I originally posted this article as a guest post on balancedworklife.com at https://balancedworklife.com/everyone-incompetent/
Have you ever worked within a culture where people think “everyone is stupid”, except for the people that they work directly with?
In my experience, I’ve found this “everyone is stupid” attitude commonly in large projects or in companies that have a lot of business-to-business relationships.
The attitude that everyone is stupid, except those in your proximity can be extremely damaging, as it serves to solidify the organisational silos that already exist.
The Surprising Truth
I’ve been in a few situations where I have believed that someone isn’t great at their job. In many of these cases I didn’t work closely with that person. Interacting with them more closely lets me “behind the curtain” and I can see what drives them. Afterward, I’ve come to realise that this person is actually doing quite well under their own challenging circumstances, which I wasn’t previously aware of.
Yes, it is human nature to presume incompetence at times. People like to strengthen their own identity by believing that someone else is the weak link. If you communicate closely, you can start to break down these assumptions.
But just because it is human nature doesn’t mean it isn’t destructive to productivity and collaboration. Generally, I don’t believe that people go to work to annoy others or to do a bad job.
My dad has a rule of thumb that he says has been accurate throughout his 40 year career. It is that “5% of people are going to be a problem”. I’ve done some counting at my various jobs and I think he’s about right! When I land in a workplace where it appears that a lot more than 5% are a problem, alarm bells start to ring. Yes, you’re going to get some difficult people wherever you go, but if you have a lot more, the chances are that you have a cultural issue.
[Side note: If I get to a workplace where there is nobody that I see as being a problem, that could be a good sign that I am in the 5%!]
How to prevent the “everyone is stupid” attitude
So how can you solve the issues where “everyone is stupid but my team?” Here are four suggestions:
1. Make it somebody’s job to communicate and build relationships.
It doesn’t have to be somebody’s entire job. The circumstances might not justify the appointment of a relationship manager or similar role.
Effort should be made, however, to incorporate relationship building into an existing position or to create a new position which has this aspect as an integral part. You need to choose a person who interacts with people well, sees value in building relationships, and has the capacity to do it effectively.
The role should include working with other teams or parties consistently, to improve communication and becoming a point of contact for both sides. Even just catching up for coffee and a chat can be extremely effective. It also helps to have someone in the role that can take an impartial view of things so as not to continue the adversarial relationship. Depending on who is paying for the role, this can be a challenge.
When somebody actively plays a role to reduce the “everyone is stupid” mentality, good things can happen.
2. Embed “the stupid people” in your team where possible.
If you see a need to fix communication and relationships between two teams, try to mix them together when you can. For example, if you have an IT team that is doing some work for a marketing department, embed one (or more) marketing people into the IT team, or do the reverse if it’s suitable. Where possible, co-locate them physically so that people are interacting face to face. This may not be permanent, you can make it a 1 or 2 day per week arrangement.
I have found that embedding “the enemy” into the other team can work wonders in breaking down adversarial relationships. Before long, attitudes change to “they actually aren’t so stupid after all”.
3. Maintain a presence in communication forums, even where the information may not seem directly relevant.
This point really involves simply making an effort. If there is a weekly team meeting, send someone from another discipline to sit in on it. This improves communication and helps different parties to understand the issues facing the various areas. Even if the visitor doesn’t contribute all that often, they can be there to address any questions or to provide a status update where relevant.
Soon they may become an honorary member of the forum and act as a communication point between the two parties. Simply making the effort to attend gives the impression that you are there to help.
4. Cut down on the negative talk.
It’s tough when you’re frustrated and you need to vent to your colleagues. Where possible, try to reduce the amount of time you spend openly slamming other people’s capability. A good way to do this is to try to become aware of the challenges they are facing.
The more time that is spent disparaging others reinforces the same view across the team. This only serves to strengthen the dysfunctional culture that you are trying to remove.
So if you’re in an environment where “everyone is stupid”, I recommend trying the above approaches. These attitudes have the potential to reduce productivity and increase time wastage due to poor communication.
It’s not easy, but you can break down these destructive tendencies and get your project or workplace humming the way it should be!
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