You work on big, important projects that involve many moving parts and many different teams. You work hard to deliver your piece on time and with high quality. No one can claim that you’re the one who held things up. No, it’s always those clueless, slow, self-centered, self-righteous, uncooperative, bureaucratic, unresponsive, opaque, evasive, reckless, late, unaccountable, passive-aggressive jackasses you depend upon who slip the schedule and screw up the project.
Why are evil people still employed when they constantly cause calamities? I mean, who hires these scoundrels? How do they keep their jobs? The workplace seems to be full of them. You can’t get through a meeting without idiocy exposed. What is going on?
There are two possibilities: the world is an evil place with evil people out to sabotage your work, or miscommunication and misunderstandings are rampant. Which one is it? Obviously, misunderstandings are rampant, but I’ll bet you thought long and hard about assuming evil.
Does evil exist in the world? Of course it does. Psychopathy is a well-documented condition, and objectification of others based on prejudice and ignorance is as old as society itself. However, it’s a stretch to say that evil explains common collaboration concerns.
What about stupidity and selfishness—surely they explain the bulk of irrational interpersonal interactions? Certainly people can be stupid and self-serving. However, the Microsoft hiring process screens primarily for intellect, capability, and passion. While coworkers may say and do stupid or selfish things at times, those people aren’t likely to be truly stupid and selfish. Ignorant and misinformed are far more probable explanations.
You could assume coworkers are evil or dumb anyway. It certainly would make you feel superior. You’d also feel triumphant when you manage to complete your work alone. However, a short-term solo gain is almost always vastly exceeded by the broad impact of a winning collaboration.
Time to look in the mirror. How long has it been since you did or said something stupid? Days? Hours? Minutes? Yeah, we’re all quite capable of cluelessness.
Do you care about making a difference in people’s lives, delivering great products and experiences that change the world? Yeah, you probably do, and so do your imperfect coworkers.
The point is that the people you work with are smart and try to do the right thing—just like you. The trick isn’t to avoid or work around them. The trick is to understand their perspective and help them understand yours. Then you can be smart and do the right thing together.
I discuss dealing with difficult dudes in You're no bargain either. And yes, gals can be dudes.
When a partner team is late, ask about the problem—with curiosity. Instead of assuming the team members are evil, assume they have real problems and tradeoffs, just like you. Seek to understand what’s happening, and try to learn from it.
If a partner team’s priorities don’t match your own, recognize what’s driving their team’s priorities, and then discuss the ways in which yours are different and why. Appreciate differences in expectations about quality, timelines, milestones, and commitment. There isn’t one right answer—work out the right middle ground together.
I talk about strong communication in “You talking to me?” (chapter 8). I cover negotiation and dealing with dependencies in “My way or the highway” (chapter 8) and You can depend on me.
Once people have a common understanding of each other, they work far better together. Even when people agree to disagree or decide to work apart, the agreement is made with appreciation and respect.
So next time people sound dumb or uncooperative, don’t assume the worst. Instead, assume either you or they are misinformed or have misunderstood. Ask questions with real curiosity. Shed light on what’s different or missing. Come to a shared viewpoint, and then move forward together. If you think the best of others, they may even think the best of you.
You might think this column evokes Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” However, as I mention earlier, stupidity is also not the common cause. The real culprit is usually misunderstanding.
A more detailed and apropos analysis can be found in the fifth habit of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”