Friday, April 16, 2010

In Their Shoes

Everyone knows the old saying... about walking a mile in someone's shoes before you judge them.

I've always thought of that saying as some sort of Jean Valjean situation. As you may recall, this Les Mis protagonist steals a loaf of bread and is then incarcerated in pseudo-revolutionary-but-not-the-one-you-think France. I always thought - how can you judge a hungry man for stealing a loaf of bread? That seemed like a reasonable application of the idiom. Petty theft. Other appropriate areas seem to be abortion, divorce, running-away-at-the-alter, and so on. These all shared the quality of being potential moral landmines with more complexity than can be easily dismissed with a rapid judgment. I'm not sure everyone would agree with me (particularly on #1) but I somehow saw them as distinct from something like adultery or rape or murder, where in most cases (one might argue murder-as-self-defense) it is pretty hard to see how you could ever justify the behavior, regardless of circumstance.

But, the funny thing about the old saying is that it seems to be most potent in much murkier, much less morally-complex situations. Take, for example, the situation of being put in a new role at work. Maybe it's sales. or HR. or even CEO. Most of us, at some point or another, and probably for good reason, have criticized the people doing the layoffs, or the people driving the bus, or the people trying to close the deals. We see their decisions and determine, from our vantage point, that they are behaving irrationally. Why lay off Bob? Why set this product direction? Why can't you close that "easy" deal? Implied in the critique is that in their position, I could do better.

Here's the kicker, though. Over and over again, when you get to sit in that chair, it is remarkable how sensible those decisions become. When you have to consider that 15% NEED to be laid off. When you consider that sales is a real crap shoot, even in the best of times. When you consider that the CEO decisions are not point-in-time but ongoing tradeoffs of more factors than you can possibly imagine. You find yourself walking the same walk and talking the same talk, because the situation forces it. Because the obvious optimizations, from the outside, are remarkably impossible once you're in that chair. Because you don't have the luxury of ignoring "everything else" that might complicate the situation.

It is often called "going native." But, it is unavoidable. If there are only grubs to eat, you eat the grubs and don't hold out for peanut butter.

I'm trying to take the old idiom to heart and judge people less. Not just on the big things, but also on these behaviors which may seem insane or misguided on the outside, but on the inside are almost unavoidable. I'm trying to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and say maybe there's some factors at play which I just cannot see...

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