Six year old (precocious) daughter: Is daddy an a-hole?
Mother: Why would you say that?
Daughter: He screams at Joey's soccer game and sometimes gets kicked out.
Mother: He's very competitive, which is why he is successful.
Daughter: When he reads me a bedtime story, he's always checking his Blackberry.
Mother: He has a lot of people he needs to help in his company.
Daughter: He doesn't listen to you and talks mean to you.
Mother: You're right, he is an a-hole.
As much as I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy behind one of my favorite books, Robert Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule," I have to conclude that a-holes have always been around and probably always will. An even more disheartening truth is that more often a-holes seem to win, whereas nice guys do, unfortunately, seem to finish last, or at least far behind their obnoxious counterparts. And here's why:
- They're not afraid to go first. They'll take something first, while you're being polite.
- They're not neurotic about hurting your feelings. They figure if you're foolish enough to be thin skinned, it's your fault if you get hurt.
- They're compelling. They will keep you awake and alert, which feels better than feeling bored.
- They're watchable. You will keep your eye on them, which will keep you focused and which also feels better than feeling distracted.
- They keep you on your toes... and then still manage to step on them.
- You'll go out of your way to get respect, love or liking from them because doing so is a real coup, compared to getting the not-so-special respect: love and liking from a giver who gives it to everyone.
- You know where they're coming from. They are clear about what they want and don't want, as opposed to nice people, who can be so vague that they exasperate you when you just want them to "spit it out."
- You're afraid of what you want to do to them as much as of what they will do to you. They frustrate and infuriate you so much that you will do anything to not have to deal with them, including appeasing them and giving them what they want.
- They're arrogant because they're confident. You think they are assured about what they're doing, which makes you all the more vulnerable if you have self-doubts.
- They use their aggression to their advantage and your disadvantage, if you're busy trying to not come off that way.
- They feel both entitled and deserving of whatever they get and take, so they have no compunction about going after it.
- They're not afraid of and, in fact, enjoy and take pride in being an a-hole. To some extent, you're jealous of their brazenness.
Doing an "A-holectomy"
Ironically, I have been seeing increasingly more a-holes in my coaching practice. I know what you're thinking: Why would they ever go to a shrink for advice or help? There are two main reasons:
- The a-hole reason: They're having a lot of turnover at their company (which doesn't bother them), but they're looking for another round of financing, and investors are nervous because of their management issues and are also having flashbacks of other a-holes who didn't turn out to be as "F*** You" brilliant as the "F*** You" behaviors they thought they could get away with.
- The not-quite-an-a-hole reason: They don't feel so badly about being abrupt and dismissive towards employees or even their spouse, but they absolutely adore their young children, and conversations like the one above get to them because they really don't want to hurt their kids' feelings.
I'm reminded of one such man who came in to see me with his 14-year-old only child after his wife said, "You better go see Goulston with Joanne. She's got a real problem with you." Now this guy wasn't that keen on his wife, but his daughter was the absolute love of his life, and so he agreed.
When they came in, two things were clear: First, he didn't have a clue why his daughter was having a problem with him; and second, the last place his daughter wanted to be was in my office.
She didn't talk much, but I could see that as he talked about his bewilderment in a completely non-emotional manner, each sentence out of his mouth was like nails on a chalkboard to her. And she bunkered more deeply into the corner of her side of my couch.
I imagined that he was on better behavior with me than he probably was at home and intuited a scene that probably went on with some regularity.
I stopped the man and followed my hunch and said to his daughter, who was not making eye contact with me, "What's it like when your dad is talking to you at home in your bedroom, making you nuts, and you scream at him at the top of your lungs, "Get out! Leave!" and then when he does, and you close the door behind him, you flip him off -- raising your middle finger at the door?"
She hadn't told me any of that, but apparently, my intuition was spot on because at that point Joanne curled up in a ball and started sobbing uncontrollably and nearly dry heaving in what I can best describe as primal agony.
It was clear that something she hated more than her dad was hating him. It was eating her up inside. And my understanding it and not judging her had released an emotional tsunami that had been building up for weeks, or longer.
After a few moments, when it was so clear that she was emotionally gone and beyond conversation or consolation, her father stopped trying to make conversation. Instead, he stared at her and started to cry and touched the tears on his cheeks -- almost as if the wetness were blood, and he didn't quite know what to make of it.
I asked him what he was thinking, and he said, in a look of utter bewilderment, "My daughter, who I love more than anything, is in incredible pain, and I think I'm somehow causing it. But that is the last thing I would ever want to do to her. I just don't get it."
I told him, "I think you just got it. Stay there, it'll be okay."
After several minutes, Joanne stopped crying and looked much relieved. That was the beginning of a breakthrough between them that lasted. I'm not sure he ever understood how she could feel that he was hurting her. However, he was certainly clear about the fact that she was hurting and that he loved her and didn't want her to feel pain, whatever was causing it.
A final caveat is that it turns out that a number of these a-holes have ADHD and are adrenaline junkies. They're smart, and they're risk takers. That helps them to keep their adrenaline (i.e. natural Ritalin) at a high level. They absolutely can't stand boredom or being listless, which they feel when they come off an adrenaline high. That causes some of them to become irritable and nasty -- sometimes, even abusive.
For some of these people with true ADHD, treatment with the proper medication and coaching can really calm them down, help them listen better and make them more deliberate in their dealings with their employees and increase investor comfort.
I think, however, that the best experience was when one of these former a-holes, who was properly medicated and coached, told me how he read a bedtime story to his daughter, had his Blackberry shut off and was totally present with her. After he finished, she snuggled up to him and said, "Thanks for reading to me daddy, I love you." Made him cry when he told me, made me cry when he told me. He even told me that next on his list was to listen to his wife.
And that, as Mastercard would say, is priceless.
See also: "What to Say to a Jerk" (P.S. may not work with an a-hole)
Follow Mark Goulston, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markgoulston