Once in a while, a business book comes along that really hits a very important nail right on the head. Stanford Professor Bob Sutton's new book is one of them.
What the book does is argue that it is both anti-humane and counter-productive to give jerks free reign in the workplace, and that organizations riddled with destructive individuals - no matter how "valuable", powerful, and successful they are - should make conscious and deliberate steps towards changing their bad behaviors. Or get rid of them.
I hope that those who might be put-off by the title, or the use throughout the book of "the word" can get over it. Sutton may be provocative here, but he's not being cute. There really is no substitute for that particular word, and anyone who's experienced one at work - as victim, innocent by-stander, or even occasional perpetrator - knows it.
Sutton has the statistics to back up his claims that allowing bad behavior in the workplace is costly, citing studies that show the high proportion of people who have been negatively impacted by those insult, demean, and humiliate those under them in the organization. He even comes up with a mechanism for calculating how to itemize the overall cost of having jerks around by factoring in items like the cost of recruiting replacements for people who quit, HR expenditures on interventions and counseling, etc.
Sutton notes that many companies do, in fact, have some sort of "no jerk rule", but he is clear in pointing out that just having a rule in place is not enough. The rule needs to be enforced. You can't start making exceptions, and you have to develop a culture in which if someone's acting like a jerk - and we're all pretty much capable of acting like one on occasion, even if we're not chronic offenders - anyone can call them on it, even if the jerk's the boss.
For those who get stuck in bad situations, and where walking out is not an option, Sutton offers good advice. Forget those calls for passion and commitment. If you're in a bad company, you should "develop indifference and emotional attachment," he advises. "There are times when the best thing for your mental health is to not give a damn about your job, company, and especially all those nasty people." He goes on to offer further coping strategies: find and hang out with "the good guys," look for small victories, offer emotional support to other victims (while avoiding the rat-hole of non-productive gripe sessions), take control of what you can... All sound advice.
My quibbles with the book are minor: I think that Sutton may err on the side of providing a little too much "survey said" - they all started to sound the same. And a couple of his jerk examples were so extreme that I'm afraid that some people will come away from their reading convinced that the pedestrian abuse that they suffer or witness in their workplace is so minor that it's not worth thinking about. Or that even chronic offenders will be able to let themselves off the hook - "Hey, I'm not as bad as that jerk."
I'm sure, based on its title alone, Bob Sutton's new book will fare pretty well. But I'd hate to see it end up as a gag gift or stocking stuffer. Quibbles aside, this is an important book for anyone concerned about creating a healthier workplace. In an increasingly fractious and on-edge world, it would be comforting to know that, at least while you were at work, you weren't going to have to deal with obnoxious jerks determined to make your life miserable.