Applying the No Dickheads Rule

It’s commonly accepted that having “Dickheads” or “Assholes” in an organisation isn’t good for morale or performance. Many organisations specifically include an “ND” Rule in their Values and Behaviours. The Sydney Swans (my AFL team) have famously incorporated the Rule as part of their winning culture and this has been replicated throughout the sporting community.

Having the rule is one thing; applying it is another. I still see nasty self-centred people thriving in organisations that have specifically incorporated the ND Rule into their culture.

So what do you need to do to effectively apply the Rule in practice?

The starting point is being clear on what you are talking about. In his book “The No Asshole Rule” Professor Robert Sutton offers a useful two pronged test for determining if someone is acting like an Asshole:

“Test One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the ‘target’ feel oppressed, humiliated de-energised, or belittled by that person? In particular does the target feel worse about him or herself?
Test Two: Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?”

Sutton notes that at different times, when under pressure, we all behave poorly and could be classified as assholes. The issue he says becomes problematic when we have “Certifiable Assholes”. These are people who consistently behave badly.

 “They have a history of episodes that end with one ‘target’ after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energised, and generally worse about themselves”.

So what are the bad behaviours we are talking about? The list is long. Here are some common reprehensible behaviours:

  • Demeaning others – rolling eyes, dirty looks, sarcastic comments, ridiculing, personal insults, rude interruptions
  • Displaying anger – raising their voice, shouting, making threats (both verbal and non-verbal), generally being rude
  • Sabotaging others – undermining, ignoring, refusing to participate in discussions, consistently being late for meetings, passively obstructing or actively resisting, gossiping, unnecessary micromanaging
  • Controlling – Always having to win, be right or have the last word (you can add micromanaging again to this)
  • Being unreliable – failing to follow through on commitments
  • Glory seeking – fail to acknowledge and recognise others, taking all the credit

Of course there are many more, but the above gives you a good flavour for what we are talking about.

So back to the question: What do you need to do to effectively apply the ND Rule in practice?

I think there are three key actions for leaders when trying to apply the Rule.

  1. Spell out what you are talking about. People need to understand what unacceptable behaviour is. It’s particularly critical that you spell this out in your induction process so that new hires aren’t surprised when you pull them into line if they breach the rule. (Of course, it’s important that you do your best to filter out the problem people during the recruitment process).
  2. Take a good hard look at yourself.  Even if you are not a “Certifiable Asshole” as defined by Sutton, that is, you are only an occasional offender; you need to recognise that even intermittent poor behaviour sets the tone for everyone around you. Leaders must be conscious of the shadow they cast and constantly seek to reduce their own poor behaviour (even if it is inevitable given that we are all human).
  3. Have the courage to hold other people in the organisation accountable for their poor behaviour.You need to speak up when one of your bosses, peers, colleagues or customers steps over the line. You need to listen carefully when a junior employee complains about a manager’s or customer’s behaviour. You need to create a culture where less powerful individuals understand that they will be supported (not persecuted) if they are experiencing poor behaviour and complain. You must ensure that your performance review system penalises Certified Assholes. You must have the courage to make the hard calls and exit high performing but poor behaving individuals.

At the end of the day you need to be comfortable with the idea (which is supported by a lot of research) that the long term health of the organisation is better when you don’t have Certifiable Assholes on board.

Mark Rosenberg

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