How to work with “stupid” people

April 24, 2010 · 4 min read

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:

Ask questions, make sure you understand them fully.

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

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:

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

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

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:

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.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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