We’ve all been there before. You're by the water cooler. Or in a quiet hallway. Or at a team outing, perhaps after one too many beverages.
“That guy [coworker’s name] is a real A-hole,” someone whispers to you angrily.
“A genuine, grade-A, 100% certifiable, pure-bred A-hole,” they continue. “Like, if there were a competition, not only would [coworker’s name] win first prize, but they would subsequently name the competition after him and start using a mold of his body as the trophy."
Alright, so maybe no one has phrased it exactly like that before, but there’s a good chance you know somebody who has applied the “A-hole” label to a fellow acquaintance or coworker.
Don’t worry: This is a judgment-free zone. And to be clear, the objective of this post isn’t to convince people to stop using the A-word in the workplace (although I’m sure your HR department would certainly appreciate that). I just want to make sure that if you do decide to use it, you use it correctly. After all, if you go around calling people "A-holes" when you don't even know what the word means, it could make you seem like ... well ... an A-hole.
A-hole: What Does It Really Mean?
And of course by "A-hole," I actually mean "asshole." But given how many times I need to use the term in this post, I've decided to stick with the less offensive, abbreviated form of the word, "A-hole."
For many us, the "A-word" is simply a colorful weapon in our arsenal of insults. We often use it as a synonym for "jerk," or more generally, to describe anyone who is being mean or acting in a way that annoys or upsets us.
According to Merriam-Webster, an A-hole is simply "a stupid, incompetent, or detestable person."
This definition, as it turns out, is woefully insufficient. When we look at the history of the word and what role it's played culturally, a much more nuanced definition emerges. To gain a better understanding of what it really means, I turned to the work of three professors:
- Robert I. Sutton, a professor of management science & engineering at Stanford and author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t
- Aaron James, a philosophy professor at UC Irvine and author of Assholes: A Theory
- Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley and author of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years.
Based on the insights gleaned from these experts, I created the handy "Is Your Coworker Actually an A-Hole?" flowchart embedded below. But before you start using the flowchart to diagnose chronic cases of A-holism within your organization, let's explore what the term actually means according to these three professors.
Professor Sutton's Definition
Let's start with Professor Sutton's investigation into the matter. According to Sutton, there are two tests for determining whether or not someone is acting like an A-hole.
- Test #1: Does the alleged A-hole cause coworkers to feel humiliated, belittled, or oppressed? And specifically, does the alleged A-hole leave coworkers feeling worse about themselves? If you answered "yes" to those questions, you're likely dealing with a certifiable A-hole.
- Test #2: When engaging in the above behavior, does the alleged A-hole tend to target only those coworkers who are less powerful/influential within the organization? If yes, you're definitely in A-hole territory.
Based on Sutton's definition, the relative standings or hierarchical positions of coworkers within an organization play a key role in determining someone's status as an A-hole. And ultimately, it boils down to this: A-holes are people who prey on those less powerful than themselves.
Professor James' Definition
Now, let's move on to Professor James' definition. According to James, to qualify as an A-hole, someone must meet these three criteria:
- They help themselves to special advantages in cooperative life (ex: cutting in line at the bank).
- They do these things out of an entrenched sense of entitlement (ex: cutting in line at the bank because you think you're more important than the other people in line).
- They use their sense of entitlement to justify their behavior and deflect any complaints that may arise (ex: someone complains about you cutting in line at the bank; you respond by calling them an "insignificant peasant").
"So the term 'a**hole' isn't simply a term of abuse, or a way of venting disapproval," James notes in a Huffington Post article. Instead, the term is a moral judgment; an indictment of someone's character.
Professor Nunberg's Definition
Finally, let's turn our attention to Professor Nunberg, who provided some historical context to the term in an email exchange.
A-hole, as it turns out, first took on a non-anatomical definition during World War II when U.S. soldiers began using the term to describe their commanding officers. (According to Nunberg, it was George Patton -- yes, that Patton, the one your father or grandfather always talked about -- who was the first military commander to ever be called an A-hole.)
When WWII ended and American soldiers returned home, they brought the A-word with them. The term eventually became the preferred insult for members of the social/political/economic movements of the 1960s and 70s. Feminists, in particular, began using A-hole in place of the commonly used insult "heel" (which had a similar meaning to A-hole at the time).
For Nunberg, the A-word has, historically, always been a word that "looks up." Or, in other words, "It's a critique from below, from ground level, of somebody who's gotten above himself," as he said in an interview with NPR.
When we bring together the insights of Sutton, James, and Nunberg, it becomes clear that being an A-hole requires more than simply being mean or unfair: A person's level of power, or perhaps more accurately, their perceived level of power, is instrumental to A-holish behavior.
Is Your Coworker Actually an A-hole?
Now that we have a better understanding of what an A-hole is, let's run through the flowchart and see if that (alleged) A-hole coworker of yours actually qualifies.
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Now that you know how to accurately identify A-holes in the workplace, let's turn our attention to how you can work more harmoniously with them.
Tips for Working With A-holes
Back in 2010, Professor Sutton wrote a post for Psychology Today, which provides some tips for surviving A-holes in the workplace. Here's a quick summary of Sutton's advice:
- Politely confront the A-hole. Let them know how their behavior makes you feel and make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable.
- Limit your contact with the A-hole. If an A-hole refuses to change their behavior, avoid meetings and other interactions with said A-hole as much as possible.
- Find a way to enjoy a "small win" over the A-hole. What can you do to put the A-hole in their place? (Sutton gave the example of a radio producer putting laxatives in her chocolate to get back at her A-hole boss, who regularly stole food off of her desk.)
- Practice indifference. If it's clear that the A-hole in your organization isn't going to improve (or leave) any time soon, try detaching yourself from the situation as much as possible, at least until you're able to find a better work environment.
- Keep a written record of every A-holish transgression your coworker commits. This could come in handy in the future, especially if you're keen on getting the A-hole removed from your organization.
- Recruit sympathizers. If your coworker is truly an A-hole, chances are there are several other people at your organization who share your frustrations. When it comes to affecting change, there's strength in numbers.
As a last resort, you can always seek legal action against a chronic A-hole coworker. But according to Sutton, it might be better for you to simply leave that work environment before things escalate to that level.
Ultimately, it can be hard, if not impossible, to get an A-hole coworker to change their ways. So while Sutton's tips can be helpful, there's no guarantee they'll actually improve your situation. As an alternative to taking action against (or ignoring) an A-hole coworker, you could make an effort to better understand where they are coming from.
"If an a**hole isn’t one of your direct reports, I don’t know any reliable way of getting him to be less of an a**hole; it’s what a**holes do," Professor Nunberg told me in an email. "It may help, though, to bear in mind that a**holes are a**holes because they're miserable."
Nunberg continued, "A**holes are unhappy people whose delusions don’t quite succeed in concealing from themselves their moral deformities. They don’t know that they’re being a**holes, at least at the moment, but they sit uncomfortably in their skins."
But at the end of the day, they aren't monsters: A-holes are still thinking, feeling people. As Nunberg told me, "An a**hole has a conscience, which is what makes him different from a psychopath -- you wouldn’t call Hannibal Lecter an a**shole, for example, and we don’t call children a**holes unless they’re old enough to know better (whereas a five year old can be a little sh*t)."
So, how do we take advantage of the fact that, despite being despicable, A-holes are still creatures with consciences? Nunberg suggests that giving A-holes some sympathy could be the magic bullet.
Next time that coworker of your starts acting like an A-hole, try telling them that you understand why they're acting out, and that you sympathize with the stresses and difficulties of what their job -- or more generally, their life -- entails.
Of course, being sympathetic toward an A-hole is easier said than done. As Nunberg noted, "I'd be the first to agree that that sort of thing is hard to utter when an a**hole is in full flower."