The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
Can you stay true to who you are without sacrificing your success? Absolutely YES.
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Ignorance In The Workplace:
Up, Down and Around

They say ignorance is bliss.  
For those who have to work up, down, and around
ignorance in the workplace... not so much.

When you walk into the office today, you may not feel like the smartest person in the room.  Chances are, though, you're smarter than someone else.  Sometimes, a LOT smarter. Most of the time, it's not a bad thing to be intelligent, insightful, and capable at work.  You're good at what you do.  You make informed decisions.  You behave in ways that make sense to others.  You earn respect.  What could be bad about that?

If you don't have to rely on anyone else to be successful, ignorance in others isn't a concern.  You have complete control over your performance.  For most of us, however, that isn't the case.  We interact with people continuously at work.  Many of them impact our ability to be successful.  What do you do if one of those people is incapable of delivering on their responsibilities? On more than one occasion, you'll be faced with ignorance in the workplace, from a co-worker, or worse yet, your boss.  
How do you handle ignorance in others with professionalism?  
How do you pick the right battles?  
How do you ensure your success, despite others who are ignorant?
 How do you keep perceptions of ignorance about your colleagues from tarnishing your reputation?
Diversity and Ignorance

I talk a lot about the value of diversity in the workplace.  You may be surprised to hear that I'm a fan of diversity even when it comes to intelligence and what most of us would consider common sense.  It seems counterintuitive, I'm sure.  Think of it this way.  Not everyone can be the smartest one in the room on every topic.  It would be incredibly non-productive to have everyone believe they are the most knowledgeable and insightful person contributing in every circumstance.  

Companies need to have diversity of intelligence, skills, and area of expertise.  Sometimes a book-smart colleague lacks the ability to be nimble and reactive to business situations.  Sometimes the street-smart and savvy colleague isn't creative enough to come up with the big idea.  Sometimes the least talented team member comes up with a really great idea born of their ignorance as to how things "should" be done in business.  Success for most companies lies in striking the right balance and finding the right mix.

Now before you start to believe I've lost my mind, I'll go on record that what isn't acceptable is flat-out ignorance with regard to what to do, or how to do it, in the workplace. No one wants to work amidst ignorance or incompetence, particularly if there's dependency on others to be successful.  It happens, none-the-less.  Companies tolerate ignorance far longer than they should in many cases, despite proof of negative consequence.  For that reason, your success is reliant on learning how to work up, down, and around ignorance in the workplace.  Here are some approaches that have worked for me.

1.  Understand Points of Weakness.

When you find yourself feeling frustrated with what you perceive to be ignorance in someone you work with routinely, take a moment to consider the full picture.  Often, we interact with someone in just one capacity.  Other people may interact with that person in another capacity.  It's entirely possible that someone isn't completely inadequate in their role, despite your belief to the contrary.  You just may be lucky enough to have run straight into their greatest area of weakness.

If you can understand points of weakness, and also identify areas of strength (or less weakness), you can generally adjust the way you manage your relationship with your colleague.  Find a way to minimize their ability to impact you with their weakness.  If they're good with numbers and bad with people, take on more responsibility within the team in areas that impact people.  If they're great with people but weak in all things detail-oriented, find ways to put them out in front while you cover the details.  

Negotiate a different interaction to take ignorance out of play.  This is about providing air cover for a colleague in their area of weakness and tapping into whatever strengths they have... to your benefit.  In the process, you also protect your ability to perform.  Don't concern yourself with fair or unfair, or right or wrong.  It's just part of business.  Do it for yourself, if not your colleague.

2.  Reset Your Expectations.

I feel very fortunate in that I've worked with some amazing talent throughout my career.  Some of my former colleagues carry incredible distinctions:  Patent holder for the original Intel chip, founder and president of MTV, woman of the year in the telecommunications industry, founder of the first residential high-speed cable modem business, founder of Jabber instant messaging, NY times best-selling author, multiple millionaires, and multiple members of MENSA.  I feel very lucky to have been inspired by these individuals and learned so much from them.

The problem with working with talented people, though, is that it ruins you.  It makes it even more obvious when you find yourself working with individuals who not only lack profound talent of any kind, but are also ignorant in matters of business.  If you've been lucky enough to be inspired by others at work, you know exactly what I mean.  The bar is set high and it's very difficult for others to meet your expectations.

Sometimes you just have to reset your expectations to a more reasonable level.  Your co-workers may not be as smart as you'd like them to be.  They may make poor choices and impact others with decisions that don't make sense.  You may find yourself saying, "They just don't get it."  But chances are, if you remove pre-conceived notions about how others should be, and accept them where they are, you'll increase your tolerance and find ways to work creatively around moments of complete ignorance.

3.  Mitigate, Mitigate, Mitigate.

Whether we like it or not, the performance of others around us impacts how people view us.  For that reason, we have to be cautious in allowing ignorance to do the happy dance through the office unchecked.  Ignorance is only bliss for those who are ignorant.  The rest of us need to mitigate the impact of ignorance around us.

a) Disagree in private.  
The smarter person in every disagreement is likely to be the first one frustrated.  We don't do our best negotiation when frustrated and certainly not when we have an audience.  If you choose to challenge an ignorant thought, action or behavior try to do it in private whenever possible.  These discussions can be started with "I'm frustrated because of <a>.  I'd like us to consider <b> and this is why.  I really want to come to agreement.  Help me understand your choice and let's talk about our options."

b) Pick your battles.  
Sometimes stupidity doesn't do that much harm.  When ignorance is an annoyance with minimal impact, you're better to let it go, like water off a duck's back.  Doodle on the paper in front of you, divert your eyes, or take a breath.  Let it go.  On the other hand, ignorance can have significant impact when the stakes are high.  In those cases, you have to pick the battle, you have to negotiate a different outcome as best you can, or you need to escalate it to someone who can facilitate the situation.  As with guidance you've heard from me before, stick to the facts and discuss the implications.  Emotion has to be checked at the door and any references to ignorance must be muttered only with your inside-voice.  No exceptions.

c) Do your part.  
You will at times have to live with outcomes you dislike.  What may seem obviously lacking in intelligence to you, may not be as obvious to others.  Don't dig in your heels and just let the games begin.  Do your best to do damage control, for yourself, for your team members, for your clients, or the business.  It's easy to just let someone else deal with the consequences, particularly the person who let ignorance in the room.  Don't do it.  It doesn't serve you well long-term.  Do your part.

4.  Channel Your Judgments Toward Growth

Before your roll your eyes, hear me out.  One of the blessings that comes from working with ignorance is the ability to know with total certainty what you will never do yourself.  Another great thing is that you have an opportunity to hone your skills in managing these situations.  As hard as it was to see the benefit in the moment, I'm very thankful for a few people who have challenged me unbelievably.  

I've expanded my ability to explain things in new and very helpful ways.  I've learned patience.  I've developed more tolerance than I would've ever thought possible.  I've learned to adapt, to work around roadblocks, and to negotiate with people who live in a world I don't understand.  My point: Consider having to manage ignorance a challenge.  Be smarter, faster, and better as a result of having to be successful despite people who don't measure up to others in the organization.  Don't let them defeat you.  Win by getting better at your own game.

5.  Find Relief By Looking To Others

In nearly all organizations, you don't have to look far to find amazing talent.  You'll find smart people who are well-intentioned and capable of making great contributions.  At the other end of the spectrum are a few, select others who seem larger than life because you're outraged by their ignorance.  Associate with those who inspire you.  Seek out the top talent in your organization.  Try to let ignorance walk on by when possible.  Your role is to do your best and not let anyone else influence you to do any less.

6.  One More Note:  When Ignorance Is Your Boss

We all want our bosses to be smart and capable.  We want them to have vision and drive an agenda that inspires top performance in the organization.  We may not need to be inspired, but we certainly want to be led in an intelligent direction with good judgment and instincts.  It's tough when we don't get what we expect.  Here are some additional ideas on how to manage these specific situations specifically, along with the approaches outlined above.

a)  Earn respect and latitude.
Your boss will have less of an impact on you if you earn their respect and the latitude to make your own decisions and judgments.  Invest the time to perform well and align to your boss as best you can.  Over time, you'll buy yourself freedom and relief, no matter how much you have to bite your tongue in the process.

b)  Learn how to influence.
We know that every person responds to situations in their own personal way.  Learn how to influence your boss.  What makes them tick?  What matters to them with regard to how they're perceived in the organization?  What are they most concerned with in terms of performance or outcomes?  Listen, learn, and adapt your approach to gain influence.  Even someone completely lacking in intelligence can make good choices.  This is only true if they have positive influences that can break through the clutter.  Be that person.  It's good for you and for your boss.

c)  Don't ignore or disregard your boss.
For as long as your boss is the boss, they get to, well, be the boss.  Influence them, challenge them when needed, and make your opinions known.  Try not to show open disregard when things don't go your way.  It isn't your best choice.  It lacks professionalism and rarely turns the tide in your direction.  Do your best to influence outcomes, but comply if you fail.  If you can't be successful or satisfied working with your current leader, it's your responsibility to move on.  Don't try to break them.

d)  Be balanced and diplomatic if asked for feedback.
It's difficult to provide feedback when asked about a boss who doesn't demonstrate great intelligence or aptitude in their role.  The further they are from the mark, the harder the feedback becomes.  Sometimes you feel you're doing a great service to the business by providing open feedback only to have it come back to bite you if your boss remains in the role.  

For that reason, be diplomatic.  Be thoughtful in how you present your opinion.  Some ideas I've used with success:  "We approach things differently."  "I find myself disagreeing with decisions in the following areas."  "I'm not sure we're a good fit working together."  The person asking for your feedback may dig, but often they'll extrapolate without causing you to torch your boss directly.  However far you have to go, just try to be as respectful as you can.  No one can ask anything more.


Mark Twain has been quoted as saying "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure."  Where's the dislike button for this quote?  My version is "All you need in this life is the ability to manage ignorance with confidence, and then success is sure."  You don't have to be the smartest person in the room to find great success.  You just have to be sure the most ignorant person in the room isn't your downfall.  

Understand points of weakness, reset your expectations, mitigate the impact of ignorance around you and channel your judgments to expand your skills and competencies.  Find relief when you need it and be particularly creative managing ignorance 'up.'  Only then, success is sure.

My best to you,