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A Stanford psychologist on the art of avoiding assholes

“Not giving a shit takes the wind out of an asshole’s sails.”

The world is full of Assholes. Wherever you live, whatever you do, odds are you’re surrounded by assholes. The question is, what to do about it?

Robert Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has stepped up to answer this eternal question. He’s the author of a new book, The Asshole Survival Guide, which is basically what it sounds like: a guide for surviving the assholes in your life.

In 2010, Sutton published The No Asshole Rule, which focused on dealing with assholes at an organizational level. In the new book, he offers a blueprint for managing assholes at the interpersonal level. If you’ve got an asshole boss, an asshole friend, or an asshole colleague, this book might be for you.

Asshole survival, Sutton says, is a craft, not a science, meaning one can be good or bad at it. His book is about getting better at it.

I sat down with him recently to talk about his strategies for dealing with assholes, what he means when he says we have to take responsibility for the assholes in our lives, and why he says self-awareness is key to recognizing that the asshole in your life may be you.

“You have to know yourself, be honest about yourself, and rely on people around you to tell you when you’re being an asshole,” he told me. “And when they are kind enough to tell you, listen.”

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

How does a Stanford professor come to spend so much of his time thinking about assholes?

Robert Sutton

Well, there’s some intellectual logic to it. I’ve done a lot of research on the expression of emotion in organizational life, including how to deal with assholes. I wasn’t using that word at the time, but that’s basically what I was doing. I even did some ethnographic work as a telephone bill collector, where I was dealing with assholes all day long. I was also part of an academic department that had a no-asshole rule — seriously. And we actually enforced it.

Sean Illing

Wait, what? What does a “no asshole” policy in an academic department look like?

Robert Sutton

We would talk about this explicitly when we were making hiring decisions. Stanford’s a pretty passive-aggressive place, so it wasn’t really in your face. But if someone was acting like a jerk, we would gently shun them and make life difficult for them. The idea was to avoid hiring assholes if it all possible, and if one squeezed through the cracks, we would deal with him or her collectively.

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