Why Hugh Hefner Likes the No Asshole Rule

Bob Sutton’s delightful book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t came out several months ago and has been a hit—it’s #136 on Amazon today.

But I’m curious about who’s buying the book, and why. There’s something happening here—but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

We “get” the title instantly. Sutton argued with publishers about it, and explains why other words just weren’t precisely right enough for this thought. He did get it just right.

Nor is this management soft porn. Sutton is serious and articulate about the need to strip assholes out of business—and his message is solid.

But that doesn’t get you best seller status. Thousands of books and articles talk about good leadership principles of collaboration, respect for others, and so forth.

Is it the catchy title? Titles do help. Think Blink. Or the all-time best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking—(originally titled The Power of Prayer—think of the difference that title made!)

Is it the “naughty” factor? In the repressed world of business book titles, it’s the Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Ulysses of our time. But, they didn’t top the charts either.

The Booklist review on Amazon tips us off:

If you have ever been a victim, just reading Sutton’s analysis brings calm relief, empowerment, and reassurance that you’re not alone.

I think we buy it because “asshole” is so obviously, completely about those people—and not about me. It’s about them. The idiot in line at the store. The flaming jerk on the airplane. And—most of all—the Boss from Hell. My boss, as chance would have it.

The title seduces us because it legitimizes a guilty pleasure—bitching, moaning, and kvetching about how bad other people are—to us! We don’t often get guilt-free permission to indulge so deliciously in the blaming of others—carpe diem!

Let me be clear—I’m not criticizing the book’s content. Sutton is in good company in his recommendations about management and leadership styles. He even spends a chapter on how not to be an asshole.

But that’s not why we buy it. That’s not the hook. The real hook for buyers, I suspect—is victimhood. It’s not my fault I feel bad—someone did it to me. Those, those—assholes!

It’s this indulgence in blame-throwing—a decidedly unhealthy occupation—that gives me pause.

But here’s the genius part: since the book is a legitimate commentary on management, the reader has plausible deniability about motive.

I may say that I’m buying the book to read the self-diagnostic parts and to think seriously about the management theses—as they apply to me—so that I can shoulder my managerial responsibilities and be a better person, leader and co-worker.

And I used to read Playboy for the articles, too.

0 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Very interesting, Charlie.

    The lesson I draw is that, when you are choosing a title (or a frame) for a concept — whether it is a book or a blog post or a political argument:
    – identify the target audience for your message
    – choose a title (/frame) that absolves your audience of responsibility!

    I’m not being flippant here.  The idea of presenting a message in a way that resonates with your audience’s personal narrative / mythology enough that your message can capture their attention and get across  is really good marketing/communications advice.

    For example, which book do you think would sell better:

    A. Your Child Is Stupid
    B. How Modern Schools Are Failing Our Kids

    …and yet information being conveyed in each could be fundamentally the same.

    I used to think that titles were about a "hook" or a "benefit sell," but in light of this article I’m thinking the formula is:

    (Hook AND/OR "Benefit Sell) AND Absolution

  2. will
    will says:

    Nice one Shaula !

    I agree charlie.  It’s always more empowering in the long run to avoid the blame game.

  3. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Shaula’s comment is too funny…

    And yet, most of us know from experience that Bob Sutton is addressing a real problem of "asshole poisoning" in the workplace. It happens, and sometimes it’s hard to work around it. Bob has some good pointers on how to do so. (Although I’m guessing that half the people who buy the book will do so just for the title and will never even open it.)

    Back to Shaula’s point. A variation of this theme is the confessional book: "I Was a Corporate Asshole". Everyone loves a good recovery story….


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