Malice vs. Incompetence

I went out for lunch with a couple of fellow grad students recently and our conversation reminded me of a topic I’ve been meaning to post on.  One of the students has been ranting for months about a change in policy with how TA work is handled which may affect the immigration process for international students.

At our meal she got ranting again and started talking darkly about how she was convinced student leaders were getting kickbacks for allowing the policy to be changed and that they were terrible people to be screwing her over to put money in their pockets.  I told her a saying I’d thought was very true when I first heard it:  “Never blame on malice what can be explained by incompetence.”

In life we’re often going to have obstacles, and sometimes those obstacles will be put in our way by another person.  SOMETIMES they might be trying to make our lives harder, but I truly believe that it’s usually just that they aren’t thinking about us at all.  The obstacle is simply a side-effect of them living their lives and dealing with their own stuff.  If they could accomplish their goals without interfering with us, I’m sure they’d be happy to.  They either aren’t aware of the impact on us, or can’t be bothered to do the extra-work needed to make our lives easier (which doesn’t seem COMPLETELY unreasonable to me).  Often people who are just plain bad at their jobs will be viewed as a nightmare inflicting chaos on an organization.  Probably the person would love to be doing a good job, but they aren’t capable of it.  They aren’t causing problems to be mean-spirited, they just don’t know any better!

Our other friend tried as well to get her off the topic, but to no avail.  She remains convinced that someone is deliberately and maliciously benefiting at her expense.  Because of an accounting change, she’s spent a lot of time frothing at the mouth and going on about it far more than her friends are interested in hearing.  Its got to the point that she’s sounding a bit paranoid.

I think most of us have been down the same road.  A policy is made in our workplace or where we live that makes our lives a lot more difficult (maybe a lieu time policy is changed or a memo is issued forbidding something we’ve been doing).  We feel like it’s a personal attack, but perhaps its just the organization trying to run things and not even thinking about us.

When I first started at Waterloo there was a professor whom I was convinced was out to get me.  When we were walking down the hall, she’d tilt her head up (literally sticking her nose in the air) and turn away from me.  I was shocked and couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d done that had offended her so much (and talked to my office-mates ad-nauseum trying to figure it out).  Eventually I was talking to a couple other guys in the department and mentioned how she treated me.  They nonchalantly replied that she did the same thing to them, and pretty well to anyone else who couldn’t immediately help her career.

The behaviour I’d taken as nasty and personal was just her poor social skills.  I’m not any friendlier with her, but at least I’m not racking my brain trying to figure out what I ever did to her or why she “has it in for me” (she doesn’t).  I interpreted her attitude as an attack on me when it wasn’t.

5 replies on “Malice vs. Incompetence”

Some interesting thoughts – I don’t completely agree with you though. If someone is a complete A-hole – whether it’s your boss or co-worker then I’m not so sure the intent really matters. It’s almost like you are saying – it’s not their fault they are a jerk and they don’t do it intentionally which means they aren’t really “out to get you”.

I would argue that the end result is the same.

Yeah, I get where you’re coming from. I’ve actually had experiences where people are complete A-holes to me. I’m able to easily shrug it off when I realize they aren’t attacking me personally (for example sometimes its cultural norms and they don’t realize they’re being so rude in a western context). The ones who are out to be rude to me deliberately make my blood boil (like a true Klingon warrior, I never suffer having my honour impugned).

I have it printed out here as “Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.” It’s one of my favourite quotes, but it’s tempered by “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” 🙂

Potato: I think I like your version of the quote better. It’s always amusing when “bon mots” contradict each other. My favourite pair are: “He who hesitates is lost” and “Look before you leap”.

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