Responding to organizational stupidity: To highlight or understand?

People in organizations make stupid statements all the time. They get the facts wrong in presentations. They make nonsensical statements in meetings. They portray an undoubtedly incorrect conclusion as the Gospel truth.

Assuming you want to respond to a stupid statement, you face a choice. Should you highlight the stupidity latent in the statement, or should you try to understand its source? In my experience, one of these choices is more appealing to most people, but the other can make life more negotiable.

To see which is which, let’s conduct a thought experiment (inspired by Pascal’s famous wager): Suppose you’re sitting in a presentation, and the person presenting—a visitor from another department, perhaps—keeps saying something that strikes you as patently wrong. It’s time to ask questions, and you now face a choice: use your question to highlight the stupidity of the statement (e.g., “Why do you keep saying X when it’s Y?”) or use it to try and understand the source of the stupidity (e.g., “Can you tell me more about your thinking on X?”)?

Having heard one of those questions, the presenter then responds. And here’s the critical question: What’s everybody else in the room going to think of you and presenter after they do? A moment’s reflection suggests that it depends the presenter’s response—namely, whether they have any semblance of a good reason for saying X, even though you think it’s Y. As anyone who has worked in an organization knows, they very well may not—but they just well may.

Let’s consider the four possibilities, along with the likely perceptions of the others in the room:

  1. You highlight the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. But everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  2. You highlight the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. Everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  3. You try to understand the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everything thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. Everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.
  4. You try to understand the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. But everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.

Obviously, I’m overstating others’ perceptions for dramatic effect. But it’s easy to see your best possible outcome (#3) occurs when you try to understand the stupidity, and your worst outcome (#2) when you highlight it. Additionally, consider decades of research showing that people place more emphasis on a person’s warmth than their competence when making interpersonal judgments—they generally care more about a person’s benevolence than their brains. And consider recent research showing that people may place even more emphasis on a person’s integrity, which would seem to overlap somewhat with the above qualities of humility and maturity. Both streams of research would suggest that the worst possible outcome you could get by trying to understand the stupidity (#4) is better than the best outcome you could get by highlighting it (#1).

In short, if you buy my predictions and the research I just mentioned, it rarely makes sense to highlight the stupidity. Unfortunately, that option seems to hold a nearly boundless appeal for many members of organizations. Little do they know they’re making life less negotiable…

How do you respond to stupid comments in organizations?


Dealing with the rigid rule enforcer: The case of the miniscule backpack

Last weekend, I showed up at a professional football game wearing a tiny hiking backpack—I mean, a pack small enough to scale Mt. Everest without breaking much of a sweat. But of course, the friendly gate agent informed me that this particular bag was “too big to go into the stadium.”

“Is there a locker where I can store it?” I asked. “It’s too big to go into the stadium,” she reiterated, incoherently. “Ok, I’m with you,” I said, “but is there a locker where I can store it, or do I have to throw it away?” (having taken a cab and not having many other options short of skipping the game or burying it in a bush). “You’ll have to remove the contents and put them into this plastic bag,” she said, still not answering the locker question but finally providing at least the specter of some useful information.

Now why would they care whether the contents remained in the bag or went into a clear plastic bag of almost exactly the same proportions, I thought? And why would she not process the locker question? Aha! I realized. They don’t really give a hoot about my bag or its size; they just want to monitor its contents. “Ok, I’ll do that,” I responded, “and can I fold up my backup and put it into my pocket?” “Go ahead,” she replied, finally mustering a direct reply to my consistently direct questions.

Now, I won’t claim that this represented an act of intellectual genius, as anyone could’ve surely come up with the same solution. Nor will I claim that it was an easy fold job, as the seams of my shorts expanded to epic proportions before the agent finally waved me by. Nor will I belittle the agent or her stubborn insistence on the rules, considering the omnipresent dangers of the present age.

Still, this experience reflects an annoyingly common opportunity to make life negotiable: our many interactions with the many organizational actors whose job is to merely and mindlessly enforce the rules—budget cops, scheduling cops, office supply cops. Few of us enjoy conversing with such people. Most of us resent their rigidity and stubborn refusal to peek even an eyeball outside the box. Yet, making life negotiable involves setting aside our resentment and separating the rule enforcer from the rule.

Stubborn and incoherent as the rule enforcer may seem, their intransigence often reflects someone else’s insistence that they enforce the rule, mixed with defensiveness borne of countless interactions with people who consider the rule ridiculous. Indeed, even if stubbornness and incoherence represent core tenets of their personality, nobody’s going to get very far by fixating on the enforcer’s idiocy. Rather, I’d advise you and anyone else who encounters a rule enforcer to focus on the rule—specifically, to try and ascertain what real concern lurks behind it. In the case of the miniscule backpack, for example, the rule emphasized pack size but the rule arose from an underlying concern with the many nefarious things that nefarious people might put into large bags. Having implicitly understood that, I was able to uncover a creative a solution that satisfied the concern and thus the enforcer, if not the letter of the rule.

Now, I’m fully aware that this approach will not always work. I’ve dealt with a fair number of enforcers myself, and I realize that some are so fixated on the rule that their ears spontaneously fill with wax the moment you dither at their directive. Still, I’ve found that a surprising number of rule enforcers, faced with someone curious about the concern rather than intent on cursing the ground they walk on, will at least open their ears to the possibility of a third way.

So here’s the real point: the world is full of rules and people who enforce them. Faced with an enforcer, you can either fixate on them or the rule they’re enforcing. I’d recommend fixating on the rule and trying to understand the underlying concern, thereby raising at least the specter of a creative solution.

How do you deal with the rule enforcers?

Dealing with the dense: Implicit negotiation

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking my daughters to one of those fall farm thingies—you know, the combination hayride / pumpkin patch / opportunity to pet some animals? At one point, my four-year old expressed a desire to climb up and drive a pretend wooden tractor, only to be pushed aside by a boy at least twice her age.

Apparently he needed to drive that tractor to Tahiti, as he was up in the saddle for at least five minutes. And apparently his father was heading to Tahiti too (or left his brain there), as he showed no particular concern for my eagerly awaiting daughter or the line of increasingly anxious toddlers behind her. “Daddy, I wanna get UP there!” mine insisted.

Now here’s an approach that can make life negotiable, I thought. Speaking loudly enough to be heard over the engine of a tractor, even though this particular tractor didn’t have one, I replied: “You’ll have to wait your turn, honey. It’s important for EVERYONE to take turns on this tractor.” Apparently that reply loosened a few lug nuts in the dense guy’s head, as he rapidly summoned his progeny down from the tractor. And up went my four-year old.

Fall farm thingies aren’t the only venues in which we face the prospect of confrontations with potentially dense people. If they were, this story would be little more than a funny diversion. But I’d guess that most of us, at some point in our professional lives, have had to deal with a coworker who wasn’t pulling their weight. Right? 

In these situations, like the tractor showdown, emotions build while conflicts brew. In these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might eventually have to confront the problematic person head-on. But in these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might save everyone a few headaches by trying another strategy first: implicit negotiation, in which we signal our concerns by saying something to someone else.

Suppose that Jim wasn’t pulling his weight on a three-person team also consisting of you and Jane. You could potentially confront Jim, and you may yet have to do that. But first, why not strike up a conversation with Jane when Jim happens to be sitting in the next cube (and probably surfing the net)? “Jane,” you might say loudly, I’m concerned that you had to assume too much responsibility for the last report. It’s important that we all do our fair share. How can we make sure that none of us has to do too much on the next report?” You might even coordinate her reply in a little pre-meeting huddle.

Now, Jim, head buried in the Daily Mail, may not hear you, in which case you’ll have to deal with him directly. Then again, it’s always possible Jim, like the dense dad with the tractor kid, will actually hear you and densely process the implications.

It’s not a foolproof strategy, but what strategies are? Nevertheless, I’ve found implicit negotiation better than direct confrontation, if it just so happens to penetrate some grey matter.

Have you ever used implicit negotiation?


To each their own: Technological solutions to negotiation

Last weekend, my daughter and I went to Home Depot. As a means of making the errand slightly more interesting, I let her bring her LeapPad – basically a miniature iPad for learning. During the drive, she was playing her LeapPad, and I was listening to my music. Apparently the music was interfering with the LeapPad’s lovely sound effects, however, as she pointedly told me to cut the tunes.

Ha! I thought. Here’s a solution that will make life negotiable. I’ll put the music entirely in front and on the driver’s side, allowing me to enjoy my music Leap-free. And she, in the back seat on the passenger side, can enjoy her LeapPad music-free.

Then ha! I thought. What a perfect topic for a blog post, as technologies like these provide a wonderful way of achieving everyone’s goals concurrently. And technologies like these abound: Different temperatures for different sides of the car, individual lights for individual seats on planes, separate TVs for each machine at the gym. Technologies like these offer a metaphor for success in many negotiations, since solutions that meet multiple parties’ most important goals at the same time are good solutions.

At the same time, the music solution led me to wonder whether the effects of these technologies and the solutions they enable are uniformly positive. Yes, my daughter got what she wanted, and yes, so did I. But we both got what we wanted by essentially ignoring the others’ needs. Is that really the best kind of solution that two people—particularly two family members—could reach to a problem? Perhaps not. What if I had asked her to tell me more about her game and why the sounds matter? What if we had agreed to listen to her Leap Pad on the way to Home Depot, and my music on the way home? Or agreed to play her LeapPad games without their lovely music? Or agreed that her learning was more important than my entertainment? Or decided on an entirely different solution, like talking to each other on the way to Home Depot? Perhaps one or more of those solutions would’ve not only met our needs but also helped us to understand each other better at the same time.

So what’s the point? The learning, for me, is that technologies like the ones in our car can be incredibly powerful for helping multiple parties meet their needs, but that meeting needs is not the sum total of a successful negotiation. A successful negotiation not only meets the parties’ needs but also leads the parties to a greater understanding, thus bringing them closer together and more likely to thrive in their future negotiations. So next time, I’m going to resist the pull of the radio settings, and try a different approach instead—one that enables me to better understand my daughter’s needs at the same time. You see, not even negotiation professors profess to know all the answers. But we do profess that all of life is a negotiation, meaning that opportunities to learn about negotiation and make life negotiable are all around us.

Saving time by learning to trust yourself

In a world where work-life balance seems like a quaint anachronism, most of us have to find every possible efficiency just to get our jobs done—especially when working on difficult tasks that require multiple rounds of revision: detailed reports, complicated analyses, complex pieces of software code. Though efficiencies on such tasks are often hard to come by, I’ve gradually learned to appreciate the relevance of an important lesson from negotiation research: the importance of trust.

Whereas negotiation research urges people to trust their counterparts, though, I’ve learned that complicated tasks make it equally important to trust myself! Indeed, I’ve come to realize that trusting myself—and especially the work I’ve already completed—can make even the hardest tasks more negotiable. Here’s hoping a short blog post can convince you too.

So imagine yourself working on a long and difficult task requiring multiple rounds of revision. A few lessons from the research on trust in negotiations that transfer to the inherent negotiations with yourself:

  • Assume trustworthiness: Negotiators are advised to assume their counterpart is trustworthy, and thus give themselves at least a fighting chance of starting a virtuous cycle. Likewise, when you have to work and rework the same difficult document, you might want to assume that the you who typed the prior version was just as trustworthy as the you who’s reading it now. In other words, make the necessary corrections when you reread, but don’t spend an inordinate amount of time second-guessing yourself over minor judgment calls.
  • Build trust over time: Even if they start with low levels of trust, negotiators are advised to intentionally build trust with their counterparts over time. Likewise, as you labor through numerous difficult professional tasks over the course of a career, try to give yourself increasing amounts of latitude each time. That is, cultivate an increasing appreciation for your own level of trustworthiness (see #1), trusting your initial intuitions more and more through time.
  • Don’t do anything untrustworthy: Negotiators are advised to avoid doing anything that would destroy the trust of their counterparts. Likewise, as you build your trust with yourself (see #2), take care to avoid any actions that would undermine your subsequent self-trust—by typing an important document while sleepy or suffering the influence of strong emotions, for example. Trust only builds when people are consistently trustworthy.
  • Incorporate any priors: Negotiators are always advised to incorporate any prior knowledge about their counterparts into their trust decisions. If a counterpart has lied before, chances are he hasn’t suddenly decided to reorganize his entire life around the categorical imperative. Likewise, if you increasingly trust yourself but start to identify some situations in which you yourself are not very trustworthy—sections of a document you know you struggle with, for example—distrust yourself enough to know that you’re going to have to focus your revision efforts there.

Over time, I’ve learned that trusting myself not only helps me complete high-quality tasks much more efficiently. It also feels a lot better than doubting myself constantly and redoing my own work for a negligible benefit and a considerable time cost.

How do you decide whether to trust your prior work?