Let’s Do Equations Involving Assholes
When it came to negotiating cheap airline prices, there was no one better than Russell. He had a way of browbeating innocent clerks until, exhausted, they handed him over to their manager – and then Russell would hammer the manager, mentioning that we were a big organization, we booked a lot of flights, did you want to lose our fucking business? And while Russell made service managers weep – literally weep – he got us flights at rates that looked more like Greyhound Bus rates.
As a volunteer organization with a slim budget, this skill was invaluable. But Russell came with a cost:
Nobody wanted to work with him.
A prima donna, Russell knew he was good at his job – and he’d turn that scathing anger upon his fellow volunteers as quickly as he would the clerks. Anyone who faltered, who missed a deadline, who blew an opportunity for savings – Russell would chew into them gleefully, call them out publicly, haul out their dumbass behavior and spread it as far as he could. They’d fling up their hands and say, “I don’t want to deal with this asshole.”
And when you confronted Russell on his asshole behavior, he’d chuckle and admit that he was an asshole. But a productive one. He did the work of five of these other slackers – a fact he kept hammering home repeatedly. “If you put five guys together,” he said, “They couldn’t do half of my job! So fuck them if they want to leave!”
Unfortunately for Russ, that constant refrain actually encouraged us to formulate an equation:
One active Russell == How many lost volunteers?
Russell was, arguably better than any five generic volunteers – a herculean feat. But his asshole behavior drove people away at an astounding rate. If Russell did the work of seven volunteers, and alienated only five members, well, then we had a good deal on our hands.
But how many people was he alienating, really? Because the equation changed if Russell’s presence caused ten people to fling up their hands and walk away.
That was Stage One of my incipient Asshole Theory: Assholes will consume a certain number of other people. Whether it’s Russell booking planes for guests or a dazzling troll in some forum who raises good points, an asshole will cause some percentage of your crowd to go “Fuck this.” And the first stage in Asshole Theory is that you must place a value upon the asshole, and then figure out how many people s/he is worth losing.
This is an easy if it’s a useless asshole. Gets a little more talented if it’s a useful asshole like Russell, or a charming asshole who has slavish devotees. Then you have to start figuring exactly what sort of fallout you’re ready to endure should the asshole leave.
Yet when we started asking around about Russell, we found stage two of Asshole Theory. Turns out that the number of people who actively complained about Russell? Wasn’t the real total. When we started inviting comment upon Russell, quietly tugging people who weren’t volunteering aside to ask, “So why aren’t you helping out?” The answer was, frequently, Russell. But who wants to cross an asshole, particularly one who’s known for going off in public spaces? Who wants to criticize a guy who wields grudges like clubs?
That’s Stage Two of Asshole Theory: The number of people consumed is greater than the number of active complainers. People feel no obligation to tell you how dysfunctional your organization is; they’ll just walk, quietly, and figure you know the problem exists. (Which – and let’s be honest – you kinda do.) So that cost usually has some portion hidden, though it gets tricky to figure out if some of the complainers are also assholes.
When we investigated and estimated, turned out that yes, Russell really did do the work of seven people. (Which is pretty damn amazing.) But he alienated fifteen people… fifteen people that we could find. There were likely more. And so, once we did the hard work of doing the math and then extracting Russell from the group, we had a flood of new people who were willing to help. We did pay more for our airline flights, it’s true, but we also had more people to handle the tasks that Russell couldn’t quite keep up with.
That’s my Asshole Theory: you need to keep track of your assholes, and determine what their cost in members is – whether those members are volunteers, employees, staffers, or dues-payers, the asshole is definitely costing you some amount of them. Your job: to figure out what that cost is, overestimating if you don’t have the time to actually dig deep and find out, and then determine whether it’s better to keep the asshole on-board, or to jettison him.
Why do I bring this up today? No reason. No reason at all.