Hanlon’s Razor – Comfort in the Assumption of Stupidity

Whenever I’m having a hard time when dealing with the resistance of change at the customer’s; when struggling with the emotionality and unreasonableness of a colleague during a meeting; when facing the stubbornness of a friend in a meeting – so, whenever it seems I’m dealing with some kind of malice, I find a lot of comfort in Hanlon’s Razor.

The Problem: Assuming Maliciousness

The other week I was happy to find a solution for a problem my customer was struggling with for a long time. I immediately met with the customer to tell him that I had a fix. I assumed he would hug me for this solution, but he rejected it. He was curt with me, told me, that this would never solve his problem, that they tried this before and it didn’t work out. I told him, it couldn’t be true, they must have done something wrong. That made my customer angry and abruptly ended our conversation. I was shocked. Why wouldn’t my customer want to see the obvious solution? Why was he arguing against me? Was he just using me? Does he not like my work anymore? Am I not good enough?

I assumed my customer has turned against me during our conversation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Hanlon’s Razor

Hanlon’s Razor is an adage:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

This adage states that whenever you assume malice, it might be explainable by stupidity. The origins of this adage go way back to Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte, so instead of stupidity you can say incompetence or ignorance.

Explanation for Resistance of Change

How can Hanlon’s Razor help me with my angry customer above? I attributed my customer’s behaviour to malice, but, Hanlon’s Razor applied, it might have been stupidity. I could check that. If it’s stupidity, then I could explain more about my fix and its application to my customer’s problem.

So I did this with my customer. I explained more and listened to him when he described what happened when he tried to fix the problem before. It turned out that he hadn’t understood my solution at first, and what he tried before was something completey different. It was a misunderstanding.

Assuming malice leads to FUD leads to distrust

The assumption of malice is a good way to kill any communication. It puts all kind of ugly pictures in your head, a strategy known as fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). FUD is often used against opponents in sales, marketing, public relations and such, with the goal to spread disinformation. But if you assume malice in a conversation, you turn this strategy against yourself, and finally disinform yourself. Don’t do that.

It’s Misunderstanding, Not Stupidity

By applying Hanlon’s Razor, it often turns out that there’s a misunderstanding somewhere. This is a huge step forward from assuming malice to identifying a misunderstanding, and it’s often the assumption of malice that prevent the identification of misunderstandings.

By assuming malice you often turn away from the problem. It’s unpleasant to deal with malice, because someone seems to work against you. And, after all, it’s not your fault, that someone else is mean, so he should apologize and you wouldn’t do a thing until then.

But by identifying a misunderstanding, suddenly no one’s left to be blamed. It’s nobody’s fault. There are always two to make a misunderstanding happen. It takes at least one to clear it up, and it doesn’t matter who this is.

Hope and Comfort When Feeling Attacked

The situation with my customer is similar to a lot of conversations I attended or observed. The pattern is always the same: As soon as someone feels attacked, the original topic becomes meaningless. To prevent feeling attacked, apply Hanlon’s Razor.

E.g. in email conversations: There are often dozens of interpretations of letters in emails. It’s so easy to feel attacked and to assume malice:

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” — Cardinal Richelieu, 17th century

My advice: Try to find at least one positive interpretation (e.g. stupidity) and assume that it was this what the writer intented. Then answer to that interpretation first by paraphrasing it (“As I understand you wrote that…”) and then by letting the actual answer follow.

Opportunity to Put Yourself in Someone’s Position

Hanlon’s Razor helps me a lot in various situations by giving me the opportunity to put myself in someone’s position. I can ask myself: Does he really want to trick me in one way or the other, or is it possible that he lacks some kind of information (aka stupidity) so that he can’t unterstand what I want him to tell? Turns out, most often it’s me who lacks some kind of information. Anyhow, Hanlon’s Razor gives me the chance to find a way out of this conversational dead-end.

Telling Others That You Mean No Malice

Hanlon’s Razor works the other way around, too. When your conversation partner seems to feel attacked, tell him that you didn’t mean to. Tell your conversation partner you don’t act out of malice. You don’t have to tell him, you’re stupid. It can actually help your conversation partner that you might not have all the information necessary to understand his point or to make an informed decision. The more concretely you describe the information you need, the greater the chance for your conversation partner to give it to you and to bring the conversation to a good result.

Colleagues Who Are Stressed by Stubborn Environments

My hope is that more people learn about and from Hanlon’s Razor. There are so many stressed out people in big companies I meet when I train or coach. Asked about the background of their stress, it often turns out they fight their environment, assuming malice everywhere:

  • It’s not their fault that they can’t do Agile, it’s the bad managers who can’t see the benefits.
  • It’s not their fault that they can’t ship their software more often, it’s the special departments fault because they don’t want to see the benefits.
  • It’s not the great product that no one will buy, it’s the wicked customers who won’t see the brilliance of the product.

If only they would assume stupidity, their world would be a better place to work in.

Critic #1: Grey’s Law

Hanlon’s Razor is helpful in most contexts, but maybe not in all. Grey’s law states:

“Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

In other words: If you find someone acting so stupid that you can’t believe she’s doing it without the slightest chance of knowing that it’s stupid, then she might act out of malice.

My advice here is to apply Weinberg’s Rule of Three Interpretations:

“If I can’t think of at least three different interpretations of what I received, I haven’t thought enough about what it might mean.” — Jerry Weinberg

If you can’t find any sign of stupidity in a received message, it might be malice what you have found.

Critic #2: Stupidity is disrespectful

When I tell other people about Hanlon’s Razor, they tell me that they don’t like it because it’s disrespectful to call others stupid. I agree, therefore I wouldn’t call them stupid.

Hanlon’s Razor is not about calling someone stupid, it’s about putting you in a position to interpret a received message differently (i.e. not malice) by changing your assumption (i.e. to stupidity).

Maybe you’d like to go with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe then?

“…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. — Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774”

Hanlon’s Razor to the Rescue

Hanlon’s Razor is one of the best tools in life for me so far. It helped me a lot staying cool in dicey situations, because it’s a source of comfort to know that someone is acting out of stupidity rather than out of malice. The latter I can’t deal with, the former is business as usual for me as an Agile coach, trainer and consultant ;)

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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his personal homepage, have a look at his company Bold Mover, or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

9 Responses to Hanlon’s Razor – Comfort in the Assumption of Stupidity

  1. Laurent says:

    Hey, just read that quickly but think you’re spot on. This “old” saying should be deprecated and replaced by “don’t project your misunderstanding as an assumption of stupidity”. Assuming that the others are stupid is such a lazy and common way of getting out of a situation. There should be some brilliant saying to destabilize them.

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  6. Steersman says:

    Good points, ones I should probably refer to more often. Although with the limitations of various social media I sometimes find that recourse to “tit for tat” is more effective, the opportunities for discussion frequently being rather limited.

    But I quite like Goethe’s phrasing: “misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice” – I think much of that is due to noise in the transmission of signals – both in our environments and in our heads … :-)

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  8. Shelley McD says:

    I have heard the same complaint for other people about “stupidity” . . . so when I explain the situation to others, I use the term “ignorance.”

    “Never assume malice when ignorance will suffice.”

    It also helps me, because ignorance can be solved by education and sharing of information. You can’t fix stupid . . .

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