10 Reasons Why People Do Stupid Things at Work
by Donald A. Phin

You're Sooo Stupid! - Pogo

Over the years as an attorney and consultant, I have seen people do some pretty stupid things at work. Some of them are horribly stupid - others more innocently so. Part of my quest over the years has been to discover just why it is people do these things. What follows are some of my insights with good light made of them.

1. Somebody has to be stupid!

Somebody has to be stupid so they can set the example of what not to do. This is part of the nature of life. Duality is omnipresent and the way in which the world rises to higher levels of consciousness. When other people do stupid things, we can feel their pain. Hopefully we can learn from their experiences and spare generating our own.

The challenge for workplace heroes is not to try "too hard" to save stupid people. We can educate them and empower them but we must also understand that their life path is their own. It's ok to care unconditionally, that doesn't mean that we have to remain in relationships unconditionally.

2. Fear

Fear is one heck of a motivator. Unfortunately it generally motivates us in the wrong direction. What do we fear? That we'll make a mistake? That we may face ridicule or confrontation?

Whatever the fear, our survival mechanism sets up a preconceived response to an emotionally perceived outcome that may be far from reality. The stupid result is usually one we question upon the luxury of understanding the fear wasn't real.

3. Desperation

Instant results are what counts. Do it now! Never mind that there may be an O-ring failure - lets get that rocket launched on time! Never mind the significant gap in employment has gone unexplored, just hire that executive now! When we make desperate decisions, we make stupid decisions because they seldom incorporate enough information.

One executive, who wanted to know if he would be sued if he fired a certain employee, was ready to make a decision without investigating any of the facts. As it turns out, after it was suggested that he dig a little bit deeper, the employee that he was about to terminate was deadly accurate in her claim that the job she was offered was misrepresented. Not only that, the manager was attempting to lay her off after only three months, to hide his own inadequacies.

Whatever you do, do not allow you organization to make desperate decisions. There is always enough time to avoid stupidity.

4. We get lazy

Because our work lives are so full, we tend to focus on those things we enjoy or that will make a buck now. For example, if we get lazy about employment law compliance, because we have so focused our resources on product development and distribution, then we expose ourselves to stupid decision making. We can't get caught being lazy when it comes to personnel management and compliance. One of the best ways to avoid this tendency is to have systems, standard operating procedures and guidelines for managing the less exciting aspects of business. If you won't do it for yourself hire an outsider to help.

5. We don't like to deal with problems

The human nature tendency is to ignore, bury or deny bad news. The only time we are interested in bad news is when it is someone else's. Because we few of us know how to manage emotions real well, we tend to do whatever we can to avoid them. For example, Mary just found out that Johnny got caught smoking pot in the school parking lot. When Mary gets the phone call she ignores it completely because it is her natural tendency to block out bad news entirely. Or, Mary is in denial and says to herself, "My Johnny would never do anything like that." And again, comforts her soul. Or, when Johnny comes home Mary tells him, "I heard about your problems at school today, I won't tell your father." We've all been there.

When we ignore, deny or bury problems in the workplace, they tend to get cancerous. Again, if we want to avoid the stupid decision making, we have to make sure that we educate people in sound decision making, how to deal with emotions, and then make sure that we have a system in place to both unearth and manage our problems.

6. Ignorance is bliss

Sometimes people make stupid decisions because they simply don't have the skills necessary to make smart ones. There is no substitute for a full understanding of one's job functions and the skills necessary to obtain a favorable outcome. If management is unwilling to invest training dollars on the front end, it can expect to get plenty of stupid decision making on the back end.

7. People bring their "baggage" to work

I've seen many a stupid decision made in the workplace directly related to problems on the home front. For example, I have seen men and women, with problems in their marriage, look towards co-workers for comfort and even more. In other cases it's drug or alcohol abuse. It is extremely difficult to make smart decisions when you are emotionally unbalanced. We would be better off encouraging workers having a really bad day to take the day off and contact the employee assistance provider (EAP) if available.

8. We're too tired to make smart decisions

Overworked executives, managers and rank and file employees will all make stupid mistakes when tired. How much sleep we get and how well we eat and exercise go a long way towards maintaining our balance. People working in excess of 50 and 60 hours a week have to burn out sooner or later, and you can be guaranteed that some stupid decisions will be made in the process. Just hope that person isn't your doctor, lawyer or pilot.

9. They did what someone told them to do

It's amazing how stupidity feeds upon stupidity. How many times in our lives have we made stupid moves because someone else told us it would be a good one? Better check your sources. In one case, a recruiter, desperate for a fee, placed a recently bankrupt executive (that he shouldn't have) who caused the company financial losses and then sued them when he was terminated!

When it comes to hiring advisors, we get what we pay for. If you are going to rely on someone else to help you make a decision, make sure they are not making a stupid one too.

10. We ask the wrong questions

Around the turn of the century, there were plenty of businessmen asking themselves, "How can I make this horse and buggy with greater quality and lower cost?" Unfortunately that was the wrong question to be asking. The smarter question would have been to ask, "How fast can I get into this automobile business?" If we ask ourselves, "Is this going to make Bill happy?" instead of "Is this what Bill really needs to hear?" We may evoke a different decision depending on which question we ask. If we fear Bill's emotions, then we are setting ourselves and Bill up for some stupid decisions.

When it comes to avoiding making stupid decisions we have to ask smart questions.

All of what I've just shared with you - you already know. Yet me, you and the rest of us, will continue to make stupid decisions for these very reasons. The only solution is to maintain the mental, physical and spiritual balance necessary for smart decision-making in the workplace.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about stupidity you can always visit www.stupid.com or www.darwinawards.com .


Don Phin is an attorney, consultant, speaker and author of LAWSUIT FREE! How To Prevent Employee Lawsuits, Building Powerful Employment Relationships! and Victims, Villains and Heroes: Managing Emotions in the Workplace. Give a call to learn more about our consulting programs, workshops and risk management tools. Call toll-free in North America to (800) 234-3304; (619) 437-6263; Fax (619) 437 0143. Visit www.donphin.com for access to free reports, forms, book excerpts, quizzes and more.

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Copyright 2002 by Donald A. Phin. All rights reserved.

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