“The Asshole Survival Guide" by Robert I. Sutton
Let’s face it. No one likes dealing with an a-hole, especially in the workplace where you need to restrain your emotion, personality and temperament. Learning how to cope with people who are self-serving, lack emotional intelligence and simply don’t seem to care can be quite a good weapon of skills, particularly when operating in a multinational environment.
As part of your emotional intelligence training, we recommend the book “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt” by Robert Sutton. This book is to support Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” as part of the “Diplomatic Planner”. While the Diplomatic Planner didn’t focus on this very specific trait, Sutton’s book is humorous yet necessary, because a-holes are everywhere and sometimes hard to avoid completely. Professor Robert Sutton offers practical advice on identifying and tackling any kind of asshole -- based on research into groups from uncivil civil servants to French bus drivers, and 8,000 emails that he has received on asshole behaviour. First, he sets out the asshole audit and asshole detection strategies to find out what kind of asshole needs dealing with. Then he reveals field-tested techniques, from avoidance to mind-tricks, and finally moves into the dangers of a-hole blindness, where you fail you recognise that you are actually the a-hole.
The author describes difficult people as those who cause emotional unease. These can be people who do simple acts that causes you to get annoyed, frustrated, upset or angry. As part of a survey, people reported back that a-holes may be someone who shows favouritism in the office, someone who constantly interrupts others, someone who acts deviously.
What may start to get dangerous is when you start to feel oppressed or demeaned in your workplace. As Maya Angelou once said: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. If you mentally categorise someone to being difficult, it may stir up negative feelings as they, at one point, may have made you discouraged, hurt or unsettled.
The author suggests that understanding how someone makes us feel is the first step towards gaining some control on the situation and using this as a learning lesson to make us stronger and better people. Such experiences will allow us to anticipate certain responses and train us to question encounters that demean or oppress us in the process, no matter how temporary these situations may be.
One of the possible solutions suggested by the author is to avoid difficult people to avoid growing used to mistreatment. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that this behaviour is normal, appropriate or worth putting up with. Sometimes, people who go through routine abuse do not realise that they are being abused and expect this kind of treatment from everyone around them. Sutton refers to this as “asshole blindness” - in order words, these are people who continue to be unsympathetic and do not admit to being wrong (but quick to point out other people’s faults). This is a serious by a typical case of blindness. The same can be said for those who have a bad attitude and may cause disturbances. Over time, you can become habituated to such behaviour and begin to think that this is normal. In the case of workplace a-holes, you may feel that you have invested so much of your time and emotional well-being that it is a justification to put up with negative and abusive behaviour of others, just so your career isn’t put under jeopardy. It doesn’t mean you should quit your job, but it may mean that you need a new boss! If that doesn’t work, it may be worth looking for new opportunities where you are better appreciated.
In the Diplomatic Online Academy, we have covered several cases on what to do when you can no longer work under your boss in international relations.
If quitting or moving jobs isn’t an option, Sutton suggests keeping a safe distance from your persecutor. It may not always be possible but there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that we tend to take on negative thoughts, behaviours and emotions of others. Such experiences leads to emotional exhaustion or emotional burn-outs, or could even lead you to treat others the way you are currently being treated. To avoid being a ‘carrier’ of negativity, it is advised to limit your exposure by distancing yourself from those who are showing symptoms of chronic negative behaviour (without good reason, of course).
Another suggestion posed by the book is to reframe negative behaviour of other as something that isn't your fault. Sometimes, under extreme conditions, we need to develop defenses against such a-holes. An example provided by the author was that of former US military cadet Becky Margiotta, who developed strong mental defences to ensure ritualistic hazing from senior cadets which involved abuse and other forms of humiliation. As a form of coping mechanism, Margiotta reframed her experience of hazing as being imaginative and funny, instead of threatening. As a psychological technique used in cognitive behavioural therapy, recontextualising bad experiences turns problems into something slightly more positive, like turning a challenge into growth.
Start by understanding that you are not to blame and that there is a plausible reason for such action. This is known as reappraisal. Ask why someone may be upset, or angry, and wanting to lash out on you. What triggered these feelings? What put them in this situation? What is the real source of such anger and negativity, and how can you help? Before confronting the person, collect evidence of their behaviour and evaluate how to confront them. Come up with a plan of action and be helpful and understanding. Take a calm and rational approach. Be civilised in your mannerism and speak with a gentle tone that shows concern. This works best with those who are temporary and clueless of their own behaviour. Be ready to engage with them but do so without acting defensively yourself.
One final matter that Sutton discusses in his book is aimed at self-awareness. It is all well and good observing and collecting information on other people’s behaviour and attitude, but what about yours? How do you make people feel? How do you act around others? Are your actions and behaviour rational or irrational, and do you make people uncomfortable to the point of avoidance? Identifying yourself as an a-hole isn’t easy. In fact only one percent of people confess to being one. However, if you detect that you may be one of those people who people run away from, it is important to realise this.
An integral part of our self-awareness and happiness depends on how others perceive us, no matter how painful the reality may be. The closer we bring our self-perception to the perceptions of others, the healthier our relationship with others will be. Break the cycle and stay considerate of your fellow human beings.
“The Asshole Survival Guide” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Diplomatic Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register