In fall 2019, I held a TEDx Talk at the University of Mannheim and presented my insights and experiences on assholes in leadership positions (please excuse the expression and better get used to it. It occurs over 60 more times in the following text). The corresponding video was clicked on YouTube over 600,000 times, and from many follow-up lectures and discussions I can say to this day that many people share my insights.
This is it:
Since last year, I can’t stop thinking about assholes.
About a year ago I had a lunch date with a colleague. We both are professors for management at two different universities. Basically, we teach students and executives how to be a good leader. He just came out of an exhausting telephone conference with his bosses, and he asked me: „Philipp, have you ever noticed that for decades we always tell people in our classes that you have to be empathetic as a good manager, and that you have to communicate well, and to enable your employees… but in real life, in the highest positions there are only assholes?” And before I could disagree, something inside me said: „He’s right“. I also work as an executive coach, and in almost every one of my customer stories there is an asshole figure somewhere. And I would guess that everyone in this room knows at least one such person in a high position, right? And probably in a higher position than you.
Since this lunch I couldn’t stop thinking about assholes. And as someone with a scientific background, I started researching them. And I was quite surprised that academics from the US, for example, had already dealt scientifically with that subject.
Robert Sutton from Stanford university defines assholes as people who oppress, degrade and abuse other people and who have a higher power than those who they oppress.
Aaron James is a professor of philosophy, and he has another definition: according to him, an asshole is someone who systematically allows him or herself more than others, driven by a sense of entitlement, and who is immune to objection.
But I would like to add another aspect to these definitions.
I believe that additionally an asshole is a person who treats me personally unfairly. What I mean is that this person puts his or her well-being above mine. If I watch a person treating another person bad, I would say that’s unfair, but to say it’s an asshole it has to involve me personally.
After finding some definitions I wanted to know if there are numbers. But that was difficult. Because – not surprisingly – there are no studies that explicitly deal with assholes. But there are various terms in work and organizational psychology that deal with phenomena that are similar to the behavior of an asshole. I’m talking about bullying. For example, studies ask: „Do you frequently feel unjustly criticized, hassled or shown up in front of others by co-workers?” Of course, the temporal component is also important in this context. Is it a one-off incident, or does bullying happen systematically? I think this is particularly relevant in order to be able to speak of a real asshole. That’s why researchers ask, for example, „And how often did it occur in the last 6 months?“
During my research, I came across many studies showing very, very different results. The Workplace Bullying Institute in the USA, for example, found in a study that 19% of all Americans are victims of bullying. Almost one in five. 61% of persons interviewed are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace. And according to this study, over 60% of the perpetrators are their superiors. These are frightening figures.
But I also found out that the figures vary considerably between different studies. Older studies from Great Britain report just 1.4%, in contrast to 48% measured in Turkey. As I found out, this has a lot to do with the methodology of the studies, because measurement of bullying is not standardized worldwide. Just like an asshole has rarely been defined so far.
(Lange, S., Burr, H., Conway, P.M. et al. Int Arch Occup Environ Health (2019) 92: 237. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00420-018-1366-8, https://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2017-survey/)
When asking for the reason why people behave like assholes, we come to the term of narcissism. The definitions of Sutton and James have a lot to do with the behavioural traits of narcissists, namely arrogance, self-absorption, entitlement, hostility, lack of empathy. That specific lack of empathy brings narcissists to exploit and abuse the people around them. Each of us has narcissistic traits, but everyone of us has a different intensity. Luckily. And I have found studies that suggest that narcissists are very much striving into leadership positions.
People with a narcissistic disorder crave attention, and because they think they are superior to others they have the right to dominate them. I’m not saying that every asshole boss has a narcissistic disorder, but we all know prominent examples from business and politics of which psychiatrists say just that. Interestingly, Narcissists are close to psychopaths, but the psychopath does not have that impulse for adoration, I have learned.
And I made another amazing discovery during the research: one of my favorite emojis, this one ?, is not the sign for „excellent“ in some countries of the world, but for asshole. In Russia, for example, in Turkey, allegedly also in Greece and Latin America. I used in every second WhatsApp. I stopped it then.
In our private lives it is usually easy for us to lead an asshole-free life. We just stay away from them. Unfortunately it is different in our job. There we usually can’t choose our social relationships.
Shortly after my research I got an assignment for a workshop. A company wanted me to train several hierarchical levels in good communication. So I decided to call each participant in advance to find out exactly what was wrong with their communication. And I started bottom-up, from the lowest to the highest hierarchical level.
And what the first person, from the lowest hierarchy level, told me about his boss aroused my suspicion: this boss must be a real asshole. This boss did not listen to the advice of his employees, made decisions that were exactly the opposite of what his employees thought, and ordered their implementation against their will.
A short time later I called this boss. What he told me was strange. Because how he behaved actually made perfect sense, even if it had to seem really bad to his employees. He received instructions from his boss, which he had to implement, but unfortunately his employees lacked the insight for the big picture. But: his boss is a real asshole, because he forces him to do things he can’t justify for himself, and he pushes his will through, just so that he looks better in front of the boss boss. I had him on the phone a short time later, and strangely enough everything he told me made sense to me as well. He explained to me the corporate guidelines according to which he had to make certain decisions, but unfortunately many of his employees were unwilling or unable to understand these guidelines. But: his boss, on the other hand, was a real idiot. Really an asshole. Unfortunately that was the person who hired me. When I met him, I told him briefly and anonymously about my research. He didn’t seem surprised, and I got to know him as a highly educated person, who also showed an amazing amount of empathy. He could explain all my observations. He himself is a victim of the shareholders. But he couldn’t tell this his employees, because it does not fit into their view of the world. And so he has no choice but to simply push some things through. And the people one hierarchical level below then try to pass this on, but apparently not very successfully either. Everybody imposes the guidelines on everybody, which actually nobody finds comprehensible.
Then the whole drama became clear to me: nobody had the whole picture to understand the guidelines of his bosses. And that’s why everyone inevitably saw themselves unjustly passed over and humiliated. I saw a ladder of assholes in front of me. Everybody in the hierarchy thinks that his boss is an asshole. But they are all in a sandwich position.
This brings me to a first conclusion: an asshole can also simply be a symptom of a system that we don’t fully understand from our own perspective. So if you think your boss is an asshole, ask yourself whether the boss of your boss is an asshole as well. If so, then your boss is probably just a victim of the system himself. And from my perspective as a coach I can only advise you: try to understand the rules of the system and act accordingly, or leave the system if you don’t approve of the rules. Because you will not change the system. Because there is always someone above you who’s job is to not changing the system.
But I think it’s a relief to realize that your boss is not an asshole as a person.
But then there are the other people, the non-system assholes. Let’s call them the real assholes.
And they are the way they are for a single reason: because it can be quite functional to behave like an asshole.
Real assholes believe – just like you and me, by the way – that their rules are the only correct and appropriate ones. And they act according to these rules. Because they think that everyone else could behave the same way, and it’s stupid if you don’t behave that way! That is why they feel superior, because they have understood how things work.
The real problem for you regarding assholes at work is that most of them are highly functional for the company. This means that their behaviour is good for the company. And that the damage they do to their colleagues is smaller than the benefit to the company.
Often the company knows that someone is an asshole. But it is tolerated because it’s good for the company. That is bad news for you when you have to work under such a person. Because your company doesn’t care. As long as the damage is not too big.
And I also know from my experience as a coach that the asshole often seems to be irreplaceable for the company. The asshole has learned this since childhood: that behaviour is only tolerated as long as it is absolutely necessary. So they let themselves appear as irreplaceable.
Now it’s easy to think that it would be best for everyone if the asshole would change. And everyone would be happy again. There is only one problem. In my experience as a coach the asshole will not change. Because those character traits are so deeply anchored. And forget leadership seminars. I give leadership seminars, so I know what I’m talking about. They don’t work on assholes. Real asshole behavior is such a deep trait that you’d have to think about long-term therapy. At best. Only the asshole himself could change, but it finds his own behavior absolutely appropriate. Remember the definition: such a person systematically takes liberties out of a deep-seated feeling of entitlement. Why should this person give up his or her claims? And don’t think that the boss of this person has the power. The boss is fully occupied with damage limitation. And the boss has no mission to educate, what has gone wrong a long time ago in childhood.
Don’t waste time trying to change an asshole. It won’t change, because it works quite well so far. This behavior has been developed over years, and the person has learned that it works. Something went wrong very early in socialization. The idea that an asshole changes behavior in a short time only works in Hollywood. In my experience.
So that’s bad news again if your boss is a real asshole.
So what now?
I am having a very simple understanding of leadership: making sure that the right people are working on the right place. And an asshole is not right people and will never be. So there’s no room for assholes in the company you are working for.
The asshole must leave the system. Not you.
But how do you get rid of an asshole boss? You have to push it out of your social system, your company. Either the company has to fire that person, or by leaving voluntarily. And now is not the time for pity. This person harms his social environment, thinks he is better and does not question his behaviour.
I will now tell you how you proceed. First, you learn the implicit rules that this person follows. Find the pattern. If, then. If that person tears a deadline, they blame the other department. If he doesn’t get his will immediately, he becomes insulting. It’s about unmasking and articulating the asshole’s behavior. Because then the bad behavior becomes visible for the whole company. In the next step you form coalitions. Search specifically for more victims of this boss. The more victims you find, the greater the obvious damage to the company. You need to gather evidence that the asshole is doing more harm than good.
Get help as high up as possible, because only there the decision can be made to fire the asshole. Many companies have a code of conduct and works councils. The more precisely you can name the misconduct of your boss, the more supporters you can recruit, and the more unemotionally you name the culprit, the more likely you will be believed. And clearly state your demand: this person must leave. This person does not need to be talked to, he does not need to attend a seminar, this person is simply not bearable. Probably everyone in your company already knows this, but nobody does anything until it is spoken out loud.
The result will be that the company will fire the asshole or confront the asshole with these allegations. And when the asshole is uncovered, the asshole will look for another place where it can live its miserable life.
But that takes time. And you will need a lot of energy. It will help you to recognize the patterns in the asshole’s behavior. If you know the pattern, you can protect yourself from the bad behavior to a certain extent. Your coalition will give you courage and moral support. And then all you need is patience.
And if you run out of patience, I have a tip for you: the next time your asshole boss comes to you and wants to patronize you. Calm down. Smile. And say: hey boss, that’s a great idea. Absolutely excellent. And then do this gesture: ?