Blog – Assholes, Jerks And Dickheads Are People Too

By Neil McGregor
Senior Consultant, Human Synergistics New Zealand

There is worrying trend on LinkedIn and in the business media in general. The labelling of people into categories labelled Assholes, Jerks and Dickheads. I have to say this worries me for a number of reasons, not the least of which, is the fact that some pretty heavy hitters are using the terms and in turn influencing many others to think along similar narrow minded lines. No doubt many if not all of us have had the unfortunate opportunity to work with some difficult folk, but labelling and discarding them helps no-one. As it is written “let he who has not sinned throw the first stone”. Most of us have made an ‘Asshole’ of ourselves at one time or another – it doesn’t make us a ‘bad’ person. Given the opportunity and some constructive feedback we learn from our mistakes (albeit some faster than others I grant you) but it doesn’t give anyone the right to judge and categorise others.

I will never forget reading Viktor Frankl’s essay ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (required reading for all human beings) when after being released from Auschwitz and walking across the fields with a colleague they came across a farmer harvesting his crop. He said to his colleague that they should walk around or it will make it harder to harvest once walked on. Aghast his colleague pointed out that they had been in a concentration camp for four years and so they had certain leeway. He replied “No one has the right to do wrong not even if wrong has been done to them”. There’s a lot to be learned from a man who can think with that much clarity immediately upon release from a concentration camp.

Below are just a few reasons why I am worried about the increasing trend of talking about ‘Assholes’ in the workplace.

Reason #1. The label doesn’t help.
When you categorise someone, that’s it – their branded like cattle and there’s no way back. “He’s an Asshole – she’s a b**ch”. We need to take a different approach. We need to understand that the behaviours we observe that lead us to label an individual can be defined. Folks who get labelled ‘Assholes’ or something similar are likely to be exhibiting Aggressive Defensive behaviours – oppositional, power based, competitive and perfectionistic tendencies are the most common. Let’s label the behaviours not the person. Why? Because when we label behaviours it now identifies a potential course of action for remedy. By the way its the same when we label people ‘lazy’ or ‘useless’. They are likely to be exhibiting Passive Defensive behaviours – Approval, Conventional, Dependent and Avoidance. I have put a brief description of the styles we use at the end of this article for your reference.

Reason #2. Like it or not, all people are good.
‘Assholes’, ‘Jerks’ and ‘DH’ are often married with kids, they are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – and their families love them. They also have friends who really like them! In my experience ‘Assholes’ can actually behave quite constructively quite often. In fact in the right setting they can be downright nice people. However when the pressure comes on, something goes wrong, or a deadline is missed, the Jeckel & Hyde characteristics can come out in the form of aggressive behaviour. Interestingly spending time with these folk and getting to know them can begin to change your views of them – for the better.

Reason #3. The situation + their thinking = their response.
Basic cognitive behavioural theory 101 highlights that their are reasons for their behaviour. When working with people who exhibit above average aggressive behaviours it can be useful to try and understand the situation through their lens. What do they think is going on? When we do this we can learn their perspective which can give us an insight into how we can help them think differently about situations, and thus help them shift their behaviour. Make no mistake – I’ll not allow them to use the situation as an excuse for their behaviour – I’ll focus on their thinking which as Viktor Frankl said is the gap between the situation and your response to it. You may not be able to choose your circumstances but you can choose your response.

Reason #4. ‘Assholes are often passionate’.
Gifted? Maybe, but often what drives the aggressive behaviours is their passion for the job and/or the job’s purpose. The reason they are ‘good’ at the task they do is because of that passion. I have met very few people who were really good at what they did because they were bored doing it! They just become some focused on the task they forget about the inter-personal aspect, or they have never learned the value of relationships in the first place. Often defined as having low EQ, these folk none-the-less can add huge value if you can get them to shift. I agree however that the cost of their behaviour can outweigh their task contribution – eventually. We absolutely need to help them understand their behavioural impact, but discarding them without attempting to help is a missed opportunity. “But we tried to help them!” Really? In most cases just talking to them does not help. What we need to do is help them realise they can achieve their task goals in another way – through people. I worked with a world leading scientist as recognised by his peers – a leader in his field. As such he found it hard to believe that any of his lab assistants could help him in any way so he treated them poorly – not intentionally – he just didn’t think about it. It wasn’t until he realised that none of his team ever asked his advice (or took it) on their own projects that he realised that being a world leading authority was somewhat pointless unless he could use his knowledge to influence and grow others. He was in fact a lot less effective than he could be because he could not in any way influence the work of his team. He could intervene but after he left they would go back to doing things their own way such was the ill feeling in the group. He began to realise that in fact true power was when people asked to be influenced – not when you forced it upon them. He changed his approach (markedly) because he was motivated to do so, and the quality of the team’s work improved – that’s what he was trying to achieve in the first place. He also realised how much better he felt helping others rather than doing all the work himself.

Reason #5. Thinking styles and behaviours are learnt.
As such ‘Assholes’ have probably been through some interesting situations in their life. Bullied at school, pushed aside as insignificant, ignored by their peers, etc etc. To cope with these situations they have learnt/absorbed certain behaviours – the old fight or flight response. Many adopt Passive Aggressive behaviours and keep a low profile reducing their risk in life. Others adopt the fight approach as their coping mechanisms. Someone has taught them, they have applied them, and in their situations they have often worked. Take the targeted group in Adam Grants recent post – entrepreneurs. Some of these folk have continuously been told their ideas are stupid, won’t work, they’re crazy, wasting their time etc. and so to block out the negativity they resort to aggressive behaviours. They fight to keep their ideas alive. Hey its not an excuse, but it is a reason. Often folk will learn these behaviours as coping mechanisms and then keep using them when they are no longer required. But now those behaviours have become a habit and as such they appear as an automatic response to a situation identified by their Amygdala as a threat. They need to be made constructively aware of their behaviours and the impact they are having. Criticism will just create even more defensive behaviour.

Reason #6. People can change.
When working with people who exhibit above average aggressive behaviours we have found that the vast majority of them are willing and able to change. Not everyone is ready – it’s a timing thing, but most people are up for it. Often the secret to inspiring change is to create awareness of their behaviours using a behavioural diagnostic. Then the key is to get folk to identify their own aspirations for the next 5 years in a whole of life sense – career, financial, family, health etc. Once these two activities are done, I find a key question (to help the penny drop) is “How will your current thinking and behavioural styles help you, or constrain you from achieving your goals?” The conversations from this point always feel more real – people – not even ‘Assholes’ – are stupid. They can connect the dots you have collected for them and they now see their future more clearly – the risk of not acting on the opportunity and the benefits of changing. People are more drawn towards opportunity than away from danger so focus on the positives.

My intention in this article was not to deny that folks who behave aggressively can have a very negative impact on work relationships – they can. The point is they are people too, no-one is perfect, so how might we help them develop? Certainly not by labelling them assholes!


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