The Other Side of the Coin

The Gratitude Connection

The Other Side of the Coin

By Donald Officer

Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by a–holes.*

– William Gibson, renowned science fiction author in a viral retweet

Stanford University professor Robert Sutton has published multiple best selling management books including The A–hole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt in 2017 and a decade earlier, The No –hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t as well as Good Boss, Bad Boss, and with Jeffrey Pfeffer, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Above he quotes William Gibson in the survival guide. It could easily have been his own reply to any of the 8000 pointedly relevant “a–hole” messages he has received since The No A–hole Rule first appeared.

“Help me!” is the cryptic version of all those pleas. Beaten down by insensitive, self-centered individuals utterly lacking in basic consideration, the emailers felt isolated and helpless. You might say, “So what’s the connection between their plight and Grateful Leadership?” At the risk of making both of us sound a little like a–holes, I could reply, “Are you kidding?”

Though it may come out reflexively, the word “a–hole” is not used lightly. Jerks, idiots, twits, etc. are less indelicate terms for lesser villains. The clue that someone might be an a–hole is often the realization no other word will do. The Harvard Business Review editors appreciated this when they published Sutton’s original article on the topic uncensored. True, many who have earned the ugly title appear to be in some sense successful. Not to Sutton though – not as human beings. Several coaches and sports franchise owners come to mind as deserving recipients. Writing about John Bolton years before his more recent tenure, Sutton relays the story of an assistant the former ambassador and security advisor allegedly hounded and berated for implying a client was less than competent. In retrospect, the entire episode rings with irony.

Many a–holes have enablers, both active and passive. We all know organizations where the most objectionable offenders are “kicked upstairs” because their bosses can neither handle them nor dare admit they hired them. Others on the payroll can’t ignore such consequential examples of managerial abdication. Citing an example from his academic career, Bob Sutton describes an insightful experience on a hiring committee. After reviewing backgrounds of great looking candidates, someone suggested they hire the over-achiever with the best profile. At that point, someone else recalled that the high-flyer in question left behind a trail of career casualties wherever he worked. The no a–hole rule was born.
*Editor’s Note: Out of deference to the varying tastes of our readers, we have chosen to be a bit judicious in our spelling of this word.

The best recruiting strategy is usually to nip the problem in the bud before making an offer.

*Editor’s Note: Out of deference to the varying tastes of our readers, we have chosen to be a bit

Barring that, at least catch the bad apples early on. But what if you find yourself dropped into or leading a team with a–holes already well ensconced? The worst are immune to guilt or shame ready to focus a vengeful eye on any form of criticism let alone actual attempts at removal.
Sometimes, however, a–holes offer a truly grateful leader an opening. Let me explain. Yes,
outright misbehavior or blatant incompetence is duly subject to progressive disciple. Eventually, that route could be unavoidable. But what if the first move of the leader, or wise colleague, was to show genuine gratitude for something good and decent the accused also exhibited! More than one delinquent has been turned around this way. We all know such stories – some will be autobiographical. Magnanimous gestures make strong positive statements about the culture. Even if partly aspirational, heartfelt acknowledgments offer a genuine glimmer of light.

As Bob Sutton explains, a–holes can, likely unintentionally, perform a service in environments not totally corrupted. There’s likewise a certain guilty pleasure or schadenfreude in watching someone else make an a–hole of themselves. You might recall with relief instances where you behaved badly but now recognize how embarrassing the old you was. Not the noblest of motives, but the contrast may keep you honest. Never forget: Everyone is an a–hole from time to time. Most parents know this (as do most children). Grateful leaders definitely understand human fallibility and acknowledge those caught doing good whenever appropriate. We all have strengths, weaknesses and uninspiring learned abilities. Grateful leaders underscore strengths.

An old colonel once told me a story about an alcoholic regimental commander whose direct reports constantly covered for him. They feared the appointment of a replacement who would be a bigger a–hole than their current boss. One night after heavy drinking during a stormy Atlantic crossing, the commander fell overboard. When the bad news reached the regiment, panic spread quickly. Let’s pause to speculate how truthful the drowned soldier’s eulogy might have sounded: Doing good by doing not so good; gone but not easily forgotten.

That darkly humorous anecdote recalls an indelicate indulgence the grateful leader may be the only one to disavow. Namely, those stupid and dangerous myths so prevalent in the shallows of popular culture. Specifically, let’s consider caricatures of cantankerous old curmudgeons or narcissistic superstars who somehow save the day in spite of their reprehensible personas. Almost as bad are the blinkered narcissists who suddenly reform just in time to save the paper-thin plot. At some level, these threadbare clichés hold out imaginary hope for all the underachievers visiting the pretend worlds that flood our big and small screens. Granted, in real life, we need always to allow for verifiable reform.

Unfortunately, entertainment stereotypes too often offer fantasy cover for the “spineless wimps” as Sutton describes the innocuous replacements brought in for damage control after grade “A”
a–holes depart. Typically these sheepish clones look away when more prospective disasters join the team or attempt to rule the workplace stage. If they aren’t a–holes, grateful leaders aren’t pushovers either. Assume your leadership; step up and embody some gratitude for your colleagues; show respect for your calling. Don’t let the a–holes grind you down!

What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.