No matter how much theater and indie film he does, Daniel Radcliffe will always be known as Harry Potter. Similarly, Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of books on subjects like scaling and evidence-based management, can't escape his reputation as "the asshole guy." Sutton's 2007 book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't became a bestseller by calling out the pollutants in cultural cesspools. It inspired legions of companies to rethink their requirements for bringing on both employees and customers.
Ten years and thousands of emails begging for advice later, Sutton returns to the subject with The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. In a year that's seen Travis Kalanick out at Uber and American Apparel historized, we asked Sutton about the relationship between entrepreneurship and assholes.
By your reckoning, the forces that encourage bad behavior by entrepreneurs and the forces that discourage it are both on the rise. What forces support asshole-ness?
Two forces have to do with the global economy. Entrepreneurs today work with people around the world. Their website is being done in India and their manufacturing in China. They are making phone calls at midnight and 6 a.m. They have to travel more. Through technology, they are connected to work all the time. People who are harried are meaner. Also, a lot of communications happen remotely now, so there's no eye contact. It's easier to be nasty when you don't see people in their complete context.
The rise of [super-voting shares], which give some founders more control, may also be part of it. The more absolute power you have, the worse person you become in terms of empathy for others and social sensitivity. So that should make you more of an asshole.
What forces work against it?
The fact that they're more likely to get caught. Look at United Airlines and the video that Uber driver made of Travis. People see this bad behavior now and they are pushing back. And with sites like Glassdoor and online complaints and star ratings, egregious behavior becomes harder to hide. So the bottom of the distribution curve gets cut off.
There are also more role models out there, both for assholes and for leaders who treat people really well. I won't say anything about the assholes, but on the good side there are people like Satya Nadella, who is running Microsoft. Tim Cook is a great role model in terms of civility and treating people with respect.
Nadella and Cook aren't founders, though. Who are the exemplars among super-successful entrepreneurs? Is there such a thing as a unicorn mensch?
Brian Chesney [of Airbnb] may be the poster child of the unicorn mensch. If you ask people, his name comes up over and over. Katrina Lake at StitchFix. [Netflix founder] Reed Hastings shows that you can have standards and be tough without being an asshole. I think Mark Zuckerberg is doing pretty well.
Of course, the most obvious example on the bad side is Travis Kalanick. How great a milestone is his departure from Uber in the history of entrepreneurial assholes?
If Travis had treated people with respect and not been so obnoxious I wonder if he would have lasted longer. It's interesting that the narrative for the new guy is that he is a civilized, internally focused person who can do both process and people. That probably would not have been emphasized so much without Travis as a counterpoint. I suppose VCs might be a little more careful now about founders who seem to present greater risks. But they get so tempted by money they can't control themselves.
I think you also have to look at Uber more broadly for the lessons about scaling and how that may have contributed to asshole-ness. If you grow so fast and don't put in enough social controls, it can turn into a Lord of the Flies situation.
Entrepreneurs have to push harder than others to get what they want, which means they're gonna piss people off. And Malcolm Gladwell says disruptive innovators are often disagreeable. So isn't at least the willingness to be an asshole a contributor to entrepreneurial success?
I don't think it's necessary. The guys who started Warby Parker and Harry's aren't like that, for example. But asshole-ness is in the eye of the beholder. If you are somebody who fires somebody, if you are somebody who is aggressive, some people may view you as an asshole. As an entrepreneur, at times it may be necessary to be overbearing and push people to the point that they are pissed off. However, there's a difference between what you do and how you do it. You can be disagreeable and have a strong point of view without treating people with consistent disrespect.
Might founders who go straight from school to startup without the socializing experience of working for someone else be more prone to asshole-ness? They are also unlikely to have been exposed to softening experiences, like becoming parents.
Chris Fry [a former angel investor, now head of engineering at Medium.com] visited a class we had at Stanford, and he said, "I keep giving money to all these people, and I feel like I've got babies with loaded guns." If you give power and money to people who never had it before and don't know how to exercise it, then that can cause problems. As for the influence of children, people with teenagers in the house have someone to bring down their egos constantly.
Then is asshole-ness something founders may mature out of? After all, Facebook's origin story involved asshole behavior. Now many people see Mark Zuckerberg as a thoughtful, altruistic guy.
And speaking about the influence of children, Zuckerberg has taken real paternity leave, which is very powerful. [Co-founder of Pixar] Ed Catmull has made that argument about Steve Jobs: that he did not become the successful guy we know until he had wandered in the wilderness and got kicked out of Apple and had all the trouble with NeXT. Through those experiences he became a more reasonable, team-oriented person, although he still could be tough.
One of your readers asked for advice about how to deal with "boardholes" and "doucheboards," singling out difficult venture capitalists. Do you see the same forces at work among VCs as among entrepreneurs?
Oh, they are terrible! They are so impatient and egotistical! And they are almost all white males. They remind me of fraternity brats who never grew up. There are exceptions. I think Andreessen Horowitz is more socially aware. Greylock is reasonably enlightened.
Even business models seem to be getting more asshole-ish. OK, I laughed at ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com. But there are services for sending folks you don't like empty boxes and images of people flipping the bird. There is competition in the poop-delivery space. Assholes must be a growing market. Would you agree the folks behind these businesses probably aren't the most delightful human beings?
That means I might be an asshole, too. When The No Asshole Rule came out, I tried to start a business where people could mail copies of it to other people anonymously. We actually built the prototype. But my wife pointed out that telling people they are assholes is often an asshole move, so I would be enabling asshole-ness. She said to me, "You don't want to do that."
How can you tell if you are an asshole?
The worst person to ask is yourself. The best thing you can do is to have someone in your life who tells you the truth. During the darkest hours of World War II, Winston Churchill's wife Clementine wrote him a note saying, "You are not so kind as you used to be." That was the role [former Apple board member] Bill Campbell played for Steve Jobs. Also, since being an asshole is contagious, if everywhere you go in your company you see assholes, you may be provoking it.
So you need a truth-teller. And if you are a person who is a little high on the asshole dimension, it's a good idea to have someone who can clean up after you.