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Porcupines With Hearts of Gold

Posted by: Robert Sutton on July 14


One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about workplace assholes, bully bosses, toxic teammates, and a host of other terms used to describe mean-spirited creeps in the workplace, is that first impressions can be deceiving. There are so many people who, once you get to know them, are kind and helpful. But they come across as assholes because they have a gruff exterior or perhaps lack social skills. As I wrote in The No Asshole Rule:

“A few years back, I was talking to Peter McDonald, one of IDEO’s veteran engineers. He was talking about several of the gruffer people at IDEO, people who are known in some corners as being jerks. Peter then went on to say that IDEO was actually quite effective at keeping jerks out of the company, but newcomers sometimes mistake people who are gruff, outspoken, and insist on applying high standards to their own work and everyone else’s for being demeaning, nasty people. Peter went on to say ‘whenever I’ve worked with a person who was supposed to be an asshole, I always found out that it was a bad rap, each turned out to be OK once I got to know them better.’”

Peter’s comment implies many lessons about why it is important to be slow to label people as assholes, bullies, or whatever. First, the no asshole rule is not an argument for populating organizations with doormats or wimps, or for avoiding conflict.

The best organizations have bosses who give people honest and constructive feedback. And the best organizations encourage constructive conflict over ideas. There are times when the targets of such feedback or those involved in conflict get their feelings hurt (and there are people who are overly sensitive to criticism). But the best organizations teach people how to accept and to give constructive feedback and how to fight constructively (which includes learning to have “strong opinions, weakly held”).

Second, people with gruff exteriors sometimes turn out to be what I call “porcupines with hearts of gold.” I have had quite a few people who – like Peter McDonald - have written me about a boss or co-worker with rough or even downright rude exteriors who have turned out to be great people underneath.

In this vein, when I gave a talk about workplace assholes at Google about a year ago, an audience member described how some his favorite people at Google had “A bad user interface, but a great operating system,” and how once you got past the unpleasant exterior, there was a lovely human-being in there.

Third, and finally, it is important to avoid labeling people “jerks,” “assholes,” or bullies too quickly because these emotionally loaded words can spark aggression from otherwise civilized people. Along these lines, one of the most fascinating experiments I’ve ever read showed (especially among men raised in the southern United States) that when a trained confederate passing by in a narrow hall bumped into a study participant and called him an “asshole,” the person who was bumped often responded with loud and threatening verbal aggression. So calling a person an asshole can be an effective way to turn him or her into an asshole, at least temporarily.

I would be curious about the tactics that readers use to avoid labeling people as “toxic” too quickly and ideas that readers have about how to tell the difference between “a porcupine with a heart of gold” and an authentic certified asshole.

Reader Comments


August 16, 2008 05:32 PM

I don't mind occasional honest anger, but real assholes will say anything in an effort to emotionally punish a subordinate, and then completely forgive himself about his bad behavior instead of at least implicitly owning up to it and to the fact that it hurt someone on his staff.

And instead of absorbing the shock of abuse from their own managers, they let innocent employees take the blame when things go wrong.

I have been blessed in that I have never worked for someone who was a bastard.

In a former job, though, I came close. I got along well enough with THE senior manager, who could be difficult when he was super-stressed (though I have to say he usually had remarkable self-control, and he was whip-smart, not only about finance, but also about reading people) and he was the top director, reporting directly to the owners. But I'd seen him bully other people. Maybe he knew what he had to do to get these particular individuals to get with the program, but he scared me, so I went into Panic mode every time he wanted something from me, no matter how simple the request might have been.

One day my boss was out, and this guy asked me to find a report I had never seen or heard of. I asked him a question about it (stammered it actually) and he sneered "What do YOU think?" in such a sarcastic tone that I was actually stunned; there was no way I had deserved that. So it was not until I had fled his office, that I burst into tears as I tried to find the report among my boss's messy desk. I kept thinking "How does he expect me to know this?" I felt like a lab rat who could not avoid an electric shock.

Anyway, I find something that seemed to satisfy him.

Ten minutes later, he came by my cubicle and I knew jst by the fact that he stopped by that he had regretted what he said, even if only a little bit. And I knew he was being pressured by the people above him (and they could be *true* SOBs, many of them). I knew he couldn't apologize, but I also knew why, so it was OK. It would have been a precedent that he wasn't willing to set, and I didn't want special treatment, and we both understood each other.

He was relentlessly pressured by the owners (even though the consensus among them was that he was doing a superb job - which, I now know, was true), who were being pressured by demanding clients. And at the end of the day, he insulated us from a lot of unpleasantness while streamlining the firm's operations into something I still marvel at. He transformed that firm became the best-run firm I have ever seen, even now.

So I really never had a boss who was an asshole. Which is good, because I'd be in a padded cell by now.

Kevin Rutkowski

July 19, 2008 12:04 PM

I have worked with many porcupines with hearts of gold. I think that I tend to get along with these people because I'm slow to take comments personally and quick to treat people with respect.

When I do business analysis work for software systems, I prefer to talk to intelligent, experienced people who have the most complaints about the system or process. These people are usually incredibly friendly once they realize that someone is seriously listening to their concerns and addressing them.

The people who I really want to avoid are the ones who have a great user interface but an asshole operating system. I have been burned by folks like this a couple of times, but I'm also learning to identify the subtle signs of latent assholism earlier on.

Matt Moore

July 15, 2008 06:51 PM

I think my grandfather would have fallen into the porcupine category. I think the critical thing to see is: How do they treat other people? What are their actions - esp. when the chips are down?

Whilst my grandfather was gruff, bad-tempered and often bigoted, he would always help someone when they were in a jam. And not because he expected something out of it.

One issue: Porcupines do not tend to spread the word of their generosity to others, so most people don't hear about it and may only see the grizzly side.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Annie McKee, Ben Dattner and Robert Sutton

Organizational behavior experts Ben Dattner, Annie McKee, and Robert Sutton, empower us to take on hellish bosses.

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