Book review: The A**hole Survival Guide by Robert I. Sutton

Professor Robert I. Sutton is now known to many as ‘the Asshole Guy’, having given us ‘The No Asshole Rule’, followed by ‘The Asshole Survival Guide’. So if the A-word is too strong for you, look away – and miss out. I like a book that doesn’t mince its words. It’s also good if there’s robust evidence to back up the points being made. And books that make me laugh out loud earn my affection and admiration. ‘The Asshole Survival Guide’ does all three.

Why ‘Assholes’? Focussing on the workplace, Prof Sutton lays out the damage that bullies, backstabbers and jerks cause. From absence and illness, through low engagement and poor productivity, to dangerously poor performance (such as medics mis-diagnosing) – Assholes have a Kryptonite-like effect on those around them. Worse, Assholism is contagious.

Starting with the Asshole Assessment, ‘How bad is it?’, the prof poses six diagnostic questions to help the reader assess their situation and appreciate the difference between ‘temporary’ and ‘certified’ Assholes. He also issues his ‘bias-busting mantra’: “Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.”  Having given fair warning, the author then outlines survival strategies.

‘Make a clean getaway’ may be the best choice, whether the jerks are face-to-face or online. Yet we often suffer ‘Asshole blindness’, tell ourselves ‘lies’ and tolerate the bad behaviour. Prof Sutton helps us identify assholes ahead with ‘detection tips’ – my favourite being ‘all transmission and no reception’.

We can reduce our risk of over-exposure using ‘Asshole Avoidance Techniques’. Some of these are more prosaic, such as moving further away from the asshole and having a ‘backstage’ space where colleagues can commiserate. The ‘early warning system’ may be familiar to readers; for me the visual ‘asshole alert’ used by border staff shown on page 90 was worth the purchase price alone.

But Prof Sutton isn’t just playing for laughs here: with ‘Mind Tricks That Protect Your Soul’ he outlines sound Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy (CBT) techniques that can help salvage self-respect in the face of sustained assholery. ‘Down-playing the threat’ is one approach; I particularly like the ‘Look back from the future’ technique (and have used it in various tough situations); and different ways to ‘tune-out’ can be tried. The chapter on ‘Fighting Back’ includes the unlikely tactic of ‘love-bombing’, but importantly gives warnings about the wrong ways to take on assholes.

Finally, the author reminds us to be sure we’re part of the solution – not the problem – when it comes to surviving assholes at work. Like the rest of this book, the advice is practical with clear steps and artful strategies, dispensed with a wide range of thorough research and everyday examples – from cabin crew to coffee shop staff, presidents to bus drivers. All delivered with great wisdom and warmth.

Highly recommended.


You may find this post useful: ‘Help! My boss is a micro-manager’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’.

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