How to survive an AUP boss

Anyone working in a big organisation is bound to come across an AUP every now and again. No clue what I'm on about? Well, look away now if you're easily offended. AUPs are *cough* “Assholes Under Pressure”.

It's no surprise that some firms are infested with these characters. Most AUPs won't like us throwing shade on them; they generally stand behind the “I'm more senior and people were terrible to me, so...” argument.

Also, I appreciate that for the more conservative ones amongst you, this might all seem a bit too forthright. If so, that's cool, because that means you're probably not in the presence of an AUP very often. You lucky thing! But, for everyone else, these people can be toxic to great workplaces and great work.

In case you haven't cottoned on yet, an AUP shows their true colours under pressure. And, boy are they under pressure often! Whether it be time pressure, home pressure or any other kind of pressure you can think of.

Now, we can all get a bit narky when put to the torch. But, you have to be special to get the AUP title as it's more about long-term AUP-ism. Generally speaking, when things hit the fan, AUPs fail to take personal responsibility. They're not very self-reflective. They like to use their power to make other people's lives difficult. And, to top it all off, they generally believe that anything goes for the right outcome. AUPs are the opposite of the “cool cucumber”. They inflict harm and negativity on everyone around them with their poor attitude - and that's before they even open their mouth. AUPs make work pretty toxic, especially if you are unlucky enough to be a subordinate to one.

I know that being the boss can be bloody hard. I'll be the first to admit that. You have to take on all the responsibility, people take advantage of you, and you will inevitably not always be at your best. You are probably spinning a million plates and sometimes that extra pressure pushes you over the edge. Just because you might lose your “cool cucumber” status every now and then doesn't make you an AUP - it just makes you human. The key difference is that AUPs demonstrate, over a sustained period of time, an inability to handle pressure and a real ability to feed a toxic environment.

Sadly, all organisations can be infiltrated by AUPs. It's kinda funny that we don't like to speak openly about them. I guess it's out of fear, really. But, while there are few in number across the general population, if you work for one there's no way to dismiss it. They're clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Obviously many firms and organisations try their very hardest to make sure they never hire them, and move them on when they do. But, the thing with AUPs is that they can be hard to spot and you never really know you have one until they have infiltrated your ranks.

There are a few problems to be solved here:

  • How can organisations stop hiring AUPs? And, if you do hire them, what can you do about them?

  • If you're the poor sod working for an AUP, how can you manage it?

  • If you sometimes become an AUP, what can you do about it?

The “no dickheads” approach to filtering out AUPs

As you can imagine, a lot of human resources theory has been written about creating a process to avoid hiring an AUP in the first place. As someone who has interviewed literally thousands of lawyers over the last 15 years, I can tell you that there are some pretty great signs one is sitting in front of you.

Firstly, they are really rare. And you always have a gut feeling about them. Maybe it's because they never return your calls, or they act aloof, or they're clearly putting on an act. If you've interviewed enough people, you can almost smell it... Somehow, I can even smell it down the phone.

In any case, a great way to weed them out is by having a “No D!ckheads” policy. It's a bit of a catch-all. Basically, it boils down to not hiring anyone who has shown any behaviour you wouldn't tolerate in your organisation.

During the interview process, you could put them under pressure and shift things around a bit to see how flexible they are vs. how entitled they are. This way, you'll see the warning signs early on.

A novel way to spot one is to ask for a reference from a former assistant or trainee lawyer. Or by asking clients or former clients, as many of these people are known around town for their behaviour. These are some good approaches to make before extending an offer.

From an organisational perspective, AUPs are far easier to recognise in senior hires. And this is the crux of the problem: Some firms want to hire partners to bring in work, regardless of whether they are AUPs. As stupid and short-sighted as that may seem, the siloed nature of most firms means that a partner sitting on another floor might not care in the slightest about hiring an AUP, as long as they add to the equity pool. This is a choice. As a partnership or organisation, you either choose to hire them, or you choose not to. And, all the lovely values statements on your website and hanging on your wall will mean nothing if you choose to turn a blind eye. The problem with partnerships is that the person paying the price for the AUP is generally not the decision-maker. They are the junior lawyers sacrificed to appease the AUP's hunger.

It's not an easy choice, but it's a choice nonetheless.

Removing the AUP

So, you're a CEO or Managing Partner with a few AUPs in your ranks. This is a tough position to be in. On the one hand, you have to decide what type of culture is acceptable. On the other, you need to balance the partnership's profit expectations and the reality of dealing with people who have client relationships that are important for the firm. It's quite the conundrum. I guess it boils down to how important your culture and your values are as a place, vs. the

It's quite the conundrum. I guess it boils down to how important your culture and your values are as a place, vs. the money, because you really are making a decision between the two.

A sporting analogy might give it some interesting perspective: The Queensland Maroons (Rugby League) are one of the most successful sporting teams in Australian history, winning 10 of the last 11 State of Origin series. What sets them apart is culture, which was on full display last year when an off-field situation saw the management team stand down 8 potential players. Queensland were willing to lose the series to protect their culture. Some of the guys who were stood down would have been picked to play. But, the reason the side has been successful for so long is because they were all pulling in the same direction. They went on to win the series anyway. Of those 8 guys who were stood down, all but one was picked this year, after they had paid their penalty - and they won the series again. This year, the shoe was on the other foot. Two players from NSW (the opposing team) broke curfew, and it was swept under the rug until they lost.

So, as a management team, do you want to be like Queensland or like NSW?

Working with an AUP

Sadly, even great firms can let the odd AUP through. A number of our readers have asked us how they should handle an AUP once they find out they are at the mercy of one.

Well, it's tough. There are probably at least 5 guides on your firm's intranet telling you how you can deal with difficult people internally. Read them and, if they are good, follow them.

Doing my research on how other people deal with asshole bosses, I came across this terrific article by Andrea Tunjic. Andrea talks about the conscious and unconscious asshole. Her point is that the unconscious ones can be remedied, as they have no idea what they are doing and just need a bit of help. The conscious one, however, is an asshole because they choose to be. That's a different cat right there. She makes the point that you either leave, you plan to leave, you become more like the bully, or you deal with your own inner victim voice.

You need to ask yourself, why are they an AUP? What is causing this behaviour? Can you be part of the solution or are you going to make things worse? What support do you have in your organisation to help manage the situation? How can you seek help outside to manage the situation?

The really big, important thing to remember is that there is always help at hand. If you feel stuck, there are lots of ways internally and externally to try and mitigate it.

I have a confession to make

I am too much of a people pleaser to be an AUP. Although, as a human who quite regularly loses his cool internally, I know how easy it must be for AUPs to focus their energy on blaming others.

While I might be targeting the AUP for destruction, I also think that most can be rehabilitated. So, if you are one, you can do something about it.

Start to take some notice of how you react to situations when the pressure starts to mount. Self-reflection can be enough to wake us up and create the circumstances where we make change.

Then, be prepared to ask for some help. Something is putting you under tremendous strain, enough to not be the person you want to be, so you have to do something about it. Either that, or you really are an asshole.

For those around you, if you make an effort, they will reciprocate. And the burden, the pressure or whatever it is that is driving your behaviour will become less.

More than anything, know that you can change if you want to and that there are people around you to help. There's actually a lot of help out there. If you can't find it, just drop us a line and we'll see if we can help you sort out the pressure bit, while you be the person you want to be.

Be a non-AUP, and be proud of it.