"How can they be so stupid?"

"To truly understand people's actions, we need to understand a range of things, including the person's environment," said OE Cam's principal consultant - © k_tsygankova/Adobe Stock

How can leaders move from a position of frustration to one where we help people make better decisions?

For as long as I’ve been working, I have heard some version of the following on an almost weekly basis: "Why can’t people just do X, Y or Z?"? "Why do they not get it?" or, often: "how can they be so stupid?"

We are hearing a lot in various public debates and enquiries right now about how the merits, or otherwise, of a course of action should have been obvious, or that a certain decision could only have been made by a fool, or a bad actor. These simple expressions highlight our struggle to understand why others fail to do what seems so clear and necessary to us.

It’s common sense

It's a sobering thought that, as often as we've asked these questions of others, they have likely been asked of us too. Believing that our version of common sense is self-evidently the right one implies that we alone have access to the full range of salient information in any given situation.

However, when happily pontificating on other’s shortcomings, we must also be humbled by the fact that we too have some significant blind spots that lead others to the same feeling of frustration we often feel. We are not, unfortunately, special cases.

Read more: Top tips for making impactful decisions

That's a tough pill to swallow. We don't intentionally make nonsensical decisions, and it's only later, when new insight that was not evident at the time comes to light, that we might label our actions differently. This is how it is for everyone.

Given what we know, given the unique set of experiences that led us to that particular point in time and, crucially, given the environment in which we operate, all action makes sense. If we accept this premise, our whole outlook changes. We move from accusations of ‘stupidity’ or even ‘wilful sabotage’ and start trying to understand why that behaviour made sense.  

Moving from frustration to understanding

Whilst most of us understand this on a logical level, the action that should follow is rarely observed in practice. In those moments when this insight would be most useful, the understanding and ability to act accordingly seems to elude us and we revert back to the simplicity and safety of assuming others do not get it the way we do.

So, how do we move from a position of frustration and bewilderment, to one of empathy and understanding? How can we help people make better decisions or exercise better judgement?

To truly understand people's actions, we need to understand both the preferences, learned behaviours, past experiences, skills and knowledge of the individual, but also their environment: what others around them say and do, the information they receive, the system they operate in and the behaviours they are rewarded for.

Unfortunately, we are quite good on focusing on the former and much less so on the latter. But, if skilled, well-intentioned and intelligent people are not doing what is being asked of them, then somewhere in the system are factors influencing behaviour that makes the ‘wrong’ thing make sense.

Read more: Optimising processes for decision-making in business

Uncovering the silent communicators

In an organisational setting, we encounter two problems when we seek to understand the factors influencing behaviour:

  1. None of us has access to the whole picture. We each see and experience the same organisation differently, with multiple meanings and multiple, valid interpretations of the same events.
  2. Behavioural influences may operate on a subconscious level. We know explanations of why we do what we do are often subject to post-hoc rationalisation and therefore require an unrealistic level of self-awareness to fully understand why we acted as we did.

The habituation problem means that we simply don’t see, or have limited awareness, of these influences once we are embedded in the organisation for any length of time. We become blind to the silent communicators and symbols that influence behaviour.

We ignore those aspects of the organisation that say so much, without overtly saying anything. In giving these silent communicators a voice, we can first recognise them and then begin to pull the levers that promote the desired behaviours.

We have to invest time in anthropological techniques as well as established change management tools to understand the real influences on behaviour, in order that we can build lasting organisational change that is supported by the whole system.

Any change programme that ignores the influences that helped shape behaviour in the first place is either doomed to fail or to take a much longer, friction-filled route to lasting change.

Mike Thackray is a principal consultant for OE Cam