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.

  • Deedee

    ” you are probably mis-diagnosing people as stupid.” Please tell me if that’s what I’m doing. Here’s a sample regular conversation with my co-worker:

    Co-worker: Sorry, I have just one question.
    Me: Yes?
    C-w: I got this email.

    I wait for the question but it doesn’t come.

    Me: Yes? What’s your question?
    C-w: What it means? (her English is deplorable although her job is to ensure correct copy on a BIG website!)
    Me: What do you mean? Is there something that’s not clear?
    C-w: I don’t know what it means this email.

    Because this is the 1398471398471398471384173th time she’s asking me a question like this:

    Me: Have you READ the email?
    C-w: Oh. I read it.

    10 mins later.

    C-w Sorry, I have just one question.
    Me: Yes?
    C-w: What it means this email?

  • Kitt Parker

    Easy example.

    Person claims to not have received report in email. I travel to the individual’s computer, I realize they did not scroll upwards to look at new email. This happens three times in the respective month. What do I do? Other examples with other people in similar circumstances abound.

  • Sharon Hall

    No, they really ARE THAT STUPID. All of the legal secretaries except for me have had to go to remedial training to use the document management system and to learn how to save and how to find a document. No, they are not new. They have been legal secretaries IN THIS SAME FIRM for over 10 years, most of them for 20. They cannot learn anything, have no critical thinking/analytical skills, no problem solving skills, nothing. I didn’t have to go to training because I am the one who knows how everything works. Instead of them bothering to learn or being fired for being incompetent asshats, the office manager – dumber than they are – keeps sending them to me to answer their questions. I have had enough and now am giving them useless and incorrect information. TO HELL WITH IDIOTS. I used to think everyone was as good as I am, and now I’ve given that up and accept that 90% of the workers in the world are dumber than shit.