While taking part in a web discussion for Variety last week, the director and actress Olivia Wilde was asked by fellow film-maker Emerald Fennell to describe the origins of the “no asshole policy” that Wilde has introduced on set. The director of the brilliant coming-of-age comedy Booksmart happily expounded. The policy was born of a conversation with a “very established actor and director in this industry”, she explained, who once gave her some “really terrible advice”.

“They said: ‘Listen, the way to get respect on a set, you have to have three arguments a day. Three big arguments that reinstate your power, remind everyone who’s in charge, be the predator.’ That is the opposite of my process,” she concluded. “And I want none of that.” 

Stories that Wilde has a zero-tolerance strategy for Hollywood’s more notorious egos have been circulating for months. In December, it was reported that her lead actor, Shia LaBeouf, had left her upcoming picture Don’t Worry Darling because the actor was behaving “poorly” and that his “style” was not compatible with the other cast members on set. His role has been filled by the professionally charming pop crumpet and androgyne Harry Styles.

Instead of heeding the counsel to encourage workplace conflict, Wilde has decided to nurture a more collaborative work environment in which she insists the cast and crew behave as one. Having said that — she’s still the boss lady. “I don’t think anyone on a set has ever forgotten who’s in charge,” she added. “It is, in fact, an incredibly hierarchical system . . . The ‘no assholes’ policy — it puts everybody on the same level.”

Few of us are in a position to jettison people with whom we have “style” issues from our professional orbit, but Wilde’s analysis offers an interesting lesson on the value found in bad advice. The film industry is famous for its atmosphere of toxicity and hubris, but it is by no means the only work culture in which intimidation and aggression are interpreted as virtues and where kindness is still considered a mark of being weak. In many offices the system rewards muscular behaviour and a preparedness to tough it out.

When I asked friends and colleagues about the worst career advice they’d been given, many recalled being told to be more pugnacious, to assume a mantle of aggression or, on one occasion, to put themselves at physical risk. One was told to “come across as arrogant” when trying to get a job in the City. He was later advised that another job for which he was applying (as a subeditor) would require “a helluva big pair of balls”. Which still pales in absurdity next to the unsolicited advice, offered to a theatre director, that one would “never regret punching someone with whom you disagree”.

Conversely, when it came to women, bad advice often followed the logic that the field of work in which they might be interested was too “competitive”, “unsuitable” or “sensitive” to suit the fairer sex. As often as women were encouraged to use gender to their advantage — one writer was told by a former employer that she would have to be “more flirtatious” if she wanted to get stories (ick) — other womanly characteristics were not considered cool. I fondly remember the friendly advice I was once offered not to be a “fishwife” and that I should learn to “shut my mouth”. 

From Hollywood to Handforth Parish Council, whose chaotic, apoplectic online meeting has become a viral sensation, the power dynamics of the workplace are still too often governed by the threat of anger, reprisal and even subterfuge. The tyrannical manager, the combustible renegade, the office psycho: all of these are familiar characters with whom we are advised to negotiate rather than try to change. “You’re not their friend, you’re the boss,” is the oft-quoted homily among mentor types who believe the best qualities of leadership are inaccessibility and a corner-office den. 

Thankfully, people such as Wilde have helped dislodge this carapace of power. And the pandemic is having an effect, too. As demonstrated by the Handforth Zoom debacle, nothing punctures the aura of brute authority more than trying to enact it via a screen. While it may work to huff and puff around the office as you make your presence felt, overt aggression and grandstanding in a virtual meeting just comes across as comical. It’s also completely ineffective — what’s the point in shouting when everyone’s on mute?

Perhaps Wilde’s no asshole policy has helped illuminate a shift towards a new collaborative thinking. And challenged the long-held wisdom that being a tough guy — or girl — is the key to getting on. Hers is a good case for the value of bad counsel. Sometimes a contradictory opinion is just the thing to set your mind and send you on your way. 

And sometimes bad advice is simply terrible. Possibly the best worst I’ve heard came via an FT writer who was advised by a well-known national opinionator not to take a bathroom break shortly before going on live TV. He thought it would build dramatic tension. “Dreadful idea and I didn't think of trying it,” my colleague reassures me. Can anyone top that?

What is the worst career advice you have ever received? Were there consequences? Tell us about it in the comments section below

Jo Ellison is editor of the FT’s How to Spend It magazine

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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