Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Review: The No Asshole Rule
(and Why Baseball Suggests Corrective Actions)  

I don't routinely review business books here because I'm committed to tying baseball and management together, and in most management books there's not a lot of baseball to talk about. I'm making an exception here because

  1. There's an important lesson from baseball in thinking about the content of this book, and
  2. It's by one of my very favorite authors: Robert Sutton (co-author of Hard Facts, last year's best business title).

Sutton's new work is The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace & Surviving One That Isn't (Warner Business Books). It hit shelves today. Sutton's body of work swirls around various topics related to evidence-based management (making business more like baseball through measurement and other examination of past choices/behaviors and then analysing the outcomes of those choices to head towards what works and away from what doesn't, rather than just relive the same MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking, over and over Sisyphus-style).

The thesis of The No Asshole Rule, elaborated from topics addressed tangentially in Hard Facts, is that evidence shows that butt-heads at work aren't just unpleasant, but they affect outcomes for the worse...in most cases (exceptions discussed later).

The book gives readers a concise tour: Descriptions of types of Assholes and their behaviors, ways Assholes undermine productivity, crafting sensible rules and enforcement, self-assessment (that is, measuring your own Cloaca), survival tips and finally, the exceptions -- when/why assholes can actually be net-positive.

Sutton includes examples of companies that have institutionalized No Asshole Rules of various kinds, and his examples tend to reinforce Angus' First Law of Organizational Behavior: All human systems tend to be self-amplifying. Firms, like Southwest Airlines, that build etiquette as foundation for productivity or profit tend to self-amplify their direction, pushing out consciously or through passive enforcement the people and processes that undermine the foundation. This, of course, is why rapid growth in firms without intentional No Asshole Rules is so destructive of their effectiveness -- the passive immune response that expels or squeeze out the butt-heads and the processes that reinforce or lead to buttinski behavior doesn't work when growth exceeds expulsion. Additionally, growth leads to the Diseconomies of Scale because even if you have conscious processes installed, growth brings along a 40-player roster full of other issues that seem more urgent. Thus, likelihood of butt-heads sticking in organizations increases at roughly the square of the increase in growth.

If I could request any changes for the 2nd edition, it'd be in the area of his chapter of suggestions for survival. I like to see more militant engagement. Sutton knows and talks about the reality that many (not most) workplace Assholes are "bullies", that is, they live in the zone where intimidation rules, so they are fearful themselves, and can be intimidated into limiting their behavior. I counsel clients to try to organize victims and bystanders to engage in long-term schemes to document, isolate, and, if necessary, hound bullies. And I counsel effective people who work in ineffective (that is, tolerant of bullies) organizations to get out as quickly as it can be made to work for them, even if it means a pay cut (because there is no way to buy enduring peace of mind, ergo it's worth more than money). If you can leave under externally-decent terms, there's a wonderful way to help The Unseen Hand give them a fastball right under the earflap. I helped a manager I had mentored at a butt-head driven company (that also stiffed me on a few thousand dollars worth of invoices, "because we can") and who left gracefully recruit four complete losers, one from his new organization, into sensitive positions in his old firm, lowering their performance further.

Baseball, btw, has a great lesson about dealing with butt-heads and using a Natural Law to trim their proliferation...and I'll get to it in the next section.

Sutton's new book is a quick and easy read, the perfect volume for a transcontinental flight (or a flight of any scheduled length where they board, close the airplane doors and then don't take off for a couple of hours). As always, Sutton is as fine a writer as he is a thinker. If you read for practical advantages, I recommend The No Asshole Rule.

Robert Sutton's weblog is here and the Evidence-Based Management weblog (Sutton and other contributors) is here.

NOT BEYOND BASEBALL It's interesting that is Baseball is pretty immune to Assholes. It's not that they don't exist (Kirk Gibson, John McNamara, Jim Rice, Sparky Lyle, Rogers Hornsby).

But Baseball is evidence-based, accountability-driven. Baseball is the closest to a perfect accountability engine in North American lines of work. There is no Enron is Baseball (outside Houston's ballpark). So when the relentless winnowing engine starts grinding out marginal performers, assholes can't politick and manipulate their way into retention through leger de main or clever office machinations. Baseball's assholes are almost all high-performance butt-heads, guys like Roger Clemens or Jim Rice. Since Baseball measures relentlessly, assigns accountability relentlessly, at the margins the tie-breakers tend to go to Doug Glanvilles and Tony Phillipses, contributors who lift up teammates through emotional intelligence or focused competitive fire. Marginally, beyond baseball, butt-heads tend to survive; marginally, in Baseball, butt-heads tend to get winnowed.

Think through your own organization's assholes -- what proportion of them truly are Roger Clemens-type high-performers, and what percentage are replacement-level? Exactly. They are more likely to thrive because they sluff responsibility and stealth the systems.

The solution Beyond Baseball, then is krazy-gluing Accountability to Assholes, blocking their stealthing of systems, regularly calling them on their performance failures.

I consulted to an educational institution with a glibly toxic head-man. He used psychobabble to deflect being accountable for his pointless & rude undermining of staff and their work. His assaults were never aimed at improving or critiquing performance, always at making a woman feel bad. eHis signature saying was "It's not my problem I said that, it's your problem you chose to feel that way about what I said". (BTW: There are cases where this is an appropriate poke -- when and only when you're presenting a hard fact). The fact was that The Dean was not very competent...in Baseball parlance, replacement level (if he got hit by a bus tomorrow, it wouldn't take a lot of trouble to find a replacement at his level or better at his salary). Anyway, we built systems that were designed to monitor and evaluate performance at higher levels of the organization, and the case for his invulnerability was eroded enough that it set the stage for his moving-on and out of management altogether. It didn't happen immediately, but it wouldn't have happened at all without the focus on performance.

Baseball doesn't brook Assholes who aren't high-performance ones. ┬┐Why should you?

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