Dealing with moderately unreasonable people at work

When someone you work with is doing something obnoxious and weird, don't ask why. Just accept that they like doing whatever it is and address the impact of what they're doing.

Dealing with moderately unreasonable people at work
Photo by marcos mayer / Unsplash

Hey there, readers!

I'm Nat Bennett, software engineer, consultant, and writer of this newsletter you're reading right now, Simpler Machines. Thanks for inviting me into your inbox.

Two tidbits for you before we get started this week.

One, if you use Github Actions, I've been experimenting with a tool called SkyLounge for managing Github Actions workflows across lots of repositories, as part of my work with 33 Teams. They've got a public demo coming up on May 4th. If you've got automation problems, or are just interested in how you could be doing your deploy/build/scan workflows better, it's worth checking out.

(And, hey, if you've got serious deploy pipeline problems, send me an e-mail, I at least want to hear about them & may be able to help.)

Two, if you follow me on Mastodon you may have noticed that I've been posting a lot about Vim. I'm working on upping my game there, and drafting some more detailed posts about how to do various Vim things. My topic list right now includes

  • codebase navigation / changing files quickly
  • a guide to commonly configured settings
  • how to write a plugin
  • using the LSP
  • using Vim for simple refactors like extract method & inline method
  • composing commands
  • why I use Vim (probably a personal essay)
  • color schemes
  • automatically running unit tests

Next week I'll probably be writing about codebase navigation (and extolling the wonders of quickfix view!) If there's other stuff you'd like to know about, or any of this is particularly interesting to you, send me an e-mail or leave a comment.

Last week I wrote about how to deal with people who play "bring me a rock." One thing I didn't touch on is why people play this game. The reason for that is pretty simple:

It don't think it matters why people do unreasonable things, and I do think that trying to figure it out will make you miserable. When someone you work with is doing something obnoxious and weird, don't ask why. Just accept that they like doing whatever it is and address the impact of what they're doing.

Business life – heck, life in general – is full of somewhat unreasonable people who you still have to deal with. (You're one of those somewhat unreasonable people. It's just part of being a person.) And there's this huge temptation when you get stuck dealing with one to spend a lot of time trying to figure out the why behind their behavior. You will be so much happier if you can avoid this tempation.

First, it's just a huge time suck. Humans tend to find other human beings fascinating. We'll spend hours and hours and hours talking with each other about why someone is behaving a particular way – gossiping and analyzing. Once you start thinking about why someone is doing a weird thing you'll spend hours on it. It's just too interesting a subject for a social animal. Next thing you know you've spent tens of hours that could have been spent playing games or listening to music or watching birds on thinking about some annoying person at work.

This might be worth it if it was necessary to understand and respond to the behavior, but it almost never is. If someone is playing "bring me a rock" with you, you don't need to understand why someone is rejecting your rocks to stop bringing them. You just stop bringing the rocks! Exactly how to frame "no more rocks" might take a bit of finesse, but that's entirely based on your social relationship with the person – how much trouble, and what kind, they can cause for you if you stop bringing rocks. That doesn't require understanding their motives at all, just your relative positions.

The biggest reason that I try to avoid asking "why," though, is that it tends to encourage empathy.

Now you might ask, "Isn't empathy a good thing?" And that depends on exactly what you mean by empathy.

Compassion for other people is good for you. Friendliness, good will, even interest in other people's experience – I have only good things to say about feeling these things towards other people. But compassion is different from attachment, and an easy way to get attached to someone is to start thinking a lot about why they're doing what they're doing.

"Attached" doesn't mean that you like them. It means you're emotionally invested in them. You react to their behavior and their moods.

You do not want to get attached to an unreasonable person who you're only interacting with because you work together.

When a person you're attached to rejects another rock, you don't think, "Huh, they're being really weird about this." You might think, "Oh no, I failed to get the right rock." Or you think, "Oh no, they still don't have the rock they need." Or even worse, "What the fuck, how many rocks do I have to bring this asshole to make them happy?"

You can end up spending all your time and energy helping or responding to or bitching about people who are just basically unreasonable and can't be helped.

So the next time a client or a coworker or your manager or your CEO does something deeply weird and inconvenient, don't just in to analyze it. Just note it, and keep your explanation at "they must really like doing [weird, inconvenient thing.]"

"Huh, seems like they just do a reorg about once a year around here. I guess they just really like reorgs."

"Huh, that person person switched sides in an argument once the person they were talking to started to come around to their position. I guess they just really like arguing."

"Huh, they rejected another rock. I guess they really like asking for new rocks."

Save asking "why" for friends and family– people who's feelings you actually want to care about.