Asshole friends. Why are they necessary?

My friend Mishka. She frequently causes me pain and public humiliation. Mishka doesn’t care, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned.

We need ‘difficult’ friends. I think everyone needs a ‘difficult’ person in their life. That awkward git that won’t shut up and tells you exactly why your brilliant idea is doomed to failure. They aren’t afraid of offending or hurting your feelings, publicly embarrassing you, treading on your toes and causing a ‘stink’. Just what’s needed to ‘save you from your self’. Or maybe not.

Apologies for the profanity in the title – sometimes you just need to say you really mean. For the rest of the post I’m just going to say ‘difficult’, so I get past the NSFW* filters, and don’t offend any puritanical LinkedIn types.

At the moment I’ve got a few reasons for bringing up ‘difficult’ friends:

  • First of, I’ve been involved in a few recruitment interviews and I’ve been reflecting on how I would answer the question “how do you challenge yourself to make sure you are continuously learning and improving?”
  • Secondly, I’ve been listening to a friend talk about someone who has surrounded themselves with sycophantic ‘yes people’. The result has been they have made some bad decisions because nobody was prepared to challenge them, and
  • Thirdly, somebody has wound me up, by acting like an a**hole. Which made me think, do I actually need someone like this in my life?

Feedback, the breakfast of champions. A while back I wrote about The Ladder of Inference. Climbing Down from Expert Bias. It was an attempt to explain the risks of not challenging assumptions or failing to seek feedback. There’s a lovely phrase in the original work on organisational learning by Prof Chris Argyris that says you need to, ‘climb down the ladder of inference’ to seek alternative views and evidence. Nowadays we might say something like ‘I need to be aware of confirmation bias’.

This is great in theory but, it does require that you are willing to do the ‘climbing down’. You also need to have people around you that will directly tell you what they think. In reality, I’m not sure this happens as enthusiastically as we would like to admit. If you do have colleagues that are ‘brutally honest’, especially if you are their boss, and you are listening, well done you.

Feedback for ‘free’! This is where the ‘difficult’ friend comes in. You don’t have to struggle through the hard work of deliberately ‘climbing down’ from anything to seek feedback, you are having it whether you want it or not. They have no problem offending you, or hurting your feelings so what you are getting will be brutally honest. If you are the boss surrounded by ‘yes people’ this is the ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ call you can’t ignore. How good is that. Even better, the service comes for free, but there may be hidden costs…

The hidden costs of ‘difficult’ friends.

Who are these people? Too much of anything can be bad for you – this applies strongly to ‘difficult friends’. So, in an attempt to understand what is going on I’ve bought a book that explains the theory. I haven’t finished it yet but I do feel compelled to share what I know so far.

The first thing is that there are characteristics that define these people and their impact:

  • They have a huge ego and a view that they are ‘right’,
  • This leads to a sense of entitlement that ‘rules don’t apply’ to them,
  • Other people’s feelings are inconsequential,
  • The damage they cause is difficult to quantify and tends to be relatively moderate (hurt feelings etc),
  • But it does leave you feeling bruised, enraged and annoyed (they can ruin a sunny day).

I’m sure you might be thinking. I know exactly who you are describing – the reason is because they are everywhere (we probably all have tendencies).

The second thing I’ve learnt is that you don’t change this particular variety of ‘difficult person’ by pointing things out to them. According to the book this just reinforces their view that you are an idiot who’s not worth listening to.

So, what do you do? I’m still reading the book, so I’ll get back to you on that. What I do think is that there are considerable benefits in having a ‘difficult friend’ in your life. For some people you may be blessed with having them as work colleagues – if so, harness that power to help you ‘climb down the ladder of inference’. If not, look beyond into your social groups or even your family connections. Use the power of the a**hole to help you make better decisions. Just don’t overdo your exposure to them.

Finally. If anyone is thinking, ‘He’s written this about Me!’ You are wrong. That’s one of the tests. If someone thinks they might meet the criteria, they probably aren’t one. It’s the people who think none of this applies to me are the ones worth ‘befriending’, cautiously.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Seeking honest feedback can be a chore. A ‘difficult’ friend can do that for you, proactively and robustly.
  2. If you are a boss surrounded by ‘yes people’ it is exactly the voice you need to listen to.
  3. Don’t overdo it and ration your exposure. This is why having them at ‘arms length’ might work best. If you sup with the devil, use a long spoon.

NSFW* = Not Safe For Work

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Brilliant absolutely brilliant! He says while wondering how many arsehole lists he’s probably on. Now finish the book.

    Not forgetting obviously any of your Neuro Diverse friends for whom it’s less about being willing to hurt any feelings that they have trouble assimilating. ‘Innocent honesty’ is the way I like to think about a few of my friends, after calling them an arsehole 🤣🤣

  2. You got me thinking about dissent, with points 1 and 2 at the end, because strip away the asshole label and then, often, we are dealing with people who dissent. They are the ones who get labelled as cynical and difficult rather than thinking critically. One person’s asshole is another’s?…

    There is a great HBR article from 2002 called What Makes Great Boards Great, and it articulates perfectly the value of dissent.

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