If you did a survey asking, who is the A-hole at your work, a majority of the staff would mention the same person. How is this possible?
How has this person been able to continue to work at your organization and how come nothing has been done to address this issue?
What is the dynamic fostered in the office to allow this type of behavior and how has it affected staff morale?
We have been asking these questions of colleagues, friends, and teams we work with around the country for the past few years and the answers are always the same. “I don’t know.” When you ask, “what are you going to do about it,” we receive a similar version of that answer.
Does your organization suffer from an A-Hole-Itis problem? A-Hole-Itis is defined as when you have an A-Hole in the office and your behavior and intelligence diminishes simply by their sheer presence.
Signs may include the following:
- Sheer dread as you travel to work
- Scared to submit ideas and feedback
- At the first the sound of their voice, it evokes a negative emotion
In our interviews, we met people that fell into one of these categories:
- I assumed this was just normal behavior here.
- I don’t believe I have support from management to feel safe to speak up.
This person has seniority, so I don’t want to rock the boat and end up losing my job.
- I’ve tried in the past to address it, but it hasn’t worked, so now, I just tolerate it.
- I just chose to leave simply because nothing was being done about that A-Hole.
Do any of these scenarios resonate with you?
This fascinated us so much that Gary and I went on a journey to find tools that could possibly address the A-Hole problem that so many us have suffered through. Our background in bringing teams together through play made us want to explore what could be done to find solutions.
So, where did we start?
We first needed to come up with the characteristics that make up a working A-Hole. This is important as there are temporary A-Holes and full-time A-Holes.
You could be a temporary A-Hole. Studies have shown when people are put in a position of power, they have a tendency to pick up A-hole tendencies. Take a look at this monopoly experiment about inequality, where one person got two dice, while the other only received one. Within a short period of time, the person with two dice believe they were entitled to more and believed that they deserved to win, ignoring the fact that they had an advantage.
We all have an inner A-hole ready to come out, so we must be aware before we start judging someone else for their A-hole indiscretions.
A-Hole Symptoms & Diagnosis
So, what makes up an A-Hole?
Here’s what we found:
- Mean (Suffers from Jerkitis)
- Arrogant (Suffers from I’m Better Than You Fever)
- Self-Righteous (Suffers from I’m Always Right Syndrome)
- Dismissive (Suffers from Your Ideas Suck Flu)
- Entitled (Suffers from I Didn’t Need To Work Hard For Anything Disease)
- The entitled disease can be hereditary and may be passed from generation to generation
These can appear all at once, show up subtly, or may be more regional. Passive aggressiveness A-Hole-Ness tends to appear more in the West Coast, Midwest, & South, while more overt A-Hole tendencies can be found more on the East Coast.
Once we have established what type of A-Hole is showing up, we need to explore what triggers you about your particular A-Hole at work.
What is the primer that sets you off?
- Is it when the A-Hole cuts you off mid-sentence?
- Is it when they dismiss your ideas and then later claim them as their own?
- Could it be their sheer presence in the room that makes you want to punch them in the face?
- Why do they bother you so much?
Finding Solutions To The A-Hole Problem
Once you figure this out, now we can start addressing solutions to the A-Hole Problem.
Our Solutions to the A-Hole Problem are broken down into four different approaches:
Reframing & Redirecting The A-Hole
- Determine strategies to guide the A-Hole in directions you want to go
Challenging The A-Hole
- Confronting the A-Hole and stepping into your own power to address the issue
Dealing with An A-Hole That is Your Boss or in a higher level of management
- Challenging the power structure to see if this is the right place for you or not
Addressing The Inner A-Hole Within
- In order to address the external A-Hole, you may need to tackle the inner one first
We will note the effectiveness level as some approaches are more of a Band-Aid fix, while others rip the Band-Aid off in order to get to the heart of the issues. We also note the difficulty, as there is a tendency for listicles to over simplify applying these techniques in the real world.
Reframing & Redirecting The A-Hole
See The A-Hole As A Whiny Child (Effectiveness Level: 2, Difficulty: 3)
The most hilarious quick way to address the A-Hole is whenever you are triggered, to imagine this person as a whiny child. It won’t actually address the problem, but it might at least amuse you temporarily. You can watch them have their tantrum while you sit with a smile on your face. It’s not very effective, but funny nonetheless.
Power Leading (Effectiveness Level: 4, Difficulty Level: 5)
If you find that your A-hole detrimentally affects meetings, lead before the meeting even starts. Change the energy of the room by connecting with people before meeting and starting off with a fun, positive topic before the A-hole can make their impact. By leading way beforehand, you are getting ahead of the A-Hole before they can bring the energy down. You can find more information about Power Leading here.
Give The A-Hole A Task (Effectiveness Rating: 5, Difficulty Level: 7)
We found that in many studies, finding a purpose for the A-Hole to utilize their skill sets actually helps in channeling that energy towards something useful. For example, your A-Hole has a tendency to shoot down ideas during meetings.
- Speak to them beforehand.
- Recognize the value that they bring, which is being able to challenge ideas and making sure they can withstand scrutiny.
- Tell them that we will need that level of feedback at the end of the meeting, but during the brainstorming part, we need them to step back.
Determining how you can utilize the A-Hole strengths to your advantage can not only help you, but also turn that A-hole into a productive member of the team. They may actually want to feel useful and may have never experienced this before, so you are providing them the opportunity to show up fully.
Group A-Holes Together (Effectiveness Rating: 6, Difficulty Level: 8)
Some studies found that if you are able to corral a group of A-holes together on a project, they are proven to perform better than if they were sporadically placed in other groups. If you are in upper management and you have an opportunity to do this, try it. Worst case scenario is they don’t get along and they you can say to each of them, “this is what it is like working with you. Now, let’s change that.”
Challenge The A-Hole
You can only do so much to reframe and redirect. So, now we are tapping into challenging the A-Hole and the system directly. This may take more than just you to accomplish, so start enrolling your colleagues into your plan.
Create a system where the A-Hole can’t thrive (Effectiveness Rating: 7, Difficulty Level: 8)
IMPORTANT NOTE: A-Holes thrive in silence and shame. If people speak up, you remove their source of oxygen (I.e. Isolation, apathy, and resignation). As a result, their power diminishes and then you and your colleagues can step into your own power.
In a meeting, if your A-Hole has a tendency to dominate the conversation, utilize these tactics:
- Choose a strong facilitator that lays down the ground rules at the beginning of each meeting and doesn’t let the A-hole or anyone else take over the meeting.
- Work with your colleagues to start taking up more space in the meetings by speaking up.
- Talk to your colleagues about getting each other’s back when sharing a new idea. Before the A-Hole is able to dismiss their idea, vouch for their idea. If enough people do so, the A-Hole make think twice about being so dismissive.
- Be deliberate about taking up the space that the A-hole currently occupies.
Name What Exists & Challenge The A-Hole To Change (Effectiveness Rating: 7, Difficulty Level: 9)
There is a big assumption that all A-Holes know that they are A-Holes. That is not always true. Some may not know how they come across. People on the East Coast tend to be more blunt than other parts of the country. Some people came from organizations where being the A-Hole was the norm, and they just assumed that is how you show up to work. It’s important to try to have empathy in order to understand where the A-Hole is coming from and why. Now, that doesn’t mean we are giving them permission to act that way, but in order to do this technique, it’s best to first try to understand, if possible.
Then, it is vital to understand their motivation. What drives them? Efficiency, praise, money? After understanding their motivation and having some empathy, inform them about how they are currently coming across to the team and how they can achieve their goals in a more productive way. If it seems intimidating to do this by yourself, enlist a colleague to help you. Here are some crucial conversation tips to create a safe environment to have that conversation.
Here’s some language you can use when talking to an A-Hole where you can possibly start a dialogue:
- There is something I feel like I need to share with you, but I feel a bit awkward/uncomfortable saying it. What’s the best way to share this with you?
With this approach it puts the other person in control of the direction of the conversation, which a person in power typically wants, so they may be more willing to listen.
- I believe you are trying to accomplish certain goals with the team (listing good intentions). Confirming that this is their goal and the intentions behind the goals. Then, state your perspective. I am not sure if we are going to get to where you want to go this way. Are you open to my observations?
With this strategy, you are acknowledging their good intentions and summarizing what believe their goals are. By doing this first, they may be more open to feedback, as they feel heard.
- During the meeting, (insert A-Hole behavior), and the impact was (insert result of their A-Hole behavior). Was that your intent? If not, are you open to suggestions so that there isn’t miscommunication in the future?
Here you are stating your observations and confirming their intent. Most bad management is due to poor communication, so focusing on fixing their ability to communicate and not on what is wrong with the person as a whole may be more fruitful.
Now, let’s say they are an A-Hole and they know it. And they don’t see any reason to change. Challenge them with their own motivations.
- Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of your goals this year is to have our team perform better than any other one in the department, so you can get the largest bonus? So, if that is the case, what if I told you I could propose a different approach where you could get more productivity out of the entire team than your current method? Try it for a month and compare my results to yours and let’s see which one works better.
Address The Powers That Be
(Effectiveness Rating: 8, Difficulty Level: 10)
If you have tried the other methods and they have failed miserably, your last resort is to address the powers above that oversee the A-hole.
- Ask them: Are willing to tolerate this behavior at their company, as having an A-Hole present makes the organization as a whole stupider, as staff begin to second guess themselves, become less confident about their work and, as a result are less productive and less willing to engage.
- Outline how it affects team morale.
- Ask if this person’s behavior matches the core values of the team and the mission of the organization.
This question can really challenge a leader to question, is this person the right fit for the job and culture? Also, they wonder, what do I risk losing by keeping this person?
To ensure your information about the A-Hole isn’t just hearsay, we recommend organizing multiple people to voice their opinion to the powers that be.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Be very clear about what the A-Hole is doing to affect the team and your own work.
A management team that has integrity will address the issue directly with the A-Hole when brought up. You have to be clear then as to how you want the A-Hole to show up differently and clearly state what you are looking for from the leader to enforce this. If you don’t, the promises will be shallow and the pattern will continue.
Now, if your management does not see the A-Hole as a problem, that is also progress because now you can decide whether this is the right work environment for you going forward. This is always hard because you are worried about finding out the answer, but it is better to find out now than to sit at a job for 4 more years dealing with the A-Hole and complacent leadership.
Addressing Your Boss Who Is The A-Hole
(Effectiveness Rating: 9–10, Difficulty Level: 10)
Do you trust your boss enough to bring up issues about their behavior?
If yes, do the naming challenging technique.
If you do not trust your boss to confront them, then choose to do the Address The Powers That Be Approach.
If the bosses’ boss is also an A-Hole, and HR & your colleagues cannot support you, then you probably know what the next step is even though it is hard.
There have been studies that have shown that toxic work environments can lead to physical ailments, as well as mental ones. If you don’t like how you are showing up at your job because of toxicity in the office, you either need to leave or find other outlets to help with that stress.
Addressing Our Inner A-Hole
(Effectiveness Rating: 9–10, Difficulty Level: 10)
This is the final step-in the dealing with A-Holes, as it is the hardest and the most introspective. This is where you have to ask the hard questions. This has to be addressed because even if the A-Hole leaves or you change jobs, the A-Hole issue will continue to show up in your life until you address it. That person will keep appearing and you’ll believe you attract A-Holes and will need to figure out why. Some challenging questions to ask yourself:
- What benefit do you get by making this A-Hole the villain in your story?
- In what ways are you currently not owning your power?
- How are you reacting to this conversation and what in you is causing your reaction?
The secret is that if you are able to deal with the A-Hole in you, you will then be able to take on the A-Hole out there. All you need to do is act and if you are don’t feel brave enough to do it, then ask for help.
A Cautionary Warning For Organizations That Have Chosen To Retain Their A-Holes:
We recognize that many systems are designed to reward the A-Hole, but that toxic system is changing. Organizations, communities, countries are realizing that putting A-Holes in charge isn’t just detrimental, but divisive.
So, if you are an A-Hole or have A-Holes in your organization that are detrimentally affecting your organization, just remember that any team that chooses to continue to ignore their A-Hole problem will eventually become obsolete. Your survival depends on your ability to address this toxicity and choose to side with the people that embody your core values. If you don’t, your phenomenal staff that you are currently taking for granted will leave and you will be left behind surrounded by A-Holes. So, what do you want to do next?
- Bob Sutton: How to Outwit Workplace Jerks — Stanford eCorner
- Work Life With Adam Grant Podcast — The Office Without A**Holes
- Power Lead Your Next Conversation — BetterUp
- We Have to Talk: A Step-By-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations — Judy Ringer
- This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Hate Your Job — Huffpost
- To Improve Your Team, First Work On Yourself — HRB.org