Even If You're a Successful Asshole, You're Still an Asshole

Bob Sutton had a good post the other day on how Steve Jobs is the posterchild for the idea that even assholes can be successful. But as Bob says, "If you are successful asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you."

Why do assholes succeed? Does their brilliance make up for it? Do they just get lucky? Do people not care about likability as much as we think? Here’s a novel thought: assholes can unite the people around them. We all need a common bond:

“Having somebody who is really difficult can actually be good for the workplace,” said Jo-Ellen Pozner, a researcher in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “If everyone really hates this one person, it becomes the basis of social bonding for the rest of the group.”

4 comments on “Even If You're a Successful Asshole, You're Still an Asshole
  • Ben,

    I think this correlates highly with performance driven industries. Certainly in my field, there are plenty of examples of asshole traders, fund managers, bankers who are at the top of their respective fields. Why? Because this business is primarily judged by performance, aka, generating profit. If you can do that, a lot of people will associate with you (e.g., grin and bear it). But god forbid these guys (and gals) have a rough patch, because their demeanor will come back to haunt them.

    Other industries bear this out too…the world’s leading cardiothorasic surgeon might be the biggest prick on the Earth; but he’s a miracle worker in the operating room.

    When you’re an entrepreneur or senior management in a larger organization, I think the ability to foster a productive work environment, build consensus, etc…makes it less likely that true assholes will succeed, but it still happens.

    An interesting study to conduct would be to have sociologists pair up people with vastly different EIs (i.e., one = asshole, two = great guy) but nearly identical indicators otherwise (i.e., similar IQs, similar academic histories, similar work histories) and see whether the assholes are less successful versus their “nice” counterparts.

  • If Assholes make it big in their lives ( as Sutton calls Steve Jobs), wonder what would Steve think of Sutton…?

    Isn’t there a part in everyone that appears `asshol’ish to other(s)…?


  • Krishna,

    I think we all have asshole-ish tendencies, and it’s certainly in the eyes of the beholder. But we should try to curtail these tendencies (assuming we think it’s important). Compassion will usually beat asshole (with some exceptions, such as Steve Jobs).

  • Ben,

    Wouldn’t you agree –

    The Jerk doesn’t realize that (S)he is an asshole in the first place. (S)he thinks others are.

    With his reputation ( of stealing credit that belonged to others, stepping on others toes etc. – which the asshole does with a straight face)Steve still manages to get a bunch of guys to deliver disruptive, game changing serial hits like Apple II, Mac, iPod and now iPhone – he’s emboldened and thinks the world belongs to assholes like him. He becomes Willy Wonka and Harry Potter rolled into one.

    I think that’s the way world is.

    If one examines the path of success of any leader, one can always find a good measure of `let-me-do-it-my-way’ attitude. This opinionatedness is taken for assholism (often by the less accomplished lot) even though it may have led to the eventual triumph.

    Every leader’s arrogance can inspire resentment: taking pleasure in seeing a special person knocked down a peg is regarded as a great human pastime.

    I am not trying to justify Assholes here. I just want to say that when you try to change the way the game is played, you tend to break a few rules till that becomes the rule itself.

    I think if one needs to think out of the box to succeed, it’s the box that needs fixing.

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