coaching, team building

Why do I have to work with idiots?

Let’s talk about generosity. Perhaps not what you were expecting when you read that headline? Sometimes we all think that we’re stuck having to work with idiots. But it’s probably not true, and we could all do with a new way to think about it!

We all think of ourselves as generous, and mostly we are. After all, you’re part of this community because you want to make your work-life better, but also everyone else’s, by improving your workplace. But I suspect, like me, you’ve had the thought summarised in the subject line. Maybe you’ve even had it a lot. That frustration is often entirely understandable, but it’s the very opposite of generosity. So what gives?

A young woman with glasses, light brown hair and a red cardigan is sat in front of her computer, biting on a yellow pencil in frustration.
Photo credit JE Shoots on Unsplash

When you don’t see eye to eye with colleagues, whether they’re senior to you, junior, or peers, it can be frustrating. Things that seem obvious to you need justification and explaining. Things that seem vital just don’t happen. It feels like you’re stuck explaining a problem, rather than tackling it. It feels like a waste of energy.

The cause of those differences might be different values, different roles, or just different levels of competence. We’ll look at tackling those in another newsletter. For our purpose, the cause doesn’t make a difference to the frustration you feel in the moment. Even when we know that people aren’t deliberately trying to annoy us, it’s hard to be generous, and the phrase, “Why do I have to work with idiots?” often falls out of our mouths.

But it’s vital for successful teamwork to redirect that critical voice. You can work on that through personal or team coaching, with us or another expert coach, but this post offers some answers to how you can start changing that mindset yourself.

I recently read an interesting op ed by Melanie Challenger, who calls this critical voice “mental slander”, about the wider effects of that critical voice on relationships. The op ed is thinking broadly about political polarisation and social media, but the lessons she highlights tell us a lot about team dynamics at work.

The critical voice, mental slander, builds silos. And it’s hard to recognise its role because we probably blame the other side. Let’s take an example. “HR wants this form filled out this way. It doesn’t make sense for our team, but let’s just do it.” This is the polite equivalent of “HR doesn’t have a clue how we work. What idiots!” And the manager saying it, and the team hearing it, probably think HR’s to blame. They designed the stupid form, right? But the instinct towards mental slander is actually the first brick in the wall. It strengthens the team’s internal bonds at the expense of the connections between teams. It’s silo-building in action.

This isn’t about giving everyone a free pass whatever the quality of their work (or teamwork). Instead, it’s about tackling things head on. Challengers suggests a few approaches: 

  1. “We need to recognise the biases that prevent us from keeping one another in mind.” That is, what are our in-group instincts stopping us from seeing? Probably that the other side of the disagreement has merit. From their perspective, we might be the idiot, suggesting that maybe neither of us are?
  2. “We must make it less socially acceptable to use mental slander in the service of an argument.” I’ve used the word “idiot” quite a few times in this newsletter. But cutting those sorts of words out of our vocabulary might actually help. If we’re focused on making that change, we have to search actively for other words to use. That makes us think more deeply about what the actual disagreement might be. 
  3. “We would benefit from greater opportunities to hear one another out.” Our immediate solution shouldn’t be, “They need to [do X].” Instead, our first solution should perhaps be, “We need to talk about why we do X and they do Y.” You’re probably missing something!

These are common problem-solving solutions: look at things from a new perspective, reframe the problem, talk it out with people with different skills and experience. And that’s the point. When your instinct is to ask, “Why do I have to work with idiots?”, the real question is, “Why don’t we figure out the best way to do things?”