In my wanderings through the land I hear a lot of complaints about somebody’s unreasonable behaviour, normally from a person at their work. It can take the form of angry outbursts, inconsistency, micromanagement, pettiness and a host of others, but the complaints are always the same: why the hell is this person behaving like this? It’s making my life a misery!
Why indeed? I decided to start asking some questions each time I heard this, and most of the time the person in question was in a job they were wholly unsuited for. Their knowledge, experience, or – more often – their character, personality, and temperament was completely inadequate for the position they were in. That’s not to say they were stupid or useless, simply that they were in the wrong job.
Let’s suppose you are suddenly plonked into the captain’s seat of a Boeing 777 stood on the tarmac at Heathrow and ordered to take off and fly safely to New York. Unless you’re a trained pilot, we’re going to observe some pretty wild behaviour from you over the next few minutes, most unbecoming of a captain. Being put in a strange environment and asked to perform unfamiliar tasks is highly stressful, and will induce behaviour in people which can seem very odd.
The plane example is absurd, but millions of people find themselves in a similar situation in their day-to-day jobs. The stakes might not be so great, but the expectation levels are higher: nobody will ask an untrained person to fly a plane, but people routinely find themselves in a position they are manifestly unsuited to, yet are expected to perform. Most of the time they’re in a culture – either corporate or national – which frowns upon failure, but with an endless tolerance for muddling through.
If ever I find myself faced with strange or unreasonable behaviour, I step back and try to work out what’s causing it. It’s tempting to say that a person is simply insane or an arse, but that’s a lazy approach. Instead, I look at the situation they’re in and what they’re being asked to do, and see if that matches their competence and character. You know what? It never does. If it did, you’d see different behaviours. People who are in a comfortable position act like they are. Look at the confident swagger of a champion boxer on his way to the ring. It’s because he knows he’s good.
Maybe I’m getting soft in my middle-age, but nowadays I’m less inclined to think people are complete idiots, nasty, or they have something wrong with them. Most of the time they’re simply in the wrong job, and hence under too much stress. Feeling a little sorry for people is easier than getting mad at them.