How to work with “stupid” people

On Quora today I saw a question to the effect of: How do I put up with the stupid people I inevitably find myself working with? Here’s my answer:


I consider myself reasonably intelligent, yet I have had no problem surrounding myself with people at or above my intellectual level. I’ve also had good relationships with co-workers at all levels of intelligence. Unless you’re a world-class genius (statistically unlikely), you are probably mis-diagnosing people as stupid.

I’ll assume that you’re not just lashing out at others as a defense mechanism against your own insecurities (although you need honestly ask yourself that). I’ll assume that you sincerely believe that other people are stupid, probably based on finding it difficult to discuss things and agree with them.

But what you’re really evaluating is their judgment. Differences in judgment are rarely due to stupidity—in work, in friendships or in politics. You can’t address the problem until you identify the real cause. Calling everyone “stupid” leaves you with no next steps.

Here’s a guide for what to do instead:

Before you even decide that you disagree with someone, work to understand their judgment. You may not disagree at all. For instance:

  • Do you fully understand what they’re saying? Or are you talking past each other?
  • Are you answering the same question? Maybe each of you is answering a different angle on the question (e.g., “what’s our next step?” vs. “what’s the long-term solution?”)
  • Are you using terms in the same way? Sometimes disagreements come from differing definitions and terminology.
  • Are you talking completely in abstractions? Give examples, and ask them for examples, to get clear and concrete.
  • Are you both being clear and precise in your formulations? Sometimes people phrase things loosely or talk in metaphors that aren’t meant to be taken literally.

Ask questions, make sure you understand them fully.

If you decide that you disagree, work to understand their thinking process:

  • What are the reasons for their conclusion?
  • What is their evidence? What observations or data points are they relying on?
  • What general premises or lessons do they take to be relevant? What principles, frameworks, or theories are they applying?
  • What goals and values are conditioning their approach?

Ask them (and learn to do it without threatening or intimidating them). You may change your mind through the process.

If not, at least you will understand better how to reason with them:

  • Have you seen important data that they haven’t? Maybe they missed a key fact, or they just haven’t seen the breadth or depth of data that you have. Inform them and see if they come around.
  • Do you have relevant experience that they don’t? Tell them the observations or lessons learned that lead you to your conclusion (without being didactic or condescending).
  • Are you bringing different lessons learned from different backgrounds? If so, which context applies, if either? Maybe one of you has mostly worked at startups and the other mostly at big companies. Which context is relevant here?
  • Is either of you making an unwarranted assumption? There are lessons learned and then there are “lessons” that you guessed about and forgot to validate through experience or research. If you disagree with their premises, address that directly.
  • Are you guided by different goals and values? If so, you’ll reach different solutions to a problem. Get aligned on goals before arguing about problems and solutions.
  • Do you subscribe to different relevant theories? If so, you may not be able to resolve the disagreement quickly, and may need to take another approach (e.g., pick anything reasonable and measure the outcome, or let a third party make the decision).

Throughout all of this reasoning, be aware of the emotional context:

  • Are they afraid of the conclusion? Maybe it threatens their work, their reputation, or their self-esteem. There’s no excuse for this, but it happens to everyone sometimes. Good people recognize it sooner or later and let their emotions go. Sometimes a close friend or co-worker can get them to see what’s going on by asking sympathetic questions. (Be sure to ask this question of yourself as well.)
  • Are environmental stresses degrading their judgment? Time pressure or having your career on the line can make it hard to do your best work.
  • Are they intimidated by you? If you really are smarter or better-spoken, they may be swamped by emotions of insecurity that make it hard to think. You may be unwittingly shutting them down, which begins a vicious cycle. Tone it down.

If you disagree with someone consistently over time, consider these potential cognitive and psychological problems:

  • They may have good judgment but poor communication skills. If you repeatedly find that you agree after clearing up initial miscommunication, keep this in mind and account for it. It can be frustrating and it takes patience, but it’s better than arguing and they may even appreciate it.
  • They may have raw intelligence, but poor thinking habits—patterns of absorbing, processing, and filing information. Cognitively, they aren’t set up to get to the heart of a matter, to distinguish between essential and accidental details, to form and apply valid generalizations. This too may require patience. It isn’t good, but it isn’t willful, irrational, or stupid. Concentrate on what other virtues and talents they bring to the table, such as creativity, diligence, or relationship-building.
  • They may have general insecurities that make them afraid of looking stupid or give them a psychological need to win arguments. There’s no excuse for this either, but you can sometimes work with people anyway if they don’t do this too much or too often, or hold onto it for too long.
  • They may have a problem with you personally. Maybe they’ve decided that you’re “arrogant” or obstinate. Maybe they know that you think they’re stupid and resent it. In any case, this will make them less likely to listen to you and more likely to argue with you. They may dig in their heels on a particular issue, or just discount your judgment generally. Admit that you’re part of the problem and work to change.

Bottom line: Stupidity explains only a small percentage of people’s disagreements. Calling someone “stupid” is a dead end—you can’t fix it. Instead, figure out what’s really going on.

Some final advice for the workplace:

  • Make sure you’re working in an environment that promotes objective decisions. If decisions are made based on personality and emotions instead of data and discussion, it will make everyone “stupid”. Go somewhere else.
  • Choose your battles. You don’t have to get your way in every disagreement. Let other people own their work. Fight only on the decisions that are important and hard to reverse.
  • Earn a reputation over time through excellent work. This is much more powerful in commanding attention than intellectual prowess.

I didn’t realize I had so much to say on this topic until I started writing the answer. Quora is doing a great job at getting people to write on topics they never would have otherwise—even folks like me who keep blogs.

  • http://www.scottberkun.com Scott Berkun

    Good post. It seems the problem here is more psychological and emotional than intellectual. Not to assume the *other guy* is stupid means you have to be willing to acknowledge the stupid guy might be you. Something many people do not have the generosity, courage or patience to explore, even for 30 seconds.

    • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

      Thanks, Scott. Yes, part of this acknowledging that you might be wrong (not stupid). Another part of it is realizing that even if the other guy is wrong, it might not be for any failing or weakness on his part. And another part of it is realizing that you might not even disagree; you might just be miscommunicating.

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  • http://cooklikeyourgrandmother.com Drew Kime

    Your point about bing didactic is very true, and ignored by way too many people. Take for example two people arguing over their picks in the Super Bowl. One says Team A, one says Team B. They both have the same information available, but they still disagree.

    We do this in business all the time. We can't pursue every initiative, so we have to pick some projects to do and others to kill. Everyone in the room can have the same data and still reach different conclusions. Don't be the guy who explains the same point seven different ways because you're convinced “They just don't understand!”

    • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

      I have to confess I'm often guilty of repeating myself when I think I'm not being heard. Usually I was heard, but the other person didn't acknowledge properly. Still trying to train myself not to just restate my position in those cases.

  • romainlacombe

    Jason, I'd happily peruse one of the beta invites you might have gotten from Quora. I heard a lot of good about them, and this makes me even more curious. Please email me if that's possible. In any case, thank you!

  • http://www.dirtyphonebook.com Jeremy Piller

    Or actually, in some cases they really are stupid, have no redeeming value as human beings, and should jump off of a bridge.

    :)

    Trying to work with some people is just an impossible task.

    • psyco

      i agree some people should jump off a cliff or something or get shot in a drive by i dont care.

    • Rackshom

      I do not agree. They are fully capable as human beings. While I do agree that the truly stupid people are frustrating to work with, they still have applications. I hate stupidity, but not the people it affects, so I can see that they cannot help being ignorant shitheads. However, even if they have an astonishingly low mental power, they still can be friends. Of course, many conflicts with my “stupid” friends arise from their refusals to listen to anything that invalidates their views, I still view them as friends. And, I am sure that they, while not contributing extra, will at least return an equal amount as the effort put into raising them. But, what we have to realize, or at least I have to realize if I am the only person how view intelligence the same way I do, is that, maybe I am just as stupid as they are. They press their opinions on us and expect them to accept their values without intelligent reason, true, but why argue with them? I do not know for sure why they do not listen when you point out loopholes, flaws, and exceptions to their logic, but if it is a fear of being wrong, then I cannot complain, for my hatred of such stupidity blooms from a twin bud. I hate being right. I hate it when, I see something that makes me believe myself to be right about something, and they don’t listen. I hate it when people think I”m wrong, when I’m right. The very things I hate about stupidity are caused by attributes I have myself. We need to understand that they have all the same mental functions, and the only difference is that ours work together, instead of individually functioning.

      • asainnight

        Lol. Be around with stupid ppl is a downgrade to you. I assume that you are intelligent through your words. But I will not choose to be real friends with them. Imagine that you are always around ppl like that. You will get influence by them. Wisely I choose my friends by their personality and morality and mentality level.

  • http://www.7one.com Wes Zimmerman

    Very good thought and points. I think there is so much good provoking thought here that it should be presented in two parts, even three, or now that you have listed it all build a short blog around different parts of this. You have a lot of good stuff here to digest in one reading. I will look for for your stuff again.

  • ivosabev

    I find this article very insightful and I definitely agree with the points you make. Although we all now that this is idealized approach and people are driven by so many complexities that it most of the cases although these complexities affect peoples decisions and communication for the receiving part it is impossible to handle with them all. From there simplification derives models of people characters and behaviors which we call by the general term stupid. I agree calling someone “stupid” is the last resort of any meaningful exchange between two individuals, but in a lot of the cases it is the unavoidable thing to do. Extreme polarity of opinions is rarely solved by pure discussion and reasoning exactly from the issues you are arguing about that concern people's feelings and personalities. A strong mediator is always necessary to be present to be achieved some kind of resolution. So basically even though we might be sensitive and smart enough to realize what causes our difference, not calling someone stupid is rarely going to solve our problem.

  • bobmacneal

    Cogent analysis and helpful advice. Thank you for this excellent post. You're bang on when you say, “Calling someone “stupid” is a dead end—you can’t fix it.”

  • http://www.mynext.co.uk mynext

    I try see everyone as equal, as we are all humans. Some have different skills in different areas which come in useful.

    Through doesn't always help when they are onto the 4th hour on a 30 minute fix job.

  • Vijay

    So let's take a case –

    A client of mine is trying to run solaris binaries on a linux machine and keeps complaining they do not run. We've tried explaining it out to him – but he keeps up the same. We do understand that he's trying to wiggle out of the assignment he's had from his boss(es) but that is the client's internal problem and not ours – but we suffer from it coz we are the vendors. Are his boss(es) so stupid that they do not understand this? or as we see it – they are hell bent on pushing their will onto him. In any case its detrimental to their as well as the relationship between our organizations.

    The point is – some people are genuinely stupid and other are just escape artists. Trying to rationalize will get you nowhere except frustate everyone. When confronted with “acting” stupid people no amount of experience or excellent reputation woks.

    • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

      Sure, some people really are unintelligent. Worse, some are lazy or downright dishonest. Avoid them! Fire them if you can. If you can't, quit and find people you can trust and respect to work with. My point was not that you can work with everyone and anyone. Just that if you can't find intelligent people *anywhere*, you need to question your diagnosis.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/EF5N3HC234S4VJPC7PPENTG2BQ Keith

    Totally disagree, this article, like most workplace-related articles, assumes everyone has the same agenda and never factors in office politics.

    Usually, when I pass judgment on someone's intellect, it's because I can't believe they don't think I see their real motives.

    99% of workplace articles don't really apply, because 99% of office issues are politics.

    And resolving THAT boils down to one issue: who has more say? Who is more protected? Who has WHAT over whom.

    Office conflicts, unfortunately, are war, everyone is their own little business man within their corporation…will continue to get worse with the loss of job security.

    Face it folks: the person in the next cube would feed you to the wolves in five seconds after buying you lunch if layoffs were imminent.

    • http://demandingchange.blogspot.com/2010/04/working-with-stupid.html Richard Veryard

      I read Keith's comment as being about the stupidity of the organization rather than the stupidity of the individual. I think this is a much more important (and tractable) issue.

      • WhySoStupid?

        Wholeheartedly agree! I think that a mob mentality follows and adopts incompetencies that can be seen by the whole group, frustrate organizational efforts and are likely not going to be calling any one person to the carpet.

  • Victor

    Life's too short

  • bob9000

    It's all good and well saying most people aren't stupid, but by the pure laws of averages, half the people you know are below average. Add to that the fact that you may well have an above intellect – this results in there being more people dumber than you. Alternatively, if you're on the lower side of the intelligence scale, you're suddenly surrounded by braniacs. Fact remains, everybody is somebody else's idiot, as well as somebody else's genius.
    I'm all for calling someone else an idiot – but only if I can back my point up with facts.

    • http://chipsquips.com Chip Camden

      Intelligence is non-linear.

      • http://twitter.com/PhilRuse Phil Ruse

        Well said!

  • tim

    More likely than “stupid” is that a lot of employees are not particularly engaged in what they are doing…get the job “done” and go home. to some extent, everyone has to deal with how much of their life they can give over to work and how much remains their own. Most other employees are most enjoyable to work with if they have a reasonable level of commitment to their work but not overdoing it.

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  • forgives

    as someone look at us…

  • sdjam

    Great; I am going to print this out to reread in the future. I believe that you can learn something from everyone, yes everyone. Just have to be a good listener.

  • http://twitter.com/Kaos_The_MOD Kaos

    This will only work with smart people, stupid people just ignore you and keep talking. I have a hard time with stupid people.

  • Ted

    I see your point.
    But what if you work with someone who has been certified as an idiot by the entire team for years?
    There must be some solution … ?

  • Todd

    Except you missed one important fact. That stupid persons “wants”. Everything we do is because we WANT something. And the way to get someone to do what you want, is to make them want to do it. Even someone giving to charity wants something out of that act, to feel good, to feel or be helpful or possibly to just show off (I donated more then you). Identify their “want” and approach them in a way that makes them want what you want.

    Of course, sometimes…they really are just stupid. :P

  • Slatz

    Perhaps the catalyst for this article has something to do with the creeping feeling that America is being 'dumbed down'. From hip-hop culture, to vapid reality shows, to politicians who can barely form sentences, to cries of 'liberal elitists!', it seems that it's a novelty these days to possess a 4-year degree or exhibit some hint of intelligence. While a Bachelor's degree doesn't get you auto-inclusion into Mensa, I get the feeling that quitting high school lends one an air of 'hipness' these days. And I'm not picking solely on the latest generation, as I work with Boomers who are content to collect a check for surfing the net all day, and could care less about improving their knowledge in their ever-changing IT fields. I've noticed some expend more energy avoiding work that it would take to actually perform it! When they do get assigned a task, their first move is to grab 2 or 3 colleagues to 'get their opinions' on a solution. When in truth, they're too lazy or uninformed to perform the task on their own.

    • Jojo

      What are you talking about when you say america? cause america is the whole continent you know. now see why “the US is being dumbed down”.

  • Mr. Bill

    The author raises many useful perspectives, however it appears that the author never had the pleasure of working with State government mid-level managers.

  • David

    Calling people stupid is perfectly acceptable unless you are not a person.

    • Ben

      This was a stupid comment! David are you Stupid… No seriously?
      So, by your logic if your not a person it is unacceptable to call someone “people” stupid, therefore calling someone stupid is acceptable if your are a person. Is that your logic. If so that would be pretty ironic considering this is an article about stupid people, making stupid random claims; think about it.

      • David

        I'll spell it out for you… calling “people” stupid is an admission that one is stupid, which is stupid.

        • Jenny

          I think david is one of those stupid people difficult to work with, that will never let others point out his stupidity by giving stupid aguments trying to defend his stupid comment .

        • Jenny3223

          i agreed with you davidi before you posted that last comment

  • jackpardue

    well said. it is easy to label someone 'stupid' and just walk away from it. the real issue with most situations is one of communication. our biggest challenge in life is to communicate and be understood or to understand others. it takes constant effort to learn from each other and build the connections that allow us to see into another persons reasoning or perspective. I believe that each of us comes into this reality with a truth; each truth is unique and our goal is to share that truth with everyone possible. We also must listen to the truths from others. That is the only way to really learn and grow beyond the mundane workings of this life. There are many things to do and somewhere along the way almost all of them (and perhaps all) require another person. So we have to learn to work with each other.
    I find myself sometimes pissed at the 'stupid' drivers around me pulling dumb moves on the highway; of course when I pull a similar move a few miles down the road, I look at from the point of view of my understand of why I did it. We generally all have reasons why we do things; they are not always great reasons, or logical reasons, and often they are selfish reasons, but the reason is there. Try to understand the reasons for another persons behavior; talk to them; put yourself in their shoes. simple as that.

    • Imlor

      really? just want to say people in general…..just stupid come on charlie sheen? reality tv…people just being rude in general we are just a society of me me me me hate it hate it hate it. everyone is just soooo rude and all about me and so turned on by stupid shit on tv. please…….are there any really nice people out there???? stop for just a minute and ask yourselves????? so incredibly awful in society now who is ok with this???? everyone is. awful. hate to say it but is true. i work in airline industry and seriously……who really is nice anymore? no one.

      • Anonymous

        Imlor,

        You are correct; many people today are stupid, rude, selfish, arrogant,
        wastes of space. I cannot deny that; I often believe that at least 60% of
        the planet are morons. That being said, I strive every day to steel myself
        against becoming one of that group.
        I also actively conduct myself in a respectful and appreciative manner to
        all I encounter; or at least that is my goal. It is exceedingly difficult
        at times. There are people who will piss you off in seconds no matter how
        centered you may be. It is the nature of the cosmos to throw us curves and
        see how we react.
        In most cases, and I stress MOST, if I treat those around me with respect
        and appreciation as a fellow intelligent human, they usually rise to that
        ideal and return the same. In your particular industry there are unique
        challenges. The environment of an airplane is confined, repressive, and a
        constant invasion of personal space. There is no way to avoid that. A lot
        of people don’t really know how to deal with that level of continual
        intimacy. I think that is the core of the issue. Humanity has misplaced
        much of its innate understanding and acceptance of intimacy. We do not
        trust others and often fear them for no reason other than an overactive
        reptile brain. Our Fight/Flight circuits are overloaded with so many fears
        both real and imaginary. The media feeds us a constant diet of fear and
        worry; it is no wonder that we are so neurotic.
        The best you can do is be the best you can be. You are the only one who
        controls how you interact and react to others. Have patience, compassion,
        and love. it may not remove all the hurdles you will face, but you may find
        the calm center inside you that will allow you to weather any storm.

  • rkeurel

    Take a look at the Dunning-Kruger effect. At first I was like “ha, that explains the behavior of many of my co-workers!”, but then I was like, “wait a minute…”. I eventually concluded that I was in fact a genius and had attained a level of competence that made me immune to the effect…but I'm pretty sure that is the same conclusion that everyone else draws.

  • Edward Wright

    This is an excellent article and addresses an issue that comes up a lot with developers, i.e. labeling people as “stupid” because of difficulties communicating. Many times developers think of themselves as “smart”, so of course everyone else is “stupid”. Others simply don't realize that speaking in technical terms to a lay person is bound to leave that person looking at you like a deer caught in the headlights.

    I would just add two things; 1) Agreement isn't necessary, but understanding by the parties involved in a conversation is important; 2) For every point in the article that starts with “they”, turn it into “I” for a different perspective and insight into yourself.

  • Ken

    Hmmm. The guy isn't stupid,he's just acting that way to get you to do his work while you wonder why or how he got hired in the first place. Then he surprises you by saying he's learning a new language on his own but he's written code so badly the compiler gives up in disgust. (aborts) Me, I'm lazy, I've never looked at the language before because work never required me to use it. I spot over 50 errors in about 100 lines of code. It does surprise me the compiler is written badly enough that it would abort rather than give error messages.
    Wow, instead of being stupid, he's an evil genius.

  • http://www.techhangout.com Sajal Dutta [Saj]

    Got it!

    ..but there are genuine stupid we get to work in corporate environment who you don't need to be understood. They are certified morons!

  • garyhuckabone

    Yeah, blah, blah, blah. However vague the term “stupid” might be, *most* people are, indeed, stupid. That is the reason the world is in such dire straights as we find it these days.

  • clutch

    Jeez – your stupid

  • garyhuckabone

    Yeah, blah, blah, blah. However vague the term “stupid” might be, *most* people are, indeed, stupid. That is the reason the world is in such dire straights as we find it these days.

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  • marcuscarvalho

    I don't agree with anything you said here, you are stupid.
    Just kidding… It's a great article and it went to my favorites right away. Can I translate it into portuguese and sent it to some people in my company? (surely I will give the proper credits)

    • http://jasoncrawford.org jasoncrawford

      Sure, go ahead. If you post the translation anywhere, send me a link!

  • Mr. Stupid

    I was hoping for a punchline at the end of this :(

  • alex

    Kaos' comment is apropos. The implementation of the suggestions in the article is only possible when there is reciprocity. It is the lack of that reciprocity that causes communication problems in the first place. The suggestions in the article are based on the assumption that being unilaterally reasonable will induce a reasonable response. This is plausible when dealing with reasonable, rationable people. After all, what you discuss is not intellect and intelligence, but the ability/willingness to be reasonable and rational. What you describe as stupidity is really the lack of these specific characteristics. Sadly, there are far too many recent counter-examples to the efficacy of the course of action suggested in the article. An intelligent, informed and rational partner is an essential ingredient for intelligent discourse.

  • Will

    A lot of intelligence isn't always a matter of being good at work, but it also boils down to common sense which most people don't use. I have seen people fired because of not using common sense. I am not very school smart however I know how to keep my job by doing what is right and maintaining a good attitude as well as a good relationship with my co-workers.

  • Will

    It also raises a question, what about those who have disability's? including dyslexia, and other mental problems.

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  • http://www.internetoveruse.com Wayne

    “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

    The same apply to Parents toward understanding their children. As research argued that “the lack of parents’ participation in youngster life contributed to kids internet addict, therefore, … Therapy should start with parents.” (“Fathers, hug your kids” http://www.internetoveruse.com/?p=182)

    Wayne@internetoveruse.com

  • Mike

    I think that you leave the most important part of your article towards the end and do not give it enough weight. In a recent studies using an fMRI, which allows you to image brain activity in real time, two groups of people were selected that supported two different political candidates. They were each given three positive things about each candidate and three negative things about each candidate. The were then asked who they supported and why. In each case, the part of the brain that fired first was the one associated with emotion. After that the intellectual side kicked in. It seemed that the emotional part of the brain would make the decision and then the intellect would cherry pick information to support the emotional decision. Intellectual decision making is not a natural skill.

    All your appeals to logic and reason are great if you are working with Mr Spock. When working with humans, figuring out the emotional aspects of how people you work with make their decisions is often much more difficult, and much more valuable. No logical argument will persuade someone whose decision has been made emotionally.

  • A B

    A signature of smart people is humility.
    Smart people realize no matter how much they may already know, there is so much more to learn.

    • http://derpanese.myopenid.com/ Derpanede

      Calling people stupid is not a lack of humility. A lack of humility would be to call people stupid to get an ego kick and it’s usually stupid people who do that. However, most people call people stupid as to make them question themselves, when they face people who would obviously have reached different conclusions or have seen the obvious had they given things an additional thought or two or any thought at all. There is a true goal behind calling people stupid in this case. It’s a kind of manipulation.

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  • rmahony

    Nice article, and the comments make for an interesting debate. I enjoyed reading this.

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