In the workplace some people exhibit certain character traits, OK let’s call them ‘assholes’ (Robert Sutton’s definition) and will conspire to make others feel small, incompetent or just bad about themselves.

In Robert Sutton’s classic book, he defines two criteria that test for the presence of an ‘asshole’:

  1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?

Well, here’s the thing. It’s not you, it’s them and don’t you forget it!

Unless of course you are the Asshole in which case please stop reading this and go and read the Epilogue (“On Being the Asshole Guy”) to Robert Sutton’s classic book.

OK still reading then I assume you are not an ‘asshole’ 

The nature of the human condition, unless you have the most bullet-proof constitution and great mental and emotional resilience, is that such behaviour will hurt and leave you feeling wounded and most likely angry as well.

You need to consider these ‘events’ as being separate from you and not necessarily under your control. You didn’t create the ‘asshole’ did you? You should realise that you have a choice of how you perceive the event and react. What’s more, you need to examine your underlying beliefs in relation to such incidents.

Your beliefs:

  • Try to view the situation objectively and see that you have not done anything wrong and it is the other person’s behaviour that is totally unreasonable.

  • If they are pouncing on some mistake you made then remember that everyone makes mistakes and it’s unprofessional and malicious to try and put you down and make a big deal out of it.

  • Believe in yourself and know that no matter what this person says or  how they behave, this does not in anyway change who you are and your rights as a human being; you deserve respect and in the workplace are entitled to be treated in a professional manner.

Your response:

  • One option is to not respond, to totally ignore them. The perpetrator is most likely wanting a reaction. If you hide your feelings and show no reaction then you will be denying them the pleasure. Provoking a reaction is what they want and will only encourage them to keep doing it. Not responding does not mean doing nothing, rather, carry on as if it did not happen. Keep your chin up. Water off a duck’s back. Rise above it.

  • Avoid getting defensive. They may have ‘pushed a button’ in the sense that they have sensed something you may be insecure about. A natural instinct is to get defensive which gives them the impression that they have you on the ropes which may spur them on even further. If you cannot ignore them completely, try not to respond defensively. State a fact “That’s simply not true.” and move swiftly on.

  • Avoid retaliation. Retaliation may not be advisable as this can make the situation worse and how do you know you are going to ‘win’? Assholes have typically had lots of practice, they may have been doing it most of their lives, and most likely had more practice than you have had at confronting assholes!

Such responses can be difficult especially when your emotions are riding high but combined with the healthy beliefs listed above and with practice, it will become easier and begin to provoke a response that is in your control and more to your benefit not theirs! Above all, believe in yourself!

Book: “The Asshole Survival Guide” by Robert Sutton > See related article

Book: “The No Asshole Rule” by Robert Sutton > published after this original article