Are You Treating People Like They’re Stupid?

The Problem With Treating People Like They're Stupid - Brass Tack ThinkingYou might not think that you ever do this. It’s kind of horrifying, right, to think that you might be treating people like they’re less than intelligent? Yeah, I didn’t want to think I did it either.

But when we’re frustrated by our perception that people are “doing it wrong”, it can be really tempting to resort to condescension sarcasm, admonishment and finger-pointing to get our point across. To “teach” and show people the way of the light. To show why we’re the savior, the white knight that knows better and if you’re lucky, we’ll explain to you the error of your ways.

That applies whether we’re a speaker presenting to an audience, a blogger writing for our readers, or an executive leading a team.

We’ve been taught from a young age that assertiveness equals power, and power equals leverage. If we’re powerful enough, we can make things happen. So if we want to change something, we need to assert our knowledge and authority, demonstrate why our way is right, and then make the people around us either feel foolish enough to do things differently out of shame, or motivate them with the fear that if they don’t do it differently, they’re not only stupid and bound to fail, but they’re definitely not worthy of our attention or approval.

We deliver that message in subtle ways and overt ones. Sometimes we simply rant and rave and scold. Other times we make snide remarks. Sometimes we simply just sit in judgment quietly across the table and tell ourselves that we’d never do, write or say something so ridiculous. So we communicate it in our body language, our tone of voice, the words we choose to use.

The problem is that the “I know better” approach doesn’t do anything but alienate the people you’re trying to change in the first place.

There are a few core truths about humans and change.

1. Humans are amazing at adapting to new things if they’re given the right context.

2. Change is something that a person or organization has to want for themselves before anyone or anything can help them achieve it.

3. Changing things, small or large, is intimidating for most people whether they’ll tell you that or not. If you have knowledge that they need in order to make the shift, empowerment is key. That means helping people see what they can do rather than only outlining what they can’t or shouldn’t be doing.

That doesn’t mean delivering a bunch of platitudes and false cheerleading that glosses over the tough stuff. But it does mean operating from the default assumption that people are smart, capable, and otherwise able to consider information and draw conclusions for themselves. It means speaking to people as peers and equals until and unless they give you a definitive reason not to (and even then, the high road tends to have a lot less traffic).

I believe very much in having a strong point of view, in having and expressing convictions. Insight is a wonderful quality and one that can absolutely spark new ways of thinking for the people around you if it’s delivered well. But there is a difference between authority and leadership. I make a living navigating big change inside of organizations, and we all want to be inspired by something or someone that encourages us to think bigger. We’re incredibly receptive to messages of change and possibility if we can see ourselves as helping create it.

That’s the most important job of a change agent: helping people see why they can and should be part of a positive change, and why they’re uniquely suited to help spark and maintain the momentum to move things forward. More inspiration. More possibility.

I’m guilty of failing at that myself. I’ve had my not-so-flattering moments of admonishment and finger-waving and ranting from a place of misguided self-righteousness. I’ve written posts, I’ve given speeches that were far too scolding rather than inspiring and full of potential. It happens to all of us, especially when we’re frustrated and convinced that we know better.

We want to believe we’d never treat someone like they’re stupid, but in fact, we do it in subtle ways all the time. I know my self-reflection on the topic wasn’t exactly comfortable, and even writing this post reminded me that I need to be more conscious of it in my own behavior.

But you know the truth of this as much as I do.

If you want to actually change something, you’ve got to be willing to be in the trenches with the people or organizations whose future you’re hoping to affect for the better. Get your hands dirty with them. Share your stories of triumph and failure and let them know that you see themselves as their ally in this journey, not their better. You can’t do that if you’re shouting down from higher ground.

In our writing, in our teaching, in our relationships, in our development of our teams, we can do so much more if we’re willing to be part of the change instead of simply trying to direct it from the sidelines because we’ve “been there, done that” already ourselves. I believe that every single person is capable of making their mark and helping someone else be a better person, professional, parent, whatever. We each have unique perspective and experiences that give us knowledge and context that we can share.

Doing that from a place of positive reinforcement and shared challenge — of benevolent and open expertise instead of authority and demand — is so much stronger, so much more effective, so much more real and human than the alternative.

And whether it’s the web or the offline world, a little more humanity can never really hurt.

  • CoCreatr

    Well, yes, offering unasked advice can have this side effect. It may be the reason Asian people to Westerners appear reluctant or uncaring if they look the other way instead of helping someone they/we feel in trouble. On some level Asians seem to respect letting the others experience their karma or rationalize not helping with that.

  • Jim McHugh

    Interesting article. As a CEO coach and board member, and a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ it is hard to sometimes hold back when I see things faltering. After all, I’m being paid to make recommendations based on experience, knowledge, and intuition. Sometimes I don’t hold back and have occasionally been looked at as a necessary curmudgeon. But being a successful outside ‘change agent’ is as much about ‘getting the hands dirty’ as you say, recognizing peoples’ strengths, and being guided by humility and sometimes humor, than always being ‘right’.

  • Bill Hewson

    a simple comment: i, and I suspect more of us than might care to admit it, need this reminder. thanks.