Robert Sutton shares his expertise on confronting, coping with, and forgiving the jerks at work.
- Internal mind tricks to help you cope with jerks
- How to use The Benjamin Franklin Effect to win over jerks
- How and when to fight back
Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He co-founded the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (“the d school”). He is a Fellow at IDEO, Senior Scientist at Gallup, and an advisor to McKinsey & Company. Sutton studies organizational change, leadership, innovation, and workplace dynamics. He has published over 150 articles and chapters and written seven books. Sutton’s latest book is The “Jerk”hole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Bob’s website: BobSutton.net
- Bob’s book: The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You like Dirt
- Bob’s previous book: The No Asshole Hole Rule
- Book: Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon Mackenzie
- Book: Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Book: The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough
- People: Becky Margiotta, Johnny Paycheck, and Julia Kirby
- Other references: Stanford D.School, Philz Coffee, Counterculture Movement
- Prior episode: Maura Sweeney, Episode 77, How to be Awesome At Your Job
Bob, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.
It’s great to be here and great to talk to you, Pete.
Well, in learning a little bit about you I got a real kick out of you mentioned that you believe you have the worst high school GPA of any Stanford professor. I’d love to hear. What’s the bad story?
I love the question you start with so we can establish my credentials immediately.
Yeah, that’s right.
So I went to Burlingame High School. It’s just about 15 miles up the road from Stanford, and I was not a distinguished member of my class. And I fell into sort of like a group of friends who are very academic. Nobody in my family was particularly academic, and I thought I was going to go into the family business. It was also during the sort of the Counterculture Movement in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1968 to 1972, and all the institutions were becoming unglued, and I just wasn’t that focused on school.
The one thing I will say with my grade point average, which was 1.9 after my junior year and 2.1 after my senior year, because I took pottery in my senior year, a B. But I had almost no C’s. I had A’s and B’s and D’s and F’s. So either I was really into it or I was terrible which I think has continued for the rest of my career. And when I went to college I figured out that I could take mostly things I like so I mostly got A’s. And I also started realizing that if I got good grades that maybe I could do something other than go into the family business.
And in California, we have then, and still have, a community college system that feeds you into the UC system, so I actually got very good grades in community college and was able to go to the University of California at Berkeley so I was really saved by a good community college system. So I got an excellent education after I left high school.
But, yeah, I was not a very… and I had a bad attitude, too, that’s one thing. Speaking of the topic we’re talking about today, because I always tell people, “If you’re incompetent, at least be nice.” I wasn’t incompetent nor nice, so that didn’t help.
Well, you managed to turn around and so that’s fantastic. And so you have a very compelling book title that we’re going to chat through here and to just keep our iTunes clean rating, I’ll paraphrase a bit, The Jerk Hole Survival Guide, if you will, How to Deal with People Who Treat You like Dirt. So that is a captivating issue. I think it affects a whole lot of people. So what’s your inspiration behind this?
Well, my career, at least my professional academic career is focused mostly at leadership. We’re discussing innovation and creativity, but sort of accidentally, I guess, early in my career I did do some research on the expression of emotion in organizational life, the notion that being able to suppress certain emotions and express others is one of the things that we’re paid for. So if you’re in a customer service occupation or you’re a judge or something, that’s one of the things you’re actually paid for.
But the way I got involved in this, somewhat accidentally, was in 2004. I was asked by the Harvard Business Review, Julia Kirby was the editor of that, and she said, “Could you write an essay on breakthrough ideas?” And I said, “Well, Julia, I have an idea for something I want to write about that I feel really strongly about.” It was in part, because in my academic department in those days we had a “no jerk rule,” and also at the time my wife was running a large law firm and dealing with jerks was a big part of her job, so I had this kind of going on in my head.
And so I wrote this 800-word essay that had the censored no a-hole or jerk hole, whatever hole in it, and I’ve written stuff for the Harvard Business Review before, and usually I’ll get a few emails or maybe one speaking gig or something. I got hundreds of emails where people were deluge with the stories they had, their bad bosses, their bad co-workers, their abusive customers. And so that led me to write what was sort of the first installment of this adventure.
Back in 2007 I wrote, I got to stay with the language, The No Jerk Hole Rule, so we’re still being good for iTunes, The No Jerk Hole Rule, and that book sold very well, and I said I’d never do another book again, but I kept getting all these emails. And even though that book was mostly about how to build a relatively jerk-free culture, most of the emails, and thousands of them – the first chapter of the book is called Eight Thousand Emails of the survival guide – they were essentially all asking the same question, which is, “I am stuck with a jerk or a bunch of them. What do I do?”
And everything from CEOs to Costco employees. I actually got quite a few emails from clergy and rabbis, priests, Baptist ministers, a lot about actually difficult parishioners. So I try to respond to them individually and I also started collecting the huge academic research on bullying, abusive supervision and so on, and I did other things, like you mentioned, I was involved in the Stanford d.school and I did some work on scaling in leadership.
But I eventually went back to it and wrote this book in part because I had thought so much and had answered so many emails, and still I get probably an email a day still from somebody who sends me their story about the jerk they’re dealing with, and they ask for help. And I didn’t mean to become the Dear Abbey of the jerk world, but here I am. And so it’s been an odd life.
Well, it’s clear that you struck a nerve. And so I’d love to hear then, maybe if you get a lot of stories, could you give us a sort of hopeful note? Do you have any cool sort of before-after stories to say there’s hope?
Yeah, there actually is a lot of hope. And, in fact, if you go to the academic research, the workplace bullying, there are a lot of research on workplace bullying. When people are being bullied it’s usually less than 10% of the population, 8% of the population or something like that, report that they’re being bullied now and sort of experiencing relatively constant bullying.
But if you go back a year later, most of those people are in a different situation or their situation has changed. So there’s hope ahead of you. Just wait or find a way to get out. So that’s important. And, yes, I have gotten some amazing stories. A couple of my favorite ones, one, a woman who was a professor. Since I’m a professor I can relate to this. She had all these jerks in her academic department, and so she said, “I just had to get out,” and she moved to a different department where they not only paid her more money, they gave her tenure and she had nice colleagues. So that was good, and she wrote me a thank you note.
And one of my favorite ones was lawyers, and I’m married to a lawyer so I understand that not all lawyers are jerks. But a woman who was a lawyer, she quit her job and she gave her resignation letter in a copy of the No A-hole or No Jerk Rule to her boss. We can talk about quitting because that’s in the book. I don’t necessarily recommend quitting in that way unless you have other options but it was pretty funny. So, yeah, I think that there is hope.
And another thing, which is a big hope and also a solution, is that there are quite a few companies that really are serious about having no jerk rules, and don’t allow nastiness to flourish. And one of my favorite ones, their headquarters is in Milwaukee, it’s called Baird, it’s a place called RW Baird but they kind of referred to themselves as Baird. They’re a quite large financial services firm and they’re number four in the best place to work list. And Paul Purcell, who’s the Chairman, now CEO, we even got him to blurb the book.
He claims that they built their reputation and considerable financial success on the fact that they have the No Jerk Rule, but they used the same word that I do that we’re censoring. And so there is hope, there’s hope both for some organizations are better than others. And if you’re in a difficult situation you can survive and things can get better and usually do.
Well, that’s awesome to hear. And so I’d love to now dig into some of these strategies, you know, maybe going from big to small in terms of, one, a full escape or a clean getaway. How might we orchestrate that?
Yeah, so there’s a large body of research. Given the focus of your podcast this might be especially interesting. There is a large body of research you may have even talked about on your podcast before, this notion that people quit bad bosses, not bad organizations. And there’s all sorts of evidence that if you can just get away from a bad team or a bad organization, and even move to a different part of the same organization, it’s enormously helpful.
And, for me, though there are some times when you do need to quit and go onto another organization, if it’s a small organization, if the options in your large organization are not good, but the main advice that I give people who are thinking about quitting are twofold. One, before you storm out the door, or just quit quietly, what are your options? Can you still afford to feed your family? Because I’ve had stories of people who quit and then they’re sort of left with nothing.
And the other, what other job options you have. And then the other thing, it has to do with the way that you do it. There’s a guy I talk about in the book, some people may remember from 2010 or so, Steven Slater who was a JetBlue flight attendant, and we all know how hard it is to be a flight attendant. I mean, bless those people. They put up, I mean, we hear the stories about when flight attendants are bad, but on a day-to-day basis, they put up with so much abuse from passengers and from all sorts of directions.
So he had some very abusive passengers who were yelling at him. And as the plane landed one of them got out of her seat while the plane was still taxing, opened up the luggage compartment, and the luggage fell on his head and hit him really hard. So he got really mad, he got on the microphone, he cast everybody out of the plane, and when the plane stops, some people may remember this story, he pulled the emergency escape slide, he took two beers and he just slipped out and he left. So it’s pretty classic “Take this job and shove it,” straight out of the shiny paycheck playbook. The guy who wrote that song Johnny Paycheck.
But that guy, I mean, he got fired, he got on probation, he had to pay a fine, he felt terrible afterwards. So my perspective is there are some times when burning bridges is a dramatic, wonderful thing to do but you kind of got to look at the situation as a long life, and you might want to do it quietly. You might want to do it in a way that doesn’t burn bridges. Every now and then, I mean, it might actually work. Some people did write me stories about storming out and it was one of the best things they did. Or the woman I just described who gave her boss the resignation letter inside of the No Jerk Rule book. But we all know this is a long life, and burning bridges can be a mistake.
Understood. Yeah, and sometimes you’re right, you’re kind of stuck with regard to you’ve got to have the income flowing.
So then if you’re in the thick of it, what are some best practices to lessen your exposure or what is that?
To me, there’s two kinds of – and to your point, there’s a whole bunch of situations, and I think of some of the people who I talk about in the book. People who are cadets at West Point or the U.S. Air Force Academy. You know that the first year is going to be hazing and it’s going to suck, but that’s just the way it’s going to be. You got to get through it somehow. One guy wanted to be a pilot.
One of my heroes, Becky Margiotta, who is one of the heroes in one of the chapters, she went on, besides being in special operations, to lead something called the 100,000 Homes Campaign that found homes for more than 100,000 homeless American. She did great things. But she had to get through some really difficult times.
Or people that will write me that they’re a year from retirement before they get great benefits, and they just got this terrible boss, they just got to get through it. So there are times when you just got to take it. And, to me, there’s two kinds of strategies I emphasized in the book. One is, when you’re in the situation with the nasty people, do what you can to limit – I sort of teach think of it as almost like a Kryptonite or something, like this toxic substance, that to the extent you can reduce your exposure to the people, both the strength of the exposure and the frequency of the exposure, you will be in better shape.
And one of the findings, which is really good, a recent research, and especially I’d imagine many of your listeners are in open offices, if you’re in an open office, it turns out that the people who sit really close to you have a huge effect on both your mental health, your productivity, and it turns out that if you’re sitting, especially within 25 feet or so of a toxic person, the chances you’re going to turn toxic, because it’s a very contagious thing, and/or you’re going to get fired are quite high. That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you’re sitting around some really competent people, they lift you up.
So within the limitations of where you can place or move your desk, it can be very powerful. Or maybe you can, I give an example in the book of a professor I know, who shall remain unnamed, who was just this terrible jerk. He was just horrible. He would just blame everybody and he got a big research grant, so what they did was they found him a building off campus really far away. And they said, “We’ve got this beautiful new location for you because you have such a big team,” and everybody was so happy. He was happy. They were happy. And he didn’t even realized that he’d been sort of distanced.
But there’s all bunch of other ways to find ways to reduce distance, the number of meetings that you have with people. To me, it’s really an important thing to find ways just to reduce your exposure to the extent that you can. And so that’s one set of strategies. The other set of strategies, I call these mind tricks, or what they really are, they’re based on a cognitive behavioral therapy which is the most widely-used therapy in the world, but also the most evidence-based therapy in the world. And the concept of especially reframing which is what I talk about.
And these mind tricks are you don’t change the situation, you change how you think about it. And sometimes we’re just in those bad situations and you just got to get through it. Some of the things that I especially like, one is, when you’re dealing with a jerk, I call the symphony for the devil, try to have some sympathy for the person and some forgiveness.
And the research on forgiveness is really interesting because if you forgive somebody who’s slighted you, it may not help them, and they may not deserve it, but one thing to keep in mind, from the research on forgiveness, is when you forgive people it reduces the amount of angst and physical and mental health problems you suffer as a result, so that’s one thing you can do.
Another thing I talk about is humor. That idea of joking around the water cooler can actually be quite powerful. One of the most evidence-based mind tricks or reframing techniques, one that’s really got a lot of research behind it is this thing that’s called temporal distancing, or I call it imaginary time travel. So if you’ve got a jerk, and there’s great experiments for all sorts of bad things in life, and if you can say to yourself, rather than focusing on how upset you are now, “Gee, when I look back at this, this weekend, say it’s a bad client, or next month or even next year, it’s really going to seem like nothing.”
It’s so powerful. Just to give you an example. One guy, he wrote me about how he went to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and his whole goal was to fly. So when he’s a first and second year cadet they’re hazed by upper classmen, and he said, “So what I’d say to myself is, as they were yelling at me or taunting me or making me do some stupid chore like cleaning things with a toothbrush and things like that, I’d say to myself, ‘When I’m flying and I’m in that plane a few years from now when I look back on this, it’ll be nothing.’” And he said, “In fact, it really worked.” So that’s one of those sort of tactics.
And, I guess, finally, a favorite one, and I’ve got a whole bunch ones in the book, is the idea of emotional detachment. So trying to focus less on what’s upsetting you and more, if you will, on the good parts, to have some distance. Nurses – if you look at research on which occupations tend to be most abused, and you think about poor nurses.
They’ve got patients, they’ve got doctors, they’ve got hospital administrator, they’ve got each other, I mean, there’s people who are just sort of like giving them grief all day long. It’s a really tough job. And some of the research on emotional detachment, the nurses, is what they’ll do, the healthy ones, is they’ll turn out everything but focusing on serving their patients’ needs, and that helps them do two things. It helps them focus on what really matters and it helps them tune out the junk or the crap or whatever.
So those are just some examples. The main thing you’re trying to do is to create some distance so that the upsetting person, it just doesn’t seem so bad, in that way you can get through to the other side, if you will.
Oh, there’s so much good stuff I’d love to dig into a little bit here. When you talked about emotional detachment, that reminds me of when I had a director, I was doing like a community theater, and she just had such a tone in her voice. Like it was full of rage or disgust with my, I don’t know, performance or whatever I was doing wrong, and all these things.
And so I don’t know if there’s some research behind this, but my trick was I just pretended, that I like mentally transcribed what she was saying, and then I was just like I was reading it. So if she said, “Pete, you’re coming out too soon,” will be just like I just read it, “Pete, you’re coming out too soon.”
Well, I really like that. I’ve heard other detachment strategies. What you’re doing is you’re re-encoding it so the nastiness is removed and you’re just left with the healthful content.
So actually that’s a really healthy perspective. That director is really interesting because, and this is another one of the themes that comes out of the research on jerks and nasty behavior of all kinds. Very often, when people are hostile to others, ignore them in other ways, treat them badly, they’re actually quite clueless to the way their message is being received. And for a director, all directors have to give directions and be candid about your performance to help you improve it and make tough decisions. But I bet you she didn’t even realized that she was being that hostile. But I love how you did the re-encoding. I think that’s a fabulous coping approach.
Well, thank you. And I want to hear a little bit about your forgiveness. I mean, sort of in practice, when it comes to forgiveness, I’m imagining what one is doing is not so much looking at the jerk in the face and saying, “I forgive you,” but rather doing something else.
No, no, no.
What is the nuts and bolts of executing that?
Well, it is interesting because, and there’s a quite large experimental literature on forgiveness. In fact, telling an asshole, finally telling a jerk that you forgive them sometimes it depends on the jerk. In some cases, if they’re unaware of it and they don’t want to hurt you, then it can be okay. But in some cases they get all excited because they want to just even make you feel worse if they’re treating it as a power move.
But the way to forgive them in many cases, if you can’t have that conversation, you usually can’t, is you kind of forgive them in your heart. And so two of the ones that I’ve heard, and sometimes they’re actually true. But sometimes they’re just a way to sort of talk yourself down. One of the first ones I heard was actually at Google. This was a long time ago, 10 years ago, I was giving a talk about jerks. So my first book came out on jerks, and one of the people of Google, and this is the days when Google is sort of a little cute company. They’re not little and cute now.
And I remember this really sort of like bouncy engineer, she raises her hand and she says, “Oh, so we call people like that. There are people who have good operating systems and a bad user interface.” I think in some ways I’m going back to your director. Maybe your director was like that too. The user interface was kind of tough but once you got through it, the stuff underneath was pretty good. And so that’s one way you can do it.
And then the other one, the other expression, which is, I guess, a non-nerd version of it is that the person is a porcupine with a heart of gold. And there are people like that who have bad interpersonal skills and also don’t have really a lot of emotional control, but underneath it they’re actually great, wonderful people and, if you will, they’re worth putting up with.
But the main thing about the research on forgiveness that’s really quite interesting is to remind yourself, even if it doesn’t help the offender in question, it actually helps you, it helps your mental health, and it means that way that they don’t hurt you as much. So you sort of win in the end to sort of tell yourself that.
A related technique that I talk about in the book, I hadn’t talk about before, is this idea of rising above it. So when people treat you like dirt, you tell yourself you’re not going to stoop to their level, and that’s a quite effective strategy. And the example I use in the book is, I’m out here in California. We have kind of a new-ish chain of coffee stores that’s called Philz Coffee, and the whole concept of Philz is it’s actually not espresso. It’s you and the barista, and the barista makes this custom cup of coffee just exactly the way you like it. They call it cups of love.
But the CEO, Jacob Jaber, and then we interviewed some of the baristas there, they have this philosophy that when people are nasty that you kill them with kindness. That’s their philosophy because you don’t want to stoop to their level. And our philosophy is that if somebody is a jerk, we’re better than them. We’re not going to go to that level. So that’s another one of those, if you will, kind of mind tricks to enhance your opinion of yourself so you suffer less. But I really like your perspective with the director because that sounds to me like a very emotionally healthy thing to do.
Oh, thank you. And I’m thinking about killing with kindness. I mean, we had a previous guest, her name is Maura Sweeney, and she told an amazing story of someone who just really talked trash about her up and down, like all across the different people. And so she summoned that person, said, “Hey, you know, I think I owe you an apology. I had no idea that you had these concerns with me and my approach and my leadership style. And I want to apologize that I don’t know what it is I did that made you feel like you couldn’t share that with me directly. But I want you to know that you can and I care about what you think and I want to make this a good environment.” And so he must’ve just, his skin was crawling, like, “Aargh!” And it turned it around real quick.
So it is interesting. So there’s a great book, it even has a clean name called Radical Candor. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this book, it’s by a woman named Kim Scott.
We had her on the show. She’s fantastic.
Oh, yeah. So I have a podcast item with Kim Scott. She’s just unbelievable. And that, to me, it sounds to me as one of those situations where that person who she confronted gently was not doing radical candor, and the message that’s being sent, “Tell me the truth. Don’t stab me in the back. Let’s talk about this directly.” I’ll just tell you, I’m a huge Kim Scott fan, and that is a great book – Radical Candor.
Oh, there is another technique that we hadn’t talk about, and this is somewhere between, well, if you have someone who’s a jerk we can talk about confronting them, but there’s a whole bunch of things, when people are treating you badly that sometimes you can bring them around. So I really like your guest’s philosophy.
One is there’s good evidence that when people are in positions where they have some influence over you, so the ultimate is the Department of Motor Vehicles employees, but it’s the effort, I would say, it’s the people who do our budget approval would fit in this category. They’re people who have influence over other people but they don’t have prestige or respect.
There’s all sorts of evidence that when you put people in a position like that, they turn fairly nasty and also quite picky. They become rule Nazis because it’s a way that they can exercise control and exact revenge on people who are treating them badly. And one of the solutions is to actually treat them with respect and to be nice to them and they, sometimes, will come around.
And then there’s another fact I talk about in the book which reminds me almost of the example you’re talking about which is I call the Benjamin Franklin effect in the book. And it goes back to an old story with Benjamin Franklin where he wrote about that he had a hater, somebody who was saying bad things him behind his back when he was a young man, when Benjamin Franklin was a young man. So Franklin went to him, and rather than attacking him, he asked if he could borrow a book from him because he’d heard he had a great library. So this guy does him a favor, loans him the book, and then Benjamin Franklin writes him back a letter telling how much he appreciates it.
And the trick is, is that Benjamin Franklin got the guy to do a favor for him. And then there’s a bunch of research on cognitive dissonance, cognitive consistency. Some of your listeners may have heard of this in the introduction to psychology, that the notion that I’m doing a favor for you, yet I don’t like you, it’s hard to align those things. So the more favors that somebody does for you, the more they’re going to like you. So this trick, and it is sort of a trick, but getting other people to help you, who are not being nice to you, is another way to sort of bring them around on your side.
And in some way the woman you’re talking about was doing something like that. She was kind of asking him for help.
I like that perspective.
So just to make sure I hit the forgiveness part. You talk about you do the forgiveness in your heart, as opposed to performing them. So, in practice, like what are you saying to yourself? Like, “I forgive ‘name of jerk’ for this”?
Yeah, or you can have sympathy for the devil. Like I think the teacher, but they have a terrible wife and I can’t really blame them, or I forgive them. And I’m thinking back to your director, because although they may be nasty, the old notion that where there’s a poop there’s a pony, the old Ronald Reagan line. And the notion that although they’re giving me all this grief that I’m still taking away stuff that’s so good from them so I will forgive them.
And I’m not recommending this completely but it is one way, if you will, to sort of get through a relatively, at least, rough period, especially after your relationship with somebody is over, to not like hold that bitterness. Because that bitterness and that anger, all the researches is independently, whether or not the person deserves it, it’s actually not that good for us.
That said, I mean, it’s a little bit like any other abusive relationships. Maybe we should switch gears and talk about fighting back. There are some people in some situations where, both because they’re repeat offenders, and if you have a way, some power or some solutions, that sometimes you can fight back and you can bring them down. And there’s many times when that is worth doing because the person is a jerk and they’re hurting others, not just you, and because, perhaps, you can win and clear the way for your own mental health and productivity.
All right. Well, let’s do talk about the fighting back. Sort of under what circumstances is that a good move and how should we do it well?
So there’s two or three things that I really look for or advice people. The first thing is the tendency might be to fight and argue back, but you might want to sort of look and see sort of it’s almost what resources you have to fight back with. One is old-fashioned power. Well, I was just thinking of my, what do you call, this guy, Paul Purcell who was CEO and is now Chairman of Baird. He’s CEO and he would tell people during job interviews, if he discovers they’re a jerk, he’s going to fire them. And he did fire people for that, right? So that’s the ultimate case, right? So you can actually get rid of them.
Most of us don’t usually have that much power to do with jerks, but the more power you have the better situation that you’re in. And you’ve got to be really careful with that because a lot of us overestimate how much power they have. I’ve had this series of exchanges with the head of HR of a large company, and she wrote me, and she said, “So we’re putting in a No Jerk Rule, and I’ve talked to the CEO, and we’re going to fire our two or three worst jerks, so our senior executives.” And I wrote her back and I said, “You sure you have enough power? You’re a new head of HR.” She said, “Yes.” So I’ve got the CEO on board, and then three weeks later she was fired. So you got to really make sure you really do have the power.
And then some of the other ones is, and this is related to power, is that the more allies you have on your side, the better position you’re in. So if you have a boss who’s a jerk, or if you have a colleague who’s a jerk, or even a customer, the more people who can document that you’re not crazy, that there’s a bunch of you, the more power you have, and then I already implied that both for legal reasons, for getting HR on your side, for getting out of he-said-she-said situation, anything you can do that’s legal, I should emphasize, that can document somebody who’s treating you badly, puts you in a more powerful position.
And there’s some other factors there but, for me, just sort of stopping and doing the analysis which is, “How much power do I have? Do I have allies and how strong is my evidence?” To the extent you can do that, you are more likely to win. And then the other thing is kind of what kind of jerk are you dealing with?
One of my really important lessons that I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve already implied this, so there’s lots of people who are jerks who are clueless and don’t mean to come across that way. And sometimes the way you can get them to change is, and again I like your guest, you can sometimes pull them aside and say, “I’m feeling hurt by you. I don’t know if you intend to do it or not. Here’s my evidence. Can we discuss this?” And sometimes they’ll be shocked and change their behavior.
Oh, thank you. Well, tell me, Bob, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we talk about some of your favorite things?
About some of my favorite things. So just one little bit of mental provisioning, I would just sort of on the No Jerk Rule stuff, and the Jerk Survival Guide stuff, I would end with is that many times, we as human beings, are in situations where we feel as if we’re being wronged or people are treating us badly. And there’s a bunch of evidence that we human beings have really bad self-awareness, and the worst person to ask, if they’re being a jerk or they’re being oppressed by a jerk, is somehow or another us.
So my big guideline is to be slow to label other people as jerks because we all tend to have these, they call, self-enhancement bias, but to be relatively fast to label ourselves as jerks because a lot of times we are part of the problem. And so that’s one. And then the other part is that if we’re in organizations where there’s nastiness, the way I put it is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem, but taking responsibility for not just not being a jerk yourself but helping to defend others, weaker people. To me, if more of us would do that the world would be a better and less jerk-filled place. So those are two of my big sort of takeaways and lessons that I’ve learned.
Oh, fantastic. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Outside of the jerk stuff in general? So, one of my favorite quotes, in my definition of a great relationship, and it’s a little bit related to the jerk stuff because you have to be civil, is that, “The best learning relationships I have are when you’re with people where you fight as if you’re right,” so you actually argue and push your perspective, “and you listen as if you’re wrong.”
And this idea of fighting is, if you’re right, listening as if you’re wrong, to me that’s the hallmark of what a successful learning model is. Because you do want to have people to have strong points of view but to have, if you will, the courage and conviction to push a point of view but at the same time the humility to actually listen, the best leaders that I’ve dealt with, the most effective ones, they really, really have that ability.
One person, I think that somebody that I really admire who is also not a jerk, and I got to know him fairly well the last two years, is Ed Catmull. Ed Catmull is the president of Pixar Animation and the president of Disney Animation. So he’s been involved in leading two major things. One is building almost from the very beginning. Well, really from the very beginning. Pixar, which is one of the great startups became a great animation studio, and then he and John Lasseter in particular, they turned around Disney Animation Studio. So these are really great leaders.
And the thing that I really admire about Ed, whenever I have long conversations with Ed, I end up having arguments with him. By the way, this is the guy who argued with Steve Jobs for 25 years. He’s argued with the best. And he said Steve never abused him, by the way. So you hear who are saying Steve, he has a reputation of being a jerk, and some people might say that but Ed Catmull denied having a kind of relationship with Steve, but he said, “We sure argued a lot because that’s what it’s like with Steve.” But it’s such a sort of like respectful sort of interaction.
And that’s very much the culture of Pixar, is this notion of people give one another criticism, especially among the various directors they have, but there’s a huge amount of mutual respect. So that ability to argue as if you’re right, and listen as if you’re wrong, and treat people in a respectful way is one of the things that’s really most important to me in the kind of relationships that I try to seek out and the kind of person I try to be in intellectual and personal relationships.
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. And now could you share with us a favorite book?
Ooh, a favorite book. I’ve got a list on my website of 12 favorite books, but we’re talking about the d.school so I’m going to pick a weird one. You mentioned Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. If you’re going to pick a relatively recent book, that’s my favorite book. But my favorite creativity book of all time, it’s called Orbiting the Giant Hairball, it’s written by this guy named Gordon Mackenzie, he passed away a few years ago. Gordon Mackenzie, his job was the creative paradox of Hallmark Cards. And what Orbiting the Giant Hairball is about is it’s about how to survive essentially a large organization where you’re the creative person and to survive it with some grace, some humanity, and to make it more creative.
And the reason it’s called Orbiting the Giant Hairball is his argument is that if you think of the sort of corporate bureaucracy in everything as the hairball, is that if you spend all of your time in the middle that you can completely lose perspective and lose your creativity and lose your soul. But if you are completely detached from it and you never come into the organization at all, you can’t learn their needs and you can’t, if you will, give anything back.
So his argument is you should be in orbit around it so you kind of are almost in touch with it, and every now and then you land and learn stuff and deposit what you learned and then you go back in orbit. So that’s kind of the main idea of the book. But he was a famous card designer, so it’s got some really weird sketches, but there’s a spirit. It’s a short little book. But there’s a spirit of that book that I absolutely love. So that’s one book.
And then my other book on the completely other thing. Some of my researches on organizational chain and scaling, that one of the most astounding stories I’ve ever read is called The Path Between the Seas, it’s by David McCullough, the famous historian. It’s about the building of the Panama Canal. One of the most amazing stories of what it takes to get something really, really hard done under difficult situations, just a beautifully-told story. So those are completely different books. One is about how to survive as a creative individual, and the other thing is how to do innovation with the most massive possible scale for the time building the Panama Canal was just astounding.
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. And now can you share with us a particular nugget or something that you share that really tends to connect, resonate, get folks nodding their heads and taking notes?
You’re asking interesting questions. So I would pick maybe two things and they’re completely different. One is, so it’s sort of the grass is browner lesson, or life is messy. One of the things that I’ve learned, and it sounds like you’ve learned it in your life some, too, that a lot of times when people are in situations where there’s organizational change, where there’s something innovative, something, it could be a startup, an organizational transformation, it could be starting a new role, it just seems so difficult and so painful.
And people say to themselves, “Oh, there’s got to be somewhere or some place that I can go that’s got to be much better.” Sometimes that’s true, but a lot of times it’s because, for many of us, and I include myself, that it’s hard for us to accept that life is fundamentally messy and we don’t know exactly what to do every day, and in some ways we’ve kind of got to embrace the mess. And one of my favorite examples of this is that seven years ago I was doing like a speech in a large law firm, it was about organizational change.
And if any of your listeners know how sort of a meeting of a large law firm works, the partners meet, they’ll have affinity groups so you’ll have, I know the lawyers who went to UC Berkeley, you’ll have the female lawyers, you’ll have the gay lawyers. I mean, every affinity group of possible lawyers, the Meet for Breakfast, like I said the female lawyers. My wife used to be a large law firm. Well, this law firm we had, the grass is browner club. These were like the lawyers, like eight of them, who left other law firms but it was much worse than the one they left, and they came back and now they appreciated it.
So this idea that life is messy. And then the other thing, and I talk to my students about this a lot, and I had the great privilege for now more than 30 years to teach it. Well, the university I never could’ve gotten into as an undergrad with Stanford University, and they’re such smart kids, they’re so good, and really they are, I mean, there’s a few exceptions everywhere, but they are generally the most wonderful, well-meaning giver you met in your life. But Stanford and Silicon Valley are such work-focused place.
We focus so much on careers and striving and everything, and so what I tell them, and I learned this from a guy, we race sailboats for years, named Jimmy Maloney. We raced together for years, and every weekend he would say, “Work is overrated. Work sucks. Work is overrated.” And one day he and his wife, they did the classic thing, they sold everything, they bought a sailboat, they’re excellent sailors, and they went cruising for two years with their three school-age kids.
And so he actually did it and he’s a very happy person actually. He’s working about two days a workweek now. They live in New Zealand, and he’s raced two champions. He’s got three kids, and his kids are really good sailors. One of them was just on the New Zealand boat that won the America’s Cup, and the other one, the young woman, Alex, she just won a silver medal in the Olympics a year in 2016. So he’s raised really good sailors, but I really liked that notion that sometimes work is overrated.
And when you look back on your life, that old cliché that nobody ever says, “Gee, I wish I had worked more.” I think it’s good to start instilling that in ourselves and even when people are young. So those are, I guess, are my two, but life is messy and work is overrated, if I was going to pick two.
Oh, perfect. Thank you. Well, Bob, tell me, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
So I have a website BobSutton.net, and thank goodness, Liz Mortani, my absolutely wonderful web designer, she’s really helped me get it in shape, so most of the stuff that I’ve been talking about, if you want to learn about it more, that’s a good place to go. You might want to look at 13 Things I believe, which is right on the website. That’s one of my sort of philosophical statements. I’m going to miss Liz. I just found out she got a job at Nike, picking the colors of sneakers. So she’s got a really… so I’m losing her. If you’re a designer, that sounds like a great job, so I’m really happy for her, but BobSutton.net is a good thing, a good place to go. You can follow me on Twitter @work_matters, but BobSutton.net has everything that you’ll want, I guess.
All right. Well, Bob, thank you so much for taking this time. There is just tons of just wonderful gems of insight like I think that there will really be real human beings who can take this and just know how to be a lifesaver in terms of the daily experience of work. So thank you for enriching us in that way and keep on doing what you’re doing.
Thanks, Pete. It was great to talk to you, and now I have a new coping sort of mechanism. I love that thing you do with your director. That was really cool. So thanks for teaching me that.
Oh, thank you.