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?

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