Getting IT Bullies to Behave

Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Warner Business Books, February 2007), stemmed from articles he wrote for the Harvard Business Review and CIO Insight. “I was surprised how much suffering there was out there,” says the Stanford management science professor, referring to the deluge of e-mail messages he received after those pieces were published. He spoke with CIOI Senior Writer Edward Cone about jerks and bullies in the IT workplace.

CIO Insight: Some famous people in the technology world are reputed to be difficult, even if we all love our iPods. How big is the asshole problem in technology organizations?

Sutton: I did a session recently with 20 CIOs from diverse companies, including some very well-known names. This is definitely on their minds. With the talent market so tight, it’s just dumb business to get the reputation as a nasty place to work, to drive people out or not get the best out of them or not let them develop to the fullest because you have a climate of fear.
The CIOs said there were times when you might have been able to get away with being an asshole, but they are under so much pressure to recruit right now that it’s just not acceptable. A number of them talked about how it used to be that way in their own organizations, but especially with Generation X and Generation Y, people won’t put up with it. One guy went into some detail about abusive managers who have technical knowledge and prowess; he used to put up with that, but once they started figuring out the cost of turnover, they couldn’t do it anymore.

With talent at such a premium, and a certain number of talented people acting like assholes, is there some way to deal with jerks in a productive way?

Lars Dalgaard is the CEO of SuccessFactors, a fast-growing software firm. He describes himself as a recovering asshole, and has employees sign an agreement not to be assholes themselves. He’s learned it’s not inborn in everyone. People who come from a jerky organization can successfully change behavior.

So it’s like Kirk and Spock in that Machiavellian parallel universe—you might just be the product of your culture?

Right, right, if you are in one of those nasty, backstabbing cultures and there is no other way to survive but to fight back, you might act that way, too.

The stereotypical IT worker is not abundantly gifted with social skills. How does that generalization jibe with the rate of assholery among rank-and-file tech workers?

I don’t think technology is any better or any worse than anything else. I have seen in engineers and other technical people a lack of meanness compared to others. Because parts of IT don’t require much interpersonal skill, at least at the entry level, there isn’t as much screening out of people with bad interpersonal skills as there is in, say, sales or HR, but you get that pretty quickly when you start to get managerial responsibility. A CIO has to have some interpersonal skills.

What about the impact of technology itself on assholery?

My Stanford colleague Pam Hinds has studied the role of mediated work. You get this incomplete part of a human being. E-mail allows ambiguous comments that allow people to think you’re an asshole, but there’s evidence that we’re becoming more skilled at writing it and reading it—that as people gain more experience with the media they are less often nasty.

You also can use technology as a means of defense. A senior executive at a technology company had a board member who was a total screamer asshole. She didn’t want to see him in person, with the veins bulging, so she’d call him up and put him on speakerphone, and then put her feet on her desk and do her fingernails, and every so often turn the volume up to see if he’d calmed down, and when he did they could have a conversation. She was emotionally detached. The technology meant she didn’t have to see his face and could turn the volume down until he was no longer being an asshole.

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