Dealing with people who treat you like dirt - a book review of The Asshole Survival Guide

We all have times in life when working relationships affect our self confidence, moral and motivation and we feel disrespected and de-energised. I read The Asshole Survival Guide by Stanford professor Robert I Sutton to better understand bad behaviour and find work arounds. 


There are times when I really struggle to manage certain working relationships. In a stroke of fortune I came across The Asshole Survival Guide by Robert I Sutton. Here are 18 of my favourite quotes that I’ll be keeping close by as I work on my resilience. 

  1. Start with self awareness
    ‘Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.’ Keeping this mantra in mind primes you to avoid falling prey to your knee-jerk reactions... people who act like assholes are often blind to their bad behaviour and how others experience it. Always apologise when you’ve behaved like an asshole - but only if you really mean it and then do it right.
  2. Empathy
    If you really want to understand an asshole problem and how best to tackle it, consider how your quirks, background and biases shape your feelings. Taking responsibility for your feelings - and understanding what drives those of other targets or witnesses - helps you (or them) figure out how to limit the damage.
  3. Rabbits and rotten systems
    Assholes tend to breed like rabbits because of what psychologists call similarity-attraction effects. Be careful however not to mistake one or two bad experiences or unpleasant people for a rotten system.
  4. Petty power play
    Petty tyrants wield power over some narrow but unavoidable domain. They are rarely in a position to ruin your life, but often wield their limited authority to make you suffer (and to make themselves feel more important). 
  5. Kindness as a tool
    It is smart to treat every asshole survival problem as a two-way street - where you both offer and ask for help. By giving help to troubled targets and witnesses as they try to size up to and deal with jerks, you not only do good deeds; you equip yourself to withstand and to battle the malice and incivility in your own life. Your allies will feel obliged to return the favour, to help, support, protect and fight for you.
  6. Power plays, provocation and caution
    You should try and get away from assholes, but don’t be an idiot about it. When people feel as if they are being treated like dirt, many feel a mighty strong urge to resign in abrupt or confrontational ways. But do so only with extreme caution: such impulses can be dangerous because, if you act on them, it might just provoke some powerful and mean-spirited people to make you pay for it later. 
  7. Being an asshole can be an infectious disease
    Even a single exposure to a rude person can turn a person into a 'carrier,' who in turn infects others with the negative behaviour - so it spreads much like the common cold. 
  8. Protection through distance
    When it comes to assholes, it’s sometimes wise to add rather than remove communication barriers - and physical distance is one of the most protective barriers.  
  9. Assholes and perverse kicks
    Some assholes take a [...] kind of pleasure in your pain. When they do something that generates a strong reaction from you [...] the pleasure centre in their twisted minds light up. 
  10. Forgiveness and letting go
    Even when a jerk doesn’t apologise, and you don’t express forgiveness to them, forgiving him or her in your heart can help you let go of the hurt - and you should do so without condoning, downplaying, or forgetting the offence.
  11. Not giving a shit
    Practising the fine art of not giving a shit about people who mistreat you - honing your ability to tune them out - can save your sanity, shield your physical health, and keep you from hurting the people you love.
  12. Look ahead to better days with better people
    Turn your full attention to those people who treat you with respect, to what matters most to you, and to the better days ahead.
  13. Righteous anger and passive aggression as means of defence
    When you are dealing with a pushy jerk who is undermining the greater good, even if they wield power over you, a flash of righteous anger can sometimes get them to back down. There are other times when subtle ‘passive-aggressive’ confrontation is best.
  14. Managing up and bringing assholes down
    If you want protection from powerful and prickly narcissists, there is an argument for kissing up in order to provide cover and to keep them calm while you work backstage to bring them down.
  15. Assholes are insecure
    Some people are grumpy, insulting, or overbearing primarily because they are insecure about their abilities and prestige.
  16. Revenge is sweet but short lived, fix the system
    Revenge is sweet, but can be useless and dangerous. Use the system to reform, defeat and expel jerks.
  17. Stop and listen
    Reduce your risk of treating others poorly by seeking out and listening to trusted truth-tellers and reflecting about your past behaviour to identify circumstances that bring out the worst in you.
  18. Strength in friends and family
    By realising you are not alone, by turning to people ranging from fellow targets to friends and to your family for support and wisdom, you bolster your chances of constructing better plans, traveling through difficult days with dignity and grace, and emerging from it all a stronger person.