The Damage Done: A Police Officer's Sad Story

05/25/2011 12:10 pm ET
  • Robert Sutton Author, 'Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less' and 'Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Learn from the Worst'

The No Asshole Rule reviews research on bullying and psychological abuse in the workplace and how it damages both people and organizational effectiveness. I show how the damage ranges from physical and psychological harm, to reduced commitment and effort, to less effort and productivity -- and how asshole poisoning is a contagious disease that spreads from one person to another. As Chip and Dean Heath's fantastic book Made to Stick shows, however, a long list of studies and statistics might be useful for establishing the validity of some assertion, but people remember stories not statistics.

Here is an email that a police officer wrote me that provides as good a compact summary of the damage done as I have ever seen (Note that this is 90 percent text of the email that he sent me, I just changed one or small things to obscure his identity):

"I work as a police officer in a city plagued with high crime. I always believed the evil atmosphere within the police department was endemic to the profession, blue collar individuals, given the power to humiliate, disparage, and terrorize subordinates. I felt it was their lack of formal education and essentially, a power trip, accentuated by huge egos.

I realize now the issue is widespread, a human epidemic.

I regularly return to work with a stomach ache, filled with the dread of facing the assholes who supervise me. If a person complains about an officer, the officer is guilty unless he can prove otherwise. Supervisors take joy in publicly berating officers, often behind their back, but in public forums. We call it Monday Morning Quarterbacking. Gossip is rampant and gleefully repeated through out the ranks. It is not uncommon to hear an upper level boss speak negatively about a new officer without ever meeting him. I relate to your theory of assholes hiring other assholes and the spread of negativity and despair.

I began to suspect something was wrong with me after 12 years of dealing with assholes. I took great comfort in your reassurance that it has nothing to do with me personally. I find your description of how one copes in the face of adversity remarkably accurate. I learned to hide my emotions, detach, avoid the department at all costs. If my laptop fails to operate, I would rather work throughout the day without it than face a visit to the police station for repair.

I have perfected my poker face and respond to confrontations in a quiet voice, almost a whisper. I attempt to pick my battles, but find comfort in advising new officers of methods to respond to personal attacks. I rely on policy and refuse to acquiesce to any discipline unless it is formally documented. My work product is diminished and I feel no loyalty to the agency. I psychologically deconstruct each adversary and attempt to relish my victories.

The agency hires companies to evaluate the deficiencies within the agency, but the companies never speak to patrol officers. I compare the veteran officers of rank to the product of a child raised in an abusive home. I find it disturbing when these supervisors relish the failure of another officer, whether it is divorce, financial loss, or arrest. It is a caustic environment, filled with back stabbing, gossip, and bullying. It is true that you will be attacked if they sense weakness. It is often better to let them know they are in for a fight.

I take with me the knowledge I must leave before I become one of them. I thank you for your insight. Perhaps you will consider a book on the intricacies of law enforcement and the assholes who dwell among us."

I invite your comments on this rather discouraging email. In particular, I wonder, do assholes always have to rule the roost in certain occupations? I am optimistic that there are, for example, police departments where asshole poisoning does not run rampant. Is this a naïve hope? Am I living in a fool's paradise?