I was at the Chomp Tastemakers party this week, and ended up chatting with @Scobleizer about Startup Happiness.  My question to him was: “What makes a happy startup?”  He didn’t even pause to take a breath before he answered emphatically “No assholes!”

Chatting with @Scobleizer at Crunch Tastemakers

Robert Scoble talks to founders and CEOs all the time, so he’s working from a huge set of sample data, in addition to his own personal experience. He explained that once you have even one asshole working at your company, it introduces politics in a way that wasn’t there previously. We didn’t drill down into the definition of asshole, but from my experience, an asshole is either someone who is more interested in their own personal success than in the success of the company and their colleagues, or someone who makes mean-spirited attacks on others, or both.

Assholes introduce the concept of “blame” at a company. If you know that you are in danger of being blamed for making a mistake, then it introduces a whole new level of anxiety into decisionmaking that is counterproductive. Of course you want people to make the best choices they can, and take the responsibility very seriously, but knowing that you can pitch an idea, and have it be wrong, or try doing something and fail, and still be accepted as a valued member of the team is one of the things that encourages the innovation and creativity that is the lifeblood of entrepreneurs and startups.

If all of the people on the team are focused on being succeeding *together*, then it matters a lot less who had the idea that worked, or that didn’t work. They have the shared belief that we’re all in this together, if we made a mistake, then we need to improve the process of making decisions, but not so-and-so is individually responsible, and therefore they’re a bad person.  An asshole has the belief that there is someone we can find to blame for this, and it’s worth spending the time and energy to do so. They are thinking about the team in a completely different way!  And they are interested in convincing other people that their belief is right…

Also, an asshole makes it dangerous to take responsibility for making a mistake. Here, I’ll lean on Agile software development as an example. Agile has the concept of weekly sprints, where a team bites off a chunk of work, mows through as much of it as they can, and then have an end-of-interaction review when it’s done. The end-of-iteration review is a chance to look at what went well, and what went wrong. It’s often a time when someone will step up and say “well, I thought that doing XYZ would work really well, but when we went to do it, it turned out to be not such a good idea after all. Next time I’d do it differently.”

Agile software development allows the team to discuss mistakes and learn from them. But if there is even *one* asshole who is part of an end-of-iteration review, then it’s no longer safe to admit you made a mistake, because you that the asshole on the team is either going to lambast you in the moment for doing it wrong, or stockpile the information to use against you and ding your credibility in a future meeting. What happy startups have is a culture of trying new things, assessing what worked and what didn’t, and making constant improvements. An asshole that’s lurking on your team is going to wrench that process so it’s less effective, or perhaps not even possible.

The best way to avoid this is to not hire assholes in the first place. Your hiring process should include ways to assess how an individual works on a team, how they think about decisions and mistakes, and interviews with people they’ve worked with. When I was at Critical Path, a crucial part of the late-stage hiring process was for me to take the candidate to a long dinner. I could tell fairly easily at the end of a few hours of social time what someone’s worldview was, and I wasn’t willing to hire someone who I didn’t trust deeply and enjoy on a personal as well as professional level. Life is too short to spend working with assholes!

We’re not all lucky enough to start from scratch building a team; sometimes we inherit the people we work with. But having zero tolerance for these behaviors on your team will go a long way toward making a great work environment.

In a perfect world, it would be easy to confront someone who is acting like an asshole, and change their behavior. In reality, some people are open to change, and will respond to a conversation with a manager, or work with a  coach, and some people are not interested in changing, and will need to be let go. A great leader is willing to invest the time and energy to find out which is which, and to fire an asshole who is unwilling to change. If you allow assholes to remain on your team without any intervention, you are risking the very culture of innovation and collaboration that you’ve worked hard to foster.

Many managers have an excruciatingly hard time confronting bad behavior. They hope that a problem will just go away on its own, or that other team members won’t notice, and won’t be affected by it. But the long-term ROI of having a team with no assholes is ridiculously high. The best and brightest people in our industry (like Robert Scoble!) have a very low tolerance for working with assholes. Your most valuable asset as a leader is a high-functioning team of A+ performers. If you spend the time and energy to insure that this behavior isn’t tolerated, then you have a much higher likelihood of building and keeping the A+ team that you’ll need to succeed.

4 thoughts on “Scoble on Happy Startups: No Assholes

  1. Well said, Marcy.

    I think the one thing I’d add is that we all (well, possibly not you, but everybody else) have the propensity to be an asshole from time to time. So another thing that’s important to me as a manager is tuning the culture to minimize that. E.g., by pushing down power, encouraging consensus, having regular retrospectives, and trying to set an example of humility and honesty.

  2. William: I agree, everyone has their bad days, and it’s perhaps not quite so black and white as I painted it above. A manager who can model humility and honesty will have a significant positive effect on their team’s culture: they are in essence saying these traits are valued, and that when something goes wrong, talking about it and trying to learn from it is safe and desirable. One of the things I love about Agile is that it creates a learning, growing culture by constantly examining what’s working and what’s not, and self-correcting in the direction of what works.

  3. Marcy, funny you should discuss this right now. I am actually wondering if there is a book or solid articles to track the monies lost by employing bad employees?

    I know they create financial loss by:
    -slowing down the productive work of others
    -causing churn of the good staff members, which in turn contributes to
    -interviewing/hiring/training costs, etc.

    Do you know of anything that goes into the calculation of the financial impact of this mistake?

  4. Dawn: I don’t know of anyone who tracks the loss created by *keeping* bad employees. There are studies that talk about the cost of employee turnover, but that’s actually the opposite of what you want. I posed this question to my sister Carrie, who’s an HR veteran; we’ll see if she’s got any useful info.

    I’m on my way to BurningMan today, so I’ll be offline until the end of next weekend. Happy Labor Day!

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