A woman reading a book in an office.

Do you feel helpless or angry when confronted with mean people? Do you wish you had better strategies for dealing with them?

The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton offers wisdom for dealing with jerks—rude and tyrannical people of all kinds. Focusing primarily on bad behavior in the workplace, he argues that, with the right tools, you can take away a jerk’s power, lessen their effect on you, and keep them from harming others. 

Continue reading for an overview of this practical book.

Overview of The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton

The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton includes advice for identifying jerk behavior and knowing when you need to take action against jerks. We’ll discuss approaches for dealing with jerks, including:

  1. Removing yourself from their orbit
  2. Reducing your interactions with them
  3. Lessening their power over your mental state
  4. Going on the offensive against them

Within each approach, we’ll explore some of Sutton’s actionable strategies for dealing with jerks.

Sutton is an organizational psychologist and professor of management science at Stanford University’s School of Engineering. His research focuses on how workplaces can promote healthy dynamics and remove negative dynamics, improve performance, and foster innovation. He’s published five other management books, including The No Asshole Rule, Good Boss, Bad Boss, and Scaling Up Excellence. He’s also a fellow at the design and consulting firm IDEO, and he’s the cofounder of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the Stanford Design Institute.

Identifying Jerks 

According to Sutton, you can encounter people who disrespect others anywhere, but these patterns are especially prevalent in the workplace. He defines these “assholes” (which we’ll refer to as jerks) as people who regularly make you or someone else feel degraded, downtrodden, or otherwise upset.

However, Sutton adds that there’s no single set of traits or behaviors that fit this definition. Everyone has different things that bother them, so a person you perceive as a jerk may seem benign to someone else. For example, one person might find it offensive that their colleague always enters the office without saying hello to them, but another person might not even notice.

We’ll examine some of the research-backed ways that the behavior of jerks at work hurts the people around them. Then, we’ll look at Sutton’s system for determining whether a jerk’s behavior needs to be addressed promptly or pardoned. 

The Consequences of Jerk Behavior

According to Sutton, some people think you need to be a jerk to be successful at work. They believe it’s every person for themselves, and you have to tear others down to get ahead. However, in almost every situation, disrespecting others just makes you an unpleasant person to be around. Additionally, there are many negative consequences of jerk behavior for the people who are direct victims of it.

Extensive research shows that three consequences may occur when you’re exposed to jerks at work: 

Consequence #1: Damaged Mental and Physical Health

The author cites ample research suggesting that being around a jerk at work can profoundly damage your mental and physical health. These effects may include the following: 

  • High blood pressure 
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Sleep issues
Consequence #2: A Toxic Work Environment 

According to Sutton, having a jerk around often leads to more people becoming jerks in the workplace. Jerk behavior sows mistrust, lessens motivation, and prompts more serious issues like absenteeism. 

Consequence #3: It’s Harder to Do Your Job Well

According to Sutton, studies suggest that people who experience degradation at work have a decreased ability to perform their jobs well. In this situation, you’re less likely to be productive and creative. Additionally, you may find it more difficult to make good decisions, and you likely won’t be as willing to put in extra effort to finish projects or assist coworkers. 

How to Tell When a Jerk Needs to Be Dealt With

Given these unfortunate consequences of jerk behavior, it’s important to learn how to deal with jerks when you come across them. Sutton states that the first step to handling jerk behavior is determining the full context of the situation—sometimes, it’s not worth it or necessary to take any action against the person behaving like a jerk. However, sometimes it’s important to take action. If the situation meets the following characteristics, then you need to address the jerk behavior:

Characteristic #1: You’re Exposed to the Jerk Behavior Long-Term

Sutton says that when determining what to do in the face of jerk behavior, consider whether it’s a pattern for the offender or an isolated incident. If someone is normally pleasant and courteous, you can most likely let their moment of rudeness pass. Everyone has bad days, and this can sometimes lead people to momentarily act like a jerk. For example, your coworker may brush you off because they’re stressed that their child is sick at home.

However, if a person is frequently doing things to put others down or otherwise demean them, then you need to do something in response to protect yourself and the people around you. The longer you’re exposed to the jerk behavior, the more likely you are to experience the adverse effects described above.

Likewise, if the jerk behavior was an isolated incident but its effect on you was long-term, it’s worth addressing. Even if the behavior itself doesn’t continue, the long-term effects cause the same issues as extended exposure. For example, say your boss is normally calm, but one time when you made a mistake, they yelled at you in front of the whole office. This only happened once, but it was humiliating and has made coming to work feel more difficult ever since.

Characteristic #2: You’re Surrounded by Jerks

Sutton argues that a couple of jerks in a workplace that’s otherwise populated with nice people probably aren’t that big of a deal. The jerks will likely have no significant power or influence over others if they’re surrounded by nice, courteous people.

However, if the culture of the organization promotes the proliferation of jerks so that you’re surrounded by them, you’re much more likely to experience negative effects from their behavior. Therefore, you need to take action to protect yourself.

Characteristic #3: They Have Real Power Over You

According to Sutton, a jerk with nobody to support them and no real power over you or anyone else in the organization probably won’t be able to cause too much trouble. If you oversee the jerk and have to deal with them, you can likely implement consequences that discourage their bad behavior. 

For example, suppose you’re a team leader with an employee who consistently interrupts and belittles others in meetings. As their supervisor, you can pull them aside, let them know why their behavior is unacceptable, and offer guidance for better ways to communicate. If their behavior doesn’t improve, you have the authority to write them up or otherwise discipline them.

However, some people have a moderate amount of power and enjoy using it to mistreat others. They have just enough influence to seriously affect the well-being of others, but they don’t have as much as they want. Therefore, they take out their frustration on the people they can control. Dealing with these jerks may require a more nuanced, careful approach, as they can actually make decisions that affect your job. 

For example, say your manager has been at the company for 15 years, but he’s been passed over for further promotions for a long time. This makes him feel cheated, and he’s always trying to impress the higher-ups to get the recognition he thinks he deserves. Therefore, he micromanages you and the rest of his team because he’s obsessed with making himself look good and doesn’t want his subordinates to make mistakes. Likewise, he takes credit anytime one of you does something well.

Dealing With Jerks

Just as there’s no one definition of what makes someone a jerk, there’s no one way to deal with a jerk. You must judge for yourself what strategies will be best depending on the situation and the people involved. We’ll discuss the approaches Sutton details based on the amount of interaction required with the jerk. For each subsequent approach, the level of interaction increases: 

  1. Leaving the jerk’s environment entirely
  2. Reducing your interactions as much as possible
  3. Lessening the jerk’s power over your mental state
  4. Fighting back with offensive tactics

Approach #1: Remove Yourself Entirely From the Jerk’s Environment 

Sutton argues that one of the best ways to deal with chronic jerk behavior is to get away from the person entirely. This might mean moving to a different company, moving to a different location, or switching jobs within the same company so you’re under a different boss. Being entirely out of the jerk’s orbit prevents you from experiencing damaging encounters with them.

Strategy: Avoid Forming New Professional Connections With Jerks

Sutton argues that when possible, you should avoid entering into connections with jerks in the first place. If you’re never involved with them, you don’t have to go through the trouble of confronting them or planning a careful escape. Additionally, you don’t have to experience the emotional stress of engaging with them. 

To avoid jerks, pay attention to how new business connections—whether they’re potential coworkers, bosses, clients, and so on—interact with and talk about the people they already work with. If they’re respectful to both you and their existing colleagues, they’ll likely be fine later on. However, if they’re nice to you but rude, condescending, or dismissive toward other people, they’ll probably eventually turn on you too.

You can also tell if someone’s a jerk by talking to people who have worked with them before. If those people have a lot of negative things to say about working with the person in question, then it’s best to avoid entering into a new professional relationship with them.

Approach #2: Reduce Your Interactions With the Jerk

Sometimes, it’s too difficult to avoid a jerk entirely—for example, maybe you can’t afford to switch jobs. In such cases, Sutton suggests reducing your interactions with the jerk as much as possible.

Strategy: Separate Yourself From the Jerk Physically

Sutton argues that if you have to work with a jerk, you should create as much physical distance from them as possible. Research shows that this works because you’re much more likely to interact with someone using all forms of communication if they’re physically closer to you. 

Therefore, if you distance yourself from a jerk, you won’t have to engage with them as much, and they’ll have a lesser effect on your mental well-being. It’ll also be less likely that their jerk behavior will rub off on you.

The farther you can move away from the jerk, the better—try working in a different building, on a different floor, or on the other side of the office. At the very least, move your desk so you’re not in their immediate vicinity.

Approach #3: Lessen the Jerk’s Power Over Your Mental State

According to Sutton, sometimes distancing yourself isn’t possible—you may be forced to work closely with jerks for extended periods. When a lot of interaction with a jerk is inevitable, you can lessen the jerk’s power over your mental state by changing your mindset. In doing so, you can protect yourself from the negative effects of their behavior even if you’re frequently exposed. 

The best way to do this is through the cognitive behavioral technique of reframing—taking a negative thought and reworking it into something more neutral or positive. Reframing is based on the psychological premise that your thoughts dictate how you feel and act. If you can change your thoughts about a situation—like a jerk’s rude behavior—then you can change how you respond.

Strategy #1: Focus on What You Can Learn

Sutton offers several strategies for reframing jerk behavior so it mentally affects you less. First, try focusing on anything you might gain from your interactions with the jerk. Is there a bright side to the situation you can find? If you can find a positive element, it can help you look back at a situation and feel better about it or get through a long-term connection with a rude, disrespectful person. 

For example, maybe your boss seems nice at first but turns out to be emotionally manipulative and narcissistic with poor personal boundaries. The bright side of that situation might be that your experience with this boss taught you the warning signs of narcissistic, abusive behavior. Therefore, you can more easily avoid working with similar people in the future.

Strategy #2: Find a Way to Empathize

Alternatively, you might try finding a way to empathize with the jerk so you can eventually forgive them. Research shows that forgiveness benefits the person who was hurt because it allows them to move on from the situation. Forgiving thoughts can lessen the physiological stress response and alleviate sadness and anger. This doesn’t mean accepting or excusing the jerk’s behavior—it just means letting go of your resentment toward it, which only hurts you. 

For example, say your fellow supervisor frequently yells at her employees, and this causes morale problems among the staff. Your higher-ups won’t do anything about it, so you have to continue working with her. Instead of developing a simmering resentment toward her, you try to empathize with the fact that she felt she had to become aggressive to work her way up through the company, even if she’s misguided. This allows you to forgive (though not excuse) her shortcomings and work with her productively.

Approach #4: Go on the Offensive Against the Jerk

Finally, Sutton states that sometimes, the only way to deal with a jerk is to go on the offensive against them. This might mean confronting them directly or getting people with more power than you to address their behavior. 

Whatever your method, tread carefully—if the jerk finds out that you’re moving against them, they might retaliate and cause more problems for you. Therefore, it’s important to pause, consider your options, and ask for input from others before making any decisions about your approach. There are three primary considerations to address before you decide how to go against the jerk:

Consideration #1:How much influence does the jerk have over you? The more control they have, the more careful you need to be.

Consideration #2: Do you have concrete evidence to support your claims against the jerk? The more documentation you have of their bad behavior—such as emails, text messages, notes, videos, and so on—the more credible you’ll seem. This prevents the issue from devolving into your word against theirs.

Consideration #3: Are there other people who can join in confronting the jerk? The more people you have supporting you, the more influence and credibility you have.

Here are two of Sutton’s specific strategies for combating jerk behavior directly: 

Strategy #1: Calmly Explain the Problem With Their Behavior

According to Sutton, in some instances, calmly pulling the person exhibiting jerk behavior aside and explaining how they’re negatively affecting everyone else can halt the worst of the problems. This strategy is best used for people who generally have good intentions and aren’t aware that their behavior is hurting others. 

For example, say your coworker frequently makes others feel stupid by shooting them down when they ask questions or make suggestions. You’re friends, so you pull him aside to let him know that he’s offended many people with his attitude. He’s taken aback and embarrassed by unknowingly hurting others, and he promises to be more conscious of his tone and approach in the future.

Strategy #2: Harness the Power of Humor and Sarcasm

For jerks who won’t respond well to a calm, direct approach, Sutton suggests using humor and sarcasm to more subtly put them in their place. Using humor allows you to hit back at their behavior with your own insults while still being socially acceptable. It takes away some of their power when people can laugh at them and shows that you’ll push back against them. However, be careful with this tactic, as it can start a dangerous cycle of mudslinging between you and the jerk. They might want to get you back if you humiliate them.

For example, say you’re assigned to work with a notorious bully on a project, and she immediately starts changing your work without your permission. You might confront her by saying, in front of your manager and the rest of the team, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been very interested in my work lately—changing it and deleting it. I appreciate your enthusiasm, and I’m sorry to disappoint you, but your attempts are futile. You see, I have a secret weapon that protects my work from your changes: It’s called version history.” This approach maintains levity while undermining her and exposing her bad behavior to everyone else.

The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert Sutton (Book Overview)

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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