4 min read

Who's the asshole now?

"Don't fix the people. Fix the system."
Who's the asshole now?
fork you
Are you part of a system that produces assholes?

Show Notes

Hello everybody and welcome to The Imposters Club podcast. I'm your host, Teddy Kim. Today I would like to talk about a book I've been reading. It's called the No Asshole Rule. The author is a gent named Robert Sutton, a very well-regarded Professor of Management Science at Stanford. Now, I've been following the "no assholes" movement with a lot of interest. If you follow people like Gary Vaynerchuk on LinkedIn or the #NoAssholes hashtag on Twitter, you can come along for the ride. It's kind of fun.

The general idea of the no assholes rule is pretty simple. Assholes are bad. Asshole-ism shouldn't be tolerated. If you messed up and hired an asshole, then get rid of him or her post-haste. That sounds awesome. But I don't know. As I'm reaching the end of the book, I'm having some disquieting thoughts. A few episodes back, I speculated about why there are so many Eeyores in tech. Is it nature or nurture? Do people enter tech because something about this work appeals to Eeyores or do people start out shiny, happy people, only to be corrupted and turned to the dark side?

Well, that episode was about Eeyores. But the same question applies to assholes. Nature, or nurture. That is the question. And why does it matter? Well, if tech turns people into assholes, then getting rid of one or two is an exercise in futility. Kill one asshole and another will rise up in its place. And it's not so crazy to think that environment can turn a regular person into a total shithead. If you have doubts, google the "Stanford Prison Experiment". This was a social psychology experiment that created a mock prison and recruited students to act as either guards or prisoners. The experiment found that people are quite malleable. Some of the guards' employed psychological abuse on prisoners. Some of the prisoners ganged up on other prisoners. It was basically Lord of the Flies. In fact, the experiment had to be abandoned after six days because, well, assholes.

So let's have a fun thought experiment of our own, I am the head of evil labs Incorporated. My job is to create a work environment that turns people into assholes as efficiently as possible. How would I do it? Well, for starters, I would make sure that stock makes up at least 50% of CEO pay. That would give CEOs an incredibly strong incentive to kowtow to Wall Street and obsess over quarterly earnings, long-term strategy, cash out and leave the mess for someone else to sort out. That's why it's called the "fuck you" money.

Cool. We're off to a good start. But you know, companies are big and unwieldy. Some troublemakers might start to question the wisdom of chasing short-term profits. We need to figure out a way to get everyone rowing in the same direction. So let's enforce MBOs also known as management by objective, and that way, everybody's compensation will be tethered to short-term wins. Furthermore, MBOs will pit team members into competition with each other. Under no circumstances do we want team members to cooperate. They might discover that they like it and that would make it so much harder to turn people into assholes.

Okay, executive pay and MBOs. Things are coming into focus, but we can do more. Humans are innately social. It's a quality that is engrained in our DNA. After all, if our ancestors hadn't banded together to hunt mastodons, human history would have played out very differently. So we need to figure out a way to short circuit human's natural tendency to cooperate. Here's an idea, let's create a scorekeeping system.

First, we'll ask developers to predict the future, except we'll call it "estimation". When work takes longer than the estimate, we can publicly shame people in a ritual we'll call "retrospectives" and we'll quantify their shortcomings as "carryover". Finally, just to keep people in line, we'll use a confusing proxy variable to measure a team's worth. We'll call it "velocity". That way individuals will have no incentive to work together because of course, that would reduce velocity and therefore your self-worth.

Since nobody can predict the future, this system pretty much guarantees that everybody will feel bad about themselves most of the time. Now we're getting somewhere! I'm feeling really good about this evil experiment. I honestly can't imagine anyone getting through this system unscathed. But I think we can do more. You know, what would make this system completely bulletproof? I am going to design a hiring process that selects people who are good at solving puzzles on whiteboards. I know, at first glance, it doesn't make sense.

Why would we demean applicants by making them jump through hoops that are irrelevant to collaborative knowledge work? Well, we don't actually want collaborative knowledge workers, remember. Our system is supposed to turn people into assholes, so why not hire people who demonstrate a willingness to comply with arbitrary and irrational demands? Wow, this system is incredible! But there is a final masterstroke. Here it is. Let's infantilize everyone with beanbags, foosball tables, and free snacks. As any parent knows, there is no one on earth more demanding, self-centered, whiney, and tyrannical than a baby. Let's convince everybody at work that they are a baby; that they're entitled to special treatment; and that others will clean up their messes.

And there you have it, folks, a system for producing assholes. Let's call it "reality". Can it really be thus? Yes, it can, but it's not all gloom and doom, there is hope. I'm just not convinced that focusing on assholes at work is the solution. I'd like to leave you with two opposing positions. In Japan, there is a saying, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered back down".  Whack-a-mole management makes sense if you're in a monoculture where social conformity is widely prized. The question you need to ask yourself is this: are monoculture and innovation compatible goals?

In contrast to the whack-a-mole approach to management, we have W.E. Deming who said, "don't fix the people fix the system". Huh. Don't fix the people fix the system. And why not? We figured out how to design a system that efficiently turns out assholes. We have to be smart enough to figure out a system that enobles the human spirit.

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