Artists, Not Assholes

Management Matters

Managing UX teams

A column by Jim Nieters
November 3, 2008

The title of this column may seem a bit harsh. That’s exactly what Robert I. Sutton’s publisher said at first, when he submitted a manuscript titled The No Asshole Rule. [1] Yet, they did publish the book, and it’s worth a read. I don’t use the term lightly, but as Sutton suggests, other terms such as jerk just don’t convey the same understanding or intensity.

My key point in this column is that we need to support, defend, and promote our artisans, or artists, and we need to eliminate the assholes from our organizations. In practice, I see a lot of managers who do not support their artisans—their greatest performers—but hold onto and even reward their assholes. In the end, an organization that rewards the wrong people can destroy its effectiveness and drive the most talented people out. Often, such managers just don’t understand why things aren’t working out and make excuses for their weak performers. Bottom line… Any manager who either doesn’t understand the difference between the artists and the assholes—or simply can’t make the hard choices—shouldn’t be a manager. As managers, we must be incisive and exercise the courage of our managerial convictions.

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In using the term artists, I don’t mean people who have an art degree—or the archetypal designer wearing a black turtleneck and a beret. I’m referring to the indispensable artisans who energize and uplift an organization, helping transform it from the merely average to the excellent. These people may be researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, information architects, creative leads, or prototypers. Whatever their roles, they are the people who carry us. There are times when artisans may seem prickly or arrogant. Often that’s because they have such a strong sense of what is right, it is difficult for them to do something that opposes the integrity of their vision. Their way feels like the right way. When we listen to them, they make us better. I’ve found such artisans often have a vision for change that is powerful—even though perhaps disruptive. Such disruption is always for the better though.

Mind you, I’m not saying everyone who’s stubborn is an artisan. Far from it. In my experience, only one in ten good researchers or designers is a true artisan. Though, perhaps eight in ten think they are. It’s your job to figure out who is and who isn’t. I, for one, have learned to identify the artisans, listen to them, support them, and give them the room to exercise their abilities. Often, that’s the primary motivation for an artisan: They want room to exercise their vision, so they can deliver ground-breaking work that delights users and makes their group thrive. They have an almost palpable need to do so. As a manager, you need to defend, coach, and promote these individuals, and you need to do so unapologetically and publicly.

By the pejorative asshole, I am referring to individuals who suck the life out of any organization. They can, at times, seem indispensable, because they may deliver value. They may, in fact, be among the smartest people in the room. But they are a destructive force that creates distrust, animosity, and tension among team members. They reduce creativity and make people feel uncomfortable contributing or even walking into a meeting. Rather than building trust and confidence, they undermine it. Sometimes they can even be subtle. I’ve seen such people build allegiances and cliques that polarize a team and subtly sow seeds of distrust, whether with other team members or with management. Some assholes hide their actions in passive-aggressive behaviors: They show one face to the manager or larger group and another to their clique.

No matter how valuable these people seem to be, you have to fire them. Let me repeat: You have to remove them as decisively as you would eliminate a cancer. No matter how valuable you think they are, you cannot let an asshole stay on your team. Like any manager, I learned this the hard way, by having made the mistake of keeping highly skilled assholes on my team against my better judgment. Every single time I’ve made the wrong decision, it has caused me and my teams heartache and diminished the value of everyone on the team.

Other managers I know who have dealt with assholes unanimously agree with the basic premise of this column: Always, without hesitation, fire your assholes, and reward your artists. In addition to showing how to differentiate assholes from artisans, this column later discusses how to reward and coach employees in different performance strata.

How do you know the difference between the prickly artisans who uplift versus the assholes who cause harm? The key to recognizing most assholes is easy: They focus their aggression on those who are less powerful, make their coworkers feel bad about themselves—often in the guise of honest communication—and cause friction that often causes your most highly skilled employees to quit. They cause division. I recommend you read The No Asshole Rule and assess your people—and yourself!—against the 20 characteristics that identify people as assholes. In some cases, though, an asshole can be very subtle, and—no surprise—those are the most dangerous assholes of all. If you have employees who pull energy from your organization, even if they seem to contribute more than they drain, remove them. Don’t try to weigh their value or hope they’ll change. I can’t say too much about how important it is to remove them. Unfortunately, most managers just aren’t willing to admit how damaging assholes are and take action to eliminate them.

Shouldn’t We Promote Open and Frank Conversation?

When I recommend promoting artisans and firing assholes, managers often ask me how to deal with employees who stimulate us to face difficult issues and have frank and open conversations. The book Crucial Confrontations [2] highlights the effective ways in which a person can bring up difficult issues a team needs to address. The first thing effective communicators do is make it safe for you to hear what they have to say. They make it clear—through word and deed—that they are there to support you, and they show you they have your back. You can feel whether someone has your back. People who support you show it through their every interaction with you. If someone’s words say one thing, but his actions suggest another, you don’t trust that person, and you can’t have an open, trusting dialogue with him. As a manager, it’s your job to help employees understand how to confront one another in a safe fashion, foster trust, and constructively build relationships. Really, everything depends on trust.

Thus, if you have an employee—or a colleague or a boss—you’ve tried to educate on how to constructively approach sensitive and difficult issues, but who still continues to confront you and others in a negative fashion, chances are that person is an asshole.

You can have an honest, frank dialogue only in an environment where employees trust one another. On occasion, I’ve had employees who have raised issues, under the guise of trying to help, but in a highly negative fashion. They might say, “Look, I’m just being honest.” Such people may challenge other members of the team or even their manager in an assertive fashion, suggesting nothing is more important than the truth as they see it. It is, in fact, true that groups need to talk about and resolve difficult issues. They need to confront brutal facts about themselves and their working environment and work together to solve problems. But therein lies the crux of the matter: They need to solve problems together, not by berating or confronting one another in a way that diminishes trust or by dividing the team.

As the leader of a team, a manager’s responsibility is to first build an environment of trust and open communication. To do this, you have to be genuine and, yes, even vulnerable. Having just a single asshole on your team can shut down all open, honest communication. Such people prevent others from expressing themselves and contributing in ways that might make them feel vulnerable. The reality is that a person can be honest without being aggressive, harsh, making other people feel bad, or creating division. If you have an employee who cannot refrain from behaving badly toward others, what do you need to do? That’s right: You have to help that person move on.

But Aren’t Artisans Sometimes Assholes?

In short, no. Artisans may have strong opinions, and they almost always have a strong vision. The difference is that assholes are destructive in their approach. They criticize, belittle, and undermine in an attempt to get their way. On the other hand, artisans find a way to show the power of their vision. They understand that enrolling others in realizing their vision and working together provides better results than working solo. Artisans also produce artifacts that others get excited about and can get behind. Artisans may argue their points, but they do so in a constructive fashion, not by making others feel bad or by diminishing their confidence. An asshole doesn’t care about the value of an idea to the team or the organization. If an idea doesn’t make that individual look like a hero, the asshole will find reasons to criticize it. In fact, in an environment where there are assholes, many artisans simply stop conveying their vision and instead spend their time looking for a new job or find other outlets for their talent.

On the other hand, there are artisans who have yet to learn how to channel their constructive energy. Consequently, earlier in their careers, some artisans can have abrasive personalities. In such cases, you need to spend a great deal of your time coaching them.

Who Should You Spend Time Coaching?

This brings us to a key question: As a manager, should you spend more of your time trying to help your high-potential employees reach their potential or working with your poor performers to help them improve? Many managers spend time with poor employees in the hope they will improve. Unfortunately, the gains you achieve through improving below-average employees may be on the order of a 10% improvement. However, if you help your high-potential employees reach their potential, they multiply your team’s ability to deliver value. Thus, your gain may be a 10X improvement. I know the phrase 10X improvement has become as big a buzzword as innovation. But the reality is that artisans can add 10 times the value. Does this seem like an exaggeration to you? If so, I would contend that you’ve never worked with a true artisan.

If you have an employee who is good, but whose vision and execution cannot make your team significantly better, that person is not an artisan. They’re important to your team, though, so you do need to support them. It’s just that such employees typically do not transform organizations for the better.

Do you have a prickly artisan on your team? You need to let that person know you appreciate his or her good ideas and show how to promote them in a constructive fashion. You also have to let such people know that, if they cannot improve their behavior toward others, they will have to move on to a new role. I’m talking here about consistent bad behavior, not isolated incidents. We all face difficult times and can be prickly on occasion. As managers, we shouldn’t be hypervigilant about such things, but we do need to notice patterns and respond to them for the long-term health of our teams.

Most artisans do not trust easily. You, as their manager, also have to prove your value. Many managers seem to think that, somehow, just because they’re the manager, their subordinates have to listen to them and do what they say. That attitude is the quickest way to alienate an artisan. The assumption I make here is that artisans are smarter than most of us. My job as a manager is to recognize artisans, show that I can lead them and make them even more successful, make it okay for them to convey their superior ideas, and support them in every way I can.

Showing your authenticity and competence is a key aspect of getting the support of an artisan in return. If you can show you are comfortable with yourself and your skills, you are displaying confidence. By building confidence in your artisans that you can lead them to greater success than they could achieve by themselves, you demonstrate superior leadership skill. If you see a real talent, you have to lay yourself on the line, listen to the person, and respond genuinely, so you can talk through ideas and arrive at the best solution possible. If you are tempted play power games with an artisan, you might as well start looking for a new job, because that’s not an effective approach to management.

Treat All Employees the Same? No Way!

Jack Welch, in the book Winning [3], suggests rewarding employees differently, according to their performance. He calls a culture that values high performance a meritocracy. In a meritocracy, better performers receive more money, attention, and opportunity. The book First, Break All The Rules [4] recommends that managers should not treat all employees equally. My experience suggests that, if you have true artisans on your team—people who can move your organization from average to excellent—you should give them more responsibility, authority, and recognition and hold them up as examples for others to emulate.

Different employees respond to different motivators, and some aren’t comfortable with public praise. Nonetheless, you need to communicate to your other employees that your artisans are extraordinary. There’s always a way to do this.

Likewise, if you have assholes on your team—people who engender tension, toxicity, or distress and who make your other employees doubt themselves, you, or the group’s vision—you need to remove them from the group, and let your entire team know you will not tolerate destructive behavior. Because you are the boss and are responsible for your entire team, your future success depends on it.

An Example of How Things Can Go Wrong

I recently observed a situation where a good performer in a group complained publicly about an artisan in the same group. What should the manager of these two employees have done? (I know, you don’t have all the details, so it’s difficult to know for sure.) In this case, the manager should have taken a stand, opposing the destructive behavior of the complainer. He should have supported his artisan. Instead, he responded by telling the two employees to get along, which was silly, because the artisan had done nothing wrong. The manager also took some responsibility away from the artisan and gave it to the complainer. Really, that seemed the easiest way. He wanted to stem the flow of complaints; make the dissonance go away. He hoped—in vain, as it turned out—to appease the complainer, so the two employees could move forward smoothly and work without conflict. In response, the artisan immediately prepared his resume and is going to switch groups as soon as possible. He has lost respect for his manager. This complainer had challenging relationships with many people and used confrontation to throw people off their game. Would I certify this person an asshole? Most likely.

We Need to Show Managerial Courage

As a manager, your job is not to appease everyone or—like Michael in the sitcom The Office—to make everyone like you. Your job is to extract the best performance possible, which at times requires managerial courage. So, you need to support your artisans, who execute at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong: If the artisan in the previous example had exhibited destructive behavior, the manager would have had to respond differently—talking with the artisan in private and showing him a better way. In such a case, the manager should not threaten, but instead show the artisan how he could lead by example—by communicating his vision and doing great work. A good leader would give the artisan specific examples of how to behave in order to achieve superior results. As a manager and leader, you need to let people know that destructive behavior is not acceptable, no matter how valuable they are. But my point here is that you should not try to make everyone just get along. You should, in fact, pave the way for artisans to demonstrate their vision and lead by example.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of appeasing complainers and assholes. The intensity of complaints from assholes can be intimidating and make us question our positions. But in the end, you must tell people who undermine others or make them feel bad how to behave properly—and if they cannot behave as you suggest, help them move on to a role in which they can act the way they want—just not in your group.

In every case where I have eliminated even very smart and capable assholes, the environment within the group has immediately felt more uplifting. People again felt free to share openly. Teams always—always!—breathe a collective sigh of relief when assholes depart. In one case, when an asshole left, the members of my team laughed together for the first time in months. Employees came to me afterward and said they had not realized the person—the asshole—had been causing such tension until after the asshole had gone. In fact, while the person was there, many members of the team would have said he should stay, because of his superior skills. But as soon as he was gone, they again felt able to function well.

Assholes Try to Scare You, but Artisans Lead the Way

Now that I’ve pointed out you need to jettison your assholes and listen to your artisans, let me clarify what type of person I mean by each these terms by giving you examples.

The Asshole

In one case, I had a researcher on my team who was reputed to be so creative he would have to have been ten of the most creative people in the world all rolled into one for his reputation to have been warranted. Soon after hiring this person, though, I observed him attempting to lead through fear and intimidation. He relied significantly on his reputation and conveyed the attitude that not only could he answer all questions, but everyone else in the industry knew and supported him. Of course, the implication was that we all needed to listen to his superior wisdom. Unfortunately, he made everyone on the team feel uncomfortable.

Now, it also turned out he was right about many of his suggestions. For example, he suggested our team’s engagement model was wrong: Instead of assigning one person to several projects, I should assign several researchers and designers to each project, so on every project, we could knock the ball out of the park. He also suggested we focus not just on usability, but also on delight. He had a point. Unfortunately, he communicated these ideas through unhealthy confrontation, by publicly correcting others, and shut down two-way communication with other team members almost entirely.

I eliminated this person from the team reluctantly—not because he was not good, but because he did not know how to convey his ideas in a constructive fashion. Nobody felt inspired or confident in his presence. Now, he was probably smarter than me. In fact, we implemented many of his ideas several years after he left our group. The challenge he presented was that he had a bad user interface, and nobody wanted to interact with him.

The Artisan

Let’s look at another example: A different person in the same group helped me see we could deliver results that were superior to any design consultancy—including IDEO, Frog Design, Hot Studios, and other highly qualified design houses. This artisan suggested we could function as an internal consultancy—a Center of Excellence—for others to emulate. He helped me see this by producing artifacts that absolutely wowed stakeholders. He excited the group with the power of his vision.

In the end, I stopped assigning one person to many projects and, instead, assigned multiple people with different skill sets to individual projects. Rather than producing average results on dozens of projects, we delivered excellent results on a few projects. I gave this artisan room to show what he could do, and he produced artifacts that excited stakeholders. For years afterward, these stakeholders showed the artifacts our group had produced to their visitors. Once we enacted his vision, this artisan did not single-handedly achieve our group’s superior results. But as a group, we delivered much, much more than 10X greater value than we previously had delivered.

The Outcome

The results the artisan achieved were perhaps close to what the asshole had envisioned. Unfortunately, the asshole did not have the ability to excite people, to get them involved at a visceral level, to get them involved emotionally through great communication and superior execution. The asshole could not lead by example. He got his power only through belittlement. In the end, the team saw him as the asshole he was, even though he was a very smart person, and they saw the artisan as a superhero.

Identify Behavioral Expectations for Artisans Versus Assholes

As I mentioned earlier, you need to reward artisans and set clear behavioral expectations for all members of your team. You also need to be able to point out negative behaviors and articulate how they fail to meet the expectations you’ve set for your organization. I’ve talked about the positive behaviors that are characteristic of good employees in previous columns, but let me give just three examples here. Designers and researchers need to be:

  • strong advocates—Such people are enthusiastic about team engagements, constructive in their criticism, and honest in their communications, but with compassion for others. Advocates show they trust their teammates and instill trust in others.
  • effective communicators—Effective communication is concise, constructive, and consistent. You want your team members to respond positively and persuasively to negative issues voiced by stakeholders, peers, managers, or direct reports. Effective communicators disseminate more information than other people minimally need. They wait for a person to finish his or her point before responding. They verify that they’re understood correctly by asking open-ended questions that draw out the listener’s understanding.
  • team players—Such people are a positive influence on your team and contribute to your team’s success. They provide constructive input on projects and collaborate well. Team players support and act in accordance with final group decisions, even when such decisions do not entirely reflect their own positions. They respect and are tolerant of differing opinions. And they seek recognition for the team rather than seeking individual credit.

I strongly recommend that you identify all of the behavioral dimensions that are important in your organization—things like advocacy, communication, and teamwork—then identify the specific characteristics that define those dimensions. Finally, measure your employees against those characteristics.

Articulating behavioral expectations provides a common language that facilitates communication between employees and their managers. It even helps employees self-normalize. How can you come up with these behavioral dimensions and attributes? I’ve found that interviewing your most successful employees and the best team players can help you establish a foundation. If you need help, let me know. I’m happy to help. 


[1] Sutton, Robert I. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2007.

[2] Patterson, Kerry, Al Switzler, and Ron McMillan. Crucial Confrontations: Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

[3] Welch, Jack, and Suzy Welch. Winning. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

[4] Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 1999.

Chief User Experience Strategist at Experience Outcomes

Los Altos, California, USA

Jim NietersA design leader for 17 years, Jim loves every minute of helping companies create competitive advantage by designing experiences that differentiate. He has worked with a range of companies—from startups to Fortune-500 companies—most recently as Senior VP of Customer Engagement at Monaker Group. He previously led User Experience at HP, Yahoo, and Cisco and has advised numerous startups. Jim chooses to work with brilliant clients, helping them unlock their unbounded potential by envisioning and designing end-to-end experiences that disrupt markets and engaging users emotionally. He often works with UX leaders to help them work through organizational challenges and ensure User Experience has the visibility it deserves and can design experiences that make the team proud. Jim also conducts design-value assessments for his clients, identifying gaps in their ability to differentiate on the experience, then helping them close those gaps and become extraordinary.  Read More

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