Whether here or abroad, the level of nastiness in national politics in recent years has reached perhaps its highest peak in history. It often appears that the gloves are off for most candidates, many of whom find it appropriate to make the most horrible public comments about others, often their opponents or critics, but sometimes even completely uninvolved people.
But the workplace is not immune to nastiness. In fact, incivility in the workplace has been observed at work for as long as there have been offices and factories. In recent decades, however, I’ve tended to think that workplace kindness is in real danger of going out of style.
In 2007, Robert Sutton, professor of management science at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, was prompted by his research and observations to write the best-selling book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In defense of the mildly obscene title, Sutton explained that while some may find it offensive, no other word captures the emotional impact that workplace nastiness causes.
What kinds of nastiness does Sutton argue against in his book? He refers to behaviors of workmates, whether peers, superiors, or even subordinates, that leave one feeling demeaned, de-energized, and disrespected.
He cites research showing that workplace nastiness affects wellbeing in many ways. Victims have complained of anxiety, depression, job and life dissatisfaction, and sleep and physical health problems, among others. The effects on performance are equally troublesome: less productivity, more errors, less creativity, poor customer service, stealing and waste, turnover and absenteeism, and less willingness to go the extra mile for the organization.
How can you spot nasty behavior? Sutton gives a list that is straightforward and, unfortunately, quite familiar to people who have worked long enough: insults, violation of personal space, unsolicited touching, threats, sarcasm, shaming, and backbiting.
The list is somewhat surprising because the behaviors can be quite common in the workplace. Indeed, I have lapsed into some of these behaviors more than once and been given much-deserved corrective feedback for them. I shudder to think at the many times that no one cared to give me feedback.
The lack of corrective feedback is a major reason why workplace nastiness thrives and even escalates to be part of the workplace culture. In contrast, some companies nip the problem at the bud by adopting rules against nastiness. Robert W. Baird & Co., headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been recognized by Fortune as one of the Top 100 Places to Work For for more than a decade. As reported by Fortune, a key part of the leadership philosophy of Paul Purcell, Baird’s President and CEO, is to enforce a “No Asshole Rule” (NAR). He shares that problematic individuals he has dealt with are consistently full of themselves and arrogant. He believes that “If we treat everyone with dignity, they will work harder and do anything for you.”
The case of Baird is remarkable because the effort to prevent nastiness comes from the very top. More commonly reported are famous cases of nastiness coming from people at the top. Fortune has reported on well-known “Tough Bosses” and Business Insider has reported on “Executives Who Lead by Fear.” Both reports include some of the most visible names in corporate America.
Unfortunately, some leaders enable nasty behavior by not providing the specific guidance exemplified by Baird. They don’t intervene even when they witness abusive behavior. And when they are complained to, they explain away the rudeness by making excuses for the offenders or saying that the victims are merely overreacting. If you are caught in such situations, you have to defend yourself.
In his recent follow-up book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt, Sutton gives some advice. Consider leaving the situation or at least distancing yourself from the problem person. Nastiness is like kryptonite, he says, and you can lessen harm by limiting the frequency, duration, and intensity of your exposure to nastiness.
Sutton also recommends that you change your perceptions about the person and the behavior. Empathizing with the person, depersonalizing the behavior, and rising above it may help your emotional detachment.
Sutton also recommends fighting back as an option, but only if you can muster the power, produce the documentation, gain support from others, and have fallback options that won’t hurt you. This is the most politically challenging option that needs to be taken only after plenty of thought.
Everyone deserves a civilized workplace, but sometimes we need to take active steps to build it.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is a full professor of management and the coordinator of the Business for Human Development Network of De La Salle University.