Bob Sutton: How to Outwit Workplace Jerks [Entire Talk] | Summary and Q&A

October 23, 2017
Stanford eCorner
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Bob Sutton: How to Outwit Workplace Jerks [Entire Talk]

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In this video, the speaker discusses his research and experience on dealing with assholes in the workplace. He shares stories and provides advice on how to navigate toxic environments and handle difficult individuals. The speaker emphasizes the importance of understanding power dynamics, avoiding and detaching from negative interactions, fighting back strategically, and using humor to diffuse tense situations.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did the speaker become interested in the topic of assholes in the workplace?

The speaker became interested in the topic after writing an article for the Harvard Business Review, inspired by his experiences with a no asshole rule in his department and his wife's experiences managing a law firm. The overwhelming response he received led him to write a book on the subject.

Q: What was the speaker's initial intention with his first book?

The speaker intended for his first book, titled "The No Asshole Rule," to provide guidance on building organizational cultures free of jerks. He wanted to help create more respectful and productive work environments.

Q: What was the main question the speaker received from readers and colleagues after the release of his first book?

The speaker received many inquiries from people dealing with assholes in their workplace, asking for advice on how to handle these individuals or situations.

Q: Is the speaker qualified to offer advice on dealing with assholes?

The speaker holds a PhD in psychology and has extensive experience studying and addressing assholes in the workplace. Although readers and viewers can judge the effectiveness of his advice, his qualifications make him suitable to provide guidance.

Q: Why did the speaker resist answering questions about dealing with assholes for a decade?

While the speaker had the knowledge and expertise to address the topic, he refrained from giving direct advice due to the complexity and personal nature of each situation. He wanted people to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that crafting individual strategies is essential.

Q: What is the distinction between temporary assholes and certified assholes?

Temporary assholes are individuals who under specific circumstances, such as stress or pressure, exhibit jerk-like behavior. Certified assholes, on the other hand, consistently mistreat and demean others across different times and places. Dealing with temporary assholes might require different strategies compared to dealing with certified assholes.

Q: How is power a factor in dealing with assholes?

Power dynamics play a significant role in how one can address asshole behavior. Individuals at the top of a hierarchy may have the ability to fire or confront assholes directly, while those at the bottom may need to find alternative strategies to protect themselves. Understanding the power dynamics in a situation helps determine the best approach.

Q: How does the contagious nature of negative emotions affect dealing with assholes?

Negative emotions, such as those caused by assholes, are more contagious than positive emotions. Research shows that being around nasty people makes it more likely for others to exhibit such behavior as well. Assholes also tend to attract and hire individuals with similar traits.

Q: What are some guidelines for dealing with asshole situations?

It is important to consider the duration of the situation and whether it is worth enduring or leaving. Distinguishing between temporary and certified assholes is crucial, as different handling strategies may be necessary. The number of assholes in a given environment and the extent of the damage caused should also be taken into account.

Q: What are some methods for limiting exposure to assholes?

Sitting further away from assholes, finding ways to avoid them, and reducing the frequency of encounters can help limit exposure. Open office environments, in particular, can be challenging, but finding a safety zone or collaborating with colleagues to monitor and warn about asshole behavior can be helpful.

Q: How does cognitive behavioral therapy tie into dealing with assholes?

Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, such as changing one's perception of a situation or person, can help reduce the negative impact of asshole behavior. Focusing on humor, empathy, or distancing oneself from the situation can be effective strategies. Temporal distancing, where one imagines looking back on the situation from the future, can also reduce anxiety and sadness.


Dealing with assholes in the workplace is a common challenge faced by many individuals. Understanding power dynamics, limiting exposure, and strategically fighting back are among the various strategies that can help mitigate the impact of asshole behavior. It is crucial to be aware of one's own self-biases and to approach each situation or individual with a customized strategy. Additionally, humor, empathy, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can aid in managing and diffusing the negative effects of assholes.

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