often let everyone know about your martyrdom.
- You are a “Rule Nazi,” a stickler who follows every rule precisely and insists that others do as well.
- You don’t get enough sleep.
- You have too much to do, too much to think about, and always seem to be in a hurry.
- You feel a constant urge to look at your smartphone, which you can’t resist even when you know you should exercise self-control.
- You are a man and have a woman for a boss. Perhaps you are an exception, but researchers found that men tend to feel more threatened by female than male bosses.
- You tend to be cynical and negative about most things (some people are like that).
Mind Tricks That Protect Your Soul
Now let’s dig into some specific self-talks that can protect your soul
You aren’t alone . . .
“A lot of other people are dealing with the same ugly thing. I am not crazy or a bad person.”
“We have each other. At least we aren’t alone.”
You aren’t to blame . . .
“I can’t take it personally. It’s not my fault he acts like such a jerk.”
“She is the one who ought to feel terrible. Not me.”
Downplay the threat . . .
“Sure she is an asshole, but I’ve faced much worse.”
“The assholes here are wimps compared to other places.”
Focus on the silver lining . . .
“There is a pony under that poop.”
“We are all getting so much from him that it is worth putting up with his crap.”
Rise above it . . .
“I won’t stoop to their level. I am better than that.”
“When they go low, we go high.”
Develop sympathy for the devil . . .
“He is a jerk, but he’s been through such hard times that I won’t hold it against him.”
“I won’t forget what she did to me. But I understand why she was so mean even if she was wrong. I forgive her. It’s better for me that way.”
Focus on the funny side . . .
“It’s better to laugh than to cry. And these jerks are actually pretty funny.”
Look back from the future . . .
“This too shall pass. Time heals all wounds.”
“It will all seem like no big deal when I look back at it later.”
Use emotional detachment . . .
Level 1: “I am just going to do something different and think about something more pleasant tonight.”
Level 2: “When that jerk acts up, I tune her out and imagine she isn’t even there” or “I pretend I am a doctor and am diagnosing a fascinating case of assholism, so the more extreme and bizarre, the more intriguing it is.”
Level 3: “I don’t care about these terrible people. I am going to give them as little of myself as possible, go through the motions every day, and not let them touch my soul.”
7 WRONG Ways to Fight Back An Asshole
- Do the first thing that comes to mind, RIGHT NOW. You encounter assholes in high-stakes and complex situations, where fear and anger can cloud your judgment. Your immediate gut instinct is probably wrong. Slow down, cool off, and talk to wise people about whether and how to fight.
- Use direct and aggressive confrontation with a powerful tormentor—even though you lack documentation or allies. If you love playing the martyr or take masochistic pleasure from being abused, this approach may work for you. But if you want to change, weaken, or drive out the jerks, it usually won’t work.
- Call an asshole an asshole. This might work with someone you know and trust, and if done in private. But be forewarned: It usually just provokes more hostility. It’s especially dangerous if it embarrasses your tormentor—and using the A-word may be an asshole move on your part.
- Exact vindictive, anonymous, and useless revenge. People who lack the power or courage to confront assholes sometimes resort to anonymous and mean forms of “payback”—petty crimes like letting the air out of their tires. It may help you feel better (or worse). But in the end, it won’t alter the jerks’ behavior (unless they catch you and exact revenge).
- Find a scapegoat. This happens when you are surrounded with assholes and have enough influence to take down one or two powerless culprits. You blame them for the rampant abuse. They are punished or expelled. You may claim the bad apples are gone, but the truth is, you haven’t repaired the system. In fact, throwing a few weak jerks under the bus may actually help your cruel cronies strengthen their grip.
- Catch the disease to please. This is an affliction where the creeps in question are impervious to your love bombing and ass-kissing, or worse yet, take it as a sign that you enjoy their abuse and want more. But you can’t help yourself. You keep fawning over and flattering them.
- Ask crooked people and systems for help. Beware of people in HR, legal, senior management, or law enforcement with big incentives to protect the assholes in power and none to fight for you. Gretchen Carlson at Fox News provides a cautionary tale. New York magazine reported in September 2016 that when she complained to her supervisor about condescending cohost Steve Doocy, Chairman Roger Ailes got wind of it and told Carlson that she was “a man hater” and a “killer” who “needed to get along with the boys.”
7 Ways To Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem
If you want to be part of the asshole-solution rather than part of the problem, it’s useful to keep seven lessons in mind.
- Follow the da Vinci rule. This philosophy means that when you’ve entered a den of assholes, you do everything possible to get out as fast as you can—or, better yet, to figure out how to avoid that lair in the first place. I call this the “da Vinci rule.” As Leonardo da Vinci put it, “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” The more time and effort that people put into anything—no matter how useless, dysfunctional, or downright stupid it might be—the harder it is for them to walk away, be it a bad investment, a destructive relationship, an exploitive job, or a workplace filled with browbeaters, bullies, and bastards.
- Protect others, not just yourself. As Wharton professor Adam Grant shows, the most civilized, constructive, and successful people are givers, not just takers. Just as you need others to tell you the truth about when you’ve been a jerk and also to shield you from demeaning people, it’s smart to return their favors. It’s easier to protect others, of course, when you have the authority to enforce no asshole rules. Even if you aren’t a top dog, you can band together with others at work to create safe havens where colleagues who are at risk of being abused can go for protection and support.
- Use the “Benjamin Franklin effect” to turn assholes into “friends.” Recall when people do treat you like dirt, you might be able to reverse the situation by using love bombing. Respond to their nastiness with relentless civility and warmth, and see if they treat you better. This strategy is akin to the Benjamin Franklin effect,” which is based on experiments that show we come to like people that we do nice things for and to dislike people that we treat unkindly.
- Take a look in the mirror—are you part of the problem? Every group has an asshole. If you look around and don’t see one, that means it is you. It provides a nice reminder that if you are a jerk, sometimes the person least likely to realize it is you. If you think of yourself as a civilized person but seem to run into assholes everywhere that you go, look in the mirror—you could be staring at the culprit. Remember, treating others like dirt goads people to bully you back.
- Apologize when you’ve behaved like an asshole—but only if you really mean it and then do it right. First, if you feel as if someone has treated you like dirt, demanding that they apologize to you rarely works. Given that so many assholes are clueless, they may respond that YOU are the one who should apologize (and may even be right). And sincere. Second, if you find yourself apologizing again and again for being an asshole, it’s time to stop. It’s probably a sign that you are using apologies as a substitute for learning and toning down your act. And the impact on your victims will diminish as they tire of the cycle of abuse, apology, followed by more abuse, and then more apologies.
- Are you a toxic enabler? You may not treat people like dirt, but you may fuel asshole problems by serving as a toxic enabler for one or more bullies—whether you realize it or not. Toxic enablers make it easier for jerks to do their dirty deeds and to avoid suffering the negative consequences of their destructive behavior.
- Do a little time travel. No one ever says, when they are on their deathbed, ‘I wish I had been meaner.’” That entails deciding what to do today based on how you want to feel when you look back from the future. So take a look back from your imaginary future. It can help you do the right thing right now.