Business is about people. How do competitors think? What will they do next? How do customers decide? Pressure to succeed and an uncertain world tempt us all to think others are stupid or malicious. Teams and leaders believe decisions are made because of stupidity. Or that the competition is out to get them. Thinking this way leads to bad decisions. And a stressful life. It is almost always wrong. Put yourself in others shoes. And do the right thing for your business.
I spotted this recent article by Y Combinator partner Aaron Harris . He raises part of an important mindset that is needed to succeed in business. His article points out that it is naive and dangerous to assume that the competition is stupid. I would go much further.
People love to attribute motives and rationale to third parties. Whether it is bosses, colleagues, customer or suppliers. It is one of the biggest mistakes in business. No matter how someone’s behaviour looks, you don’t know why they act in the way they do. Repeat that. You. Don’t. Know. Why.
Don't Fall For Conspiracy Theories
So many discussions centre around stupidity. Even more often I heard people explaining badness. How and why customers or competitors were acting with deliberate malice. I am a big believer that the best approach to the market is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Believing others are stupid or bad fails to achieve that. Identifying malicious or stupid motives works against you in three main ways:
Stress Is The Only Outcome
Number 3 is important. It arises because this kind of behaviour always ends up focusing on the negative. It is a symptom of paranoia. “Why are they out to get us?” is the basic mentality.
It is human nature to fear that others will do us harm. In a group situation jealousy and malice add fuel to this fire. I saw most stress and distress caused by this downward spiral in my time in the corporate world. Teams have a special vulnerability. Another human instinct is to defend the tribe. It is so easy for members of team to become convinced that management are working against them. Failing to reward success. Giving more money to other people.
Stress in the workplace is a major problem for society. Negative spirals based on mythical animosity are a major cause. Startup founders and teams are vulnerable to these challenges at least as much as anyone else.
Your Fear Is Wrong
The flip side is that these motives are almost always wrong. Grand conspiracies and complex schemes don't exist in the real world. Your competition don't think only about damaging you. Even isolated or individual acts of malice tend to be carelessness or misunderstanding. People are not bad. They are different from you. They have different goals and pressures. But true nasty, evil people? I can think of at most two in the last 32 years. And I may be wrong about those.
One area where this does extra harm is when working across cultures. Normal behaviours and just common courtesies are different across cultures, countries and continents. Small areas can contain many different cultures. We recognise this in Europe but forget that it is also true in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. Experiencing different cultures is the real joy of working across international borders. Software and startups give us a historic opportunity to enjoy this experience. Don’t spoil it by not taking the time to understand.
The summary is simple. Listen to what people say and watch what they do. This is all the information you have. Be honest, smart and professional in your responses. Base your actions and communications on the best information you have. If you are dealing with another culture, do some research and find out what is normal.
Don’t speculate. Don’t assume. People want to be nice and to be liked. They are striving to achieve their own goals. Sometimes these will conflict with yours. That’s business life. Finding a way for everyone to win is much more rewarding than stressing about non existent attacks.
Avoid this kind of thinking. Start from the basis that others are just like you. Except maybe smarter and nicer. It will be better for your business, your peace of mind and your health.
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Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.