The Importance of Being an Asshole

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody. — Bill Cosby

To Be An Asshole

“You know, Jer.  It’s hard to be a nice guy, but real easy to be an asshole. You need to be more of an asshole with these folks.”

His voice had that bit of a southern drawl that made you wonder if he was serious or joking.  I looked over at him as we stood on the sidewalk outside Flakey Jakes and saw that he was serious.  We had just had a burger and beer after one more very long day of work.  Larry was the installation foreman on a project I was running.  Nothing trivial.  It was a combination recabling an entire university campus, installing a PBX with 10,000 main stations and a broadband data network.  All in nine months.

It was the mid-eighties and I was young(er), managing a huge project before project management had become a formal discipline and before we had such things as structured cabling and broadband standards.  It was a glorious success in spite of all the opportunities for failure.  All the accolades and statistics of success have faded into the recesses of the filing cabinet of my memory.  They are relics for a resume.  I have stories about the installation that could fill a book.  Little pranks played on each other, huge mistakes in the UPS design that smart people who wanted to do good work were able to fix.   Great people, good times and one quote that has lived in my brain for decades.

The day after I had my reckoning with Larry, I walked into the command center for the operation and when the customer came in with yet another series of demands that would jeopardize our timing, I told him “no.”  He didn’t like that.  I told him that I understood, but the answer was still “no.”  Well, maybe I was a little more energized in response and maybe the volume of my reply warrants all caps.  When he stormed out in anger, there were about ten of my colleagues in the room and the only sound was the hum of the inverter that was part of the back up power system.

That was a turning point.  The hours were still long, but I felt more in control and actually started a more proactive dialog with my customer.  All good.

Over the years that quote has come back to me, reminding me of the price you pay in trying to please everyone.  It didn’t stop there.  As time progressed and I realized that Larry had communicated something subtle in his short statement.  Being an asshole meant something specific.  It was very different than being a jerk.

The Endearing Asshole

“You are an asshole.  The nicest asshole I’ve ever met, but an asshole.”

She was smiling when she said it.  Taller than me, a handsome woman in her late-thirties and blonde, Donna (that’s what I’ll call her) was one of the most competent project managers I had ever worked with.  That comment has stuck with me because in my book, SYN:FIN, a character named Connie says exactly that to my protagonist, Jim Harrison.  I guess you write what you know.

At the time I was graced with this observation I had responsibility for implementing the IT infrastructure supporting a large move of a few thousand people into a new building.  On that particular morning Donna, who worked for the telecom vendor, approached me with a request to delay a phase of the move because her implementation team wasn’t ready.
It would have been pretty macho to say “No!” and put all the blame on her organization.  That is what a jerk would have done.  Instead, I decided to be an asshole and told her that a change at that late stage of the game would be very costly.  I would have to have a discussion with their senior management about compensation for those lost costs.  I asked her to think if the costs of overtime or bringing in additional help would be less expensive than me billing them for my costs.  The resolution to the problem was crafted in less than an hour and we were back on schedule.  I accepted a couple of reductions in deliverables and they brought in more help.  I think some other customer paid the price for having people pulled off of their job, but so it goes.  The power of being an asshole.

Assholes are like good parents.  You just have to know when to hold to the law and not bend and when to be flexible.    Telling your kid they can’t go to a party-concert-roadtrip for their own good even though they will suffer some short term hysteria and friend rejection is good parenting.  They will think you are an asshole.  Time will prove they were correct and they will love you for it.

Asshole vs. Jerk

A jerk is a different breed of character, and one that we should all consciously avoid invoking.  It bothers me when total jerks call themselves assholes.  Jerks want to be contrary out of the ego rush they get from making other people bend to their desires.  They don’t see compromise as a success and in times of confrontation they need to prove their cajones are bigger than anyone else’s in the room.  These people are striving to be assholes, but do not have the grace or intellect to accomplish the feat.  I know.  I recently worked for a leadership team that personified jerkdom.  It was an amazing accomplishment by the CTO to have found seven absolute jerks to be his leadership team, each who kept trying to show the others just how much of an asshole they could be and failing miserably by proving what jerks they were.  That stint also showed me that good staff trying to do the right thing can cover the failings of management, at least for a time.

I started working part-time when I got my driver’s license in high school.  Outside of a few months looking for a job when I got out of graduate school, I have been fortunate to be gainfully employed since that time.  During my career I have been a manager and been managed by others.  With few exceptions, I have worked for some very good managers.  All very different.  The ones that I respect most (including my current boss) knew how to turn the asshole on and get you focused on the right thing while still making you feel respected and of value.

I’ve tried to emulate the mode of good managers when I was finally given the opportunity to manage people.  For almost twenty years I have had people reporting to me, from just a few to several hundred.  You never stop learning as a manager.  If you think you know it all, you should retire.  The most important lessons I’ve learned are these five:

1)  You can be friends, but need to know when you are the boss.  (My thanks to Larry Lowe for teaching me this.)
2)  Not every situation with conflict calls for asshole behavior.
3)  Good communication in setting expectations reduces the number of asshole moments you have to invoke.
4)  No amount of documentation or process can compensate for smart people doing good work under smart direction
4a) It seems documentation and process have become weapons of abuse used by jerks to bludgeon their staff.
5) An asshole moment needs to be followed by a recognition of good behavior.  Pavlov and Skinner rule in this case.
5a)  I am amazed how many people have forgotten the power of a simple note that says “Thank You”.

Now that I think about it, if you manage by these rules you’d be doing pretty good.  I might not even mind working for you.  Of course, I left off the most important rule of all.  You’ve got to have a sense of humor.  That means not taking yourself too seriously.

In keeping with quotes, I will leave you with one from my favorite poet of all time.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.   — Dr. Seuss

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13 thoughts on “The Importance of Being an Asshole

  1. Excellent post! I’d never really thought of it that way, but I’ve always seen prime examples of each. It all does boil down to knowing when to be the asshole vs the friend (or maybe the amiable boss).

  2. Jerry, Before I comment on content, my little proofreading asshole has two things to say. First, the title. You have the word and where you mean to use an. Second, in the line “if you think you know it all” you used “it” instead of “if”

    Okay, now for the rewards. Very well written, progression of thought effortless and logic indisputable. I thoroughly enjoyed this post.

  3. Very succinctly put Jerry. I’ve worked for nice people and jerks and I know who I prefer – the jerks only got 4 months of my time, the nice ones got years.

  4. Love the distinction you make! This is why I freely admit I can be a bitch (substitute bitch for asshole). I’m the one who calls the troublemaker clients when they give my junior staff a hard time. They rarely give them a hard time after that, but those clients go one of two ways – the ones who assiduously avoid me after that or just love to deal with me and only me. It depends on the personality of the client, I guess. If they DO still insist on making trouble, I’m also the one who gets to tell the client we’re no longer interested in doing their work for them. That’s not being a jerk, it’s just taking a stand, but that’s often interpreted as being a bitch, a ballbreaker, or an asshole.

      • Thanks for the vote of confidence. I had a crazy client once who went nuts on the phone and was ranting so I politely spoke over him and said “I’m hanging up now, goodbye” and I hung up. I don’t have to listen to that crap! I was polite but pro-active lol

  5. Well done, JL. Here’s my summary: Asshole is someone holding a position that is motivated by a desire to make the project work. Jerk is someone holding a position that is motivated by the wills and needs of those involved rather than the desire to focus on the project.
    Yours was a far more artful way of explaining that difference, one that eludes more people than not. Thanks for such a well presented expose.

    • Your welcome. I started thinking about it when a real jerk told a group of people on a conference call that he was an asshole. I immediately remembered my early meeting and the differences crystalized. Like you, as a writer I tend to think about words and how they are used. Your comments are greatly appreciated.

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