Why do assholes get ahead?

It’s something that often gets heads shaking when I am talking about the components of a positive culture. Why do the assholes get ahead?

And it’s true! Often you can see examples of where poor behaviour seemingly has no impact on a person’s trajectory. It’s usually up and it’s often quite rapid.

What’s the point of behaving well, when the evidence shows that behaving badly seems to not be an impediment to success?

Why organisations do it

Organisations usually know who the assholes are. But often they don’t want to act.

Sometimes because the asshole brings in lots of money or clients for the organisation.

Sometimes, because they are a thoroughly unpleasant person and no one wants to be on the receiving end of it.

Usually, they excuse or minimise the impact of the asshole, or make it about the people who are being impacted by the asshole (they’re not resilient enough).

In some cases, it’s a deliberate decision around creating a culture which is perceived to be hard.

What Adam Grant about Why Assholes Get Ahead

Adam Grant says that:

When assholes win, it’s because we let them get away with it. We let it happen when we build cultures that only prize individual achievements. We promote people who produce short term results, ignoring the long term damage that they do. We keep people around who treat others like dirt because they’re “indispensable”, when that’s usually a myth of their own creation.

We grant favours because it’s easier it’s easier to give some quick advice than confront a bully. We recommend them for jobs because it’s easier to get rid of them than to hold them accountable. We reward their behaviour and create a world when it’s the norm. When we accept it. we make it acceptable.

Grant has written a wonderful book called Give and Take, where he finds that those that give ultimately triumph. Here’s his TED talk on the same subject. It’s well worth a listen.

What to do if you have an Asshole on your team

There’s two ways to approach this. Is the person simply selfish? Or are they genuinely an asshole? Grant has good advice for the former in his post – how to change a selfish person’s stripes.

If they’re the latter, and are just an asshole, and aren’t going to change with any sort of positive intervention on your behalf, it’s time to have a good look at the impact that this is causing your team.

You can take a measure of this – by measuring culture or employee engagement or trust within a team. You can also look at data such as absenteeism, employee turnover, exit interview data, stress claims and bullying claims. More intangibly – you can look at how communication works inter and intra teams.

When you start to add up the cost of all this, it starts to make the “but they bring in so many clients” argument a bit less compelling.

Ultimately, you have to decide what sort of culture you want within your team or organisation.

Remember – the behaviour you walk past is the culture you accept.

If you don’t want that sort of behaviour to be part of your culture – ultimately – you need to make a decision to do something about it. It’s unlikely the asshole is going to come to that conclusion of their own volition and just suddenly change.


  • Do you have an asshole on your team?
  • Have you tried some the techniques suggested by Grant?
  • What’s the cost of that asshole – to the team and the organisation more broadly?
  • Do you know what is holding you back from acting?
  • What are the consequences of doing nothing?
  • If you were to act- what would you need to be in place?


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