Why we do dumb things at work and how to help others forgive us.

I have been a mid-level manager for eleven years. For several of those years I couldn’t seem to reconcile why I could trust a colleague to watch my kids if the need arose, but hated to do business with them. For so long, the term trust only meant how honest someone was with me. Their personal integrity mattered. But in spite of honesty and how genuinely nice someone was I sometimes found that I couldn’t rely on them to get things done at work.

Like all inquisitive managers, I went to the business self-help shelf and found several resources and soon-to-be mentors to help me reconcile my apparent conundrum (knowing someone to have great integrity, but not wanting to do business with them anyway.)

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Before extensive reading, I wondered if I was mistaken in my ability to discern integrity in others. “Surely they would have met that deadline if they were integrous!” “Surely they would have implemented this strategy if their motives were pure!” However, as I began looking at such books as The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey, Getting Things Done by David Allen, The Road to Character by David Brooks and others, I began to realize that trust is built on more than honesty and pure intent (character), but that it is also built on skill set and an ability to deliver results (competence). So much of what happens, or doesn’t happen in the workforce is a result of a lack of competence rather than character. Put another way, never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Wow! What a revelation. People generally and innately want to do a good job at work, but often don’t know how to do a good job or are placed in positions or on projects where they are set up to fail. Gallup’s Q12 survey of millions of workers shows that so much of what happens or doesn’t happen at work can be influenced. Looking internally, I could see cracks in my own ability to instill trust with others. Yep, I recently missed that deadline. Oops, I forgot about that committee assignment. Darn, I didn’t realize was supposed to do that. Was our family photo shoot at 5pm? Sorry Dear.

“We judge ourselves based on our intentions; others judge us by our behaviors.”

There were several experiences in my professional, and quite frankly, personal life that was affecting my own credibility. I was an honest person and my intentions were generally good. But I began to learn that we judge ourselves based on our intentions; others judge us by our behaviors. So, what I thought were integrity issues in others I realized were just stupidity issues in myself. And if I was simply stupid, maybe others were simply stupid too.

So how do you fix stupidity? Well as a mid-level manager, I realized that I needed to start giving people the benefit of the doubt. I began to see workplace performance issues as an inability to deliver results or that perhaps colleagues might actually be in the wrong jobs based on their current or concrete skill set. Once I started realizing most people want to be honest and have pure motives (character) we could work with their missing skill set and lack of delivery (competence). This doesn’t excuse unethical behavior on the part of people. Discipline and legal consequences need to be enforced for those who choose to breach trust by their unethical behavior or ulterior motives, but bad apples aside, I think in most cases where we don’t trust people we can view them through the competence lens rather than the character one. Once we can get to that understanding, then we can really improve our workplace and personal relationships.

Published by Jerrod Guddat

I love learning, collaboration, and improving workplace performance. You can usually find me reading a book or opposing points of view on the internet. I typically assume my ideas are flawed until proven otherwise. :-)

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  1. Wow, this is really a great concept to make known in the workplace. I sat next to a guy that I liked generally–and who seemed like a good person–but avoided working on any project with him like the plague. I knew he had competency issues, but this article underscores the problem even more. I hope this can start to become part of our general workplace understanding so that we can stop blaming people’s character and start looking at the real issues involved.


    1. I couldn’t agree more. We need to make sure we understand that trust is twofold… character and competence and we should also probably give most people the benefit of the doubt that a lack of performance stems most often from a lack of competence. 🙂


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