To thrive in tech, you must figure out how to work with Very Confident People who dismiss you. You will encounter people who are very confident about their views on what motivates people and what constitutes effective leadership, management, organizational culture, etc.
I'm a very privileged white man, and I've lost count of how many times I've been lectured about "how humans are", "what people care about", "the right mindset", "the harsh reality", "this will hurt", "there are two types of people", and "what you need to do to get ahead".
My non-white-male friends say it is much worse for them. I can only imagine. I'm sure it is not just tech, but tech absolutely attracts its fair share of people who know The Right Way and are willing to lecture you about It.
Why? I'm not sure.
The Threat Response
You will feel threatened and annoyed, even if you self-identify as being curious and open-minded. You will get triggered—especially when the people you are sparring with are in a position to block your needs from getting met implicitly or explicitly. If they openly belittle or diminish you—or people you see as your peers—that can make things ten times worse. You may even find yourself being jealous and then feeling stupid for feeling jealous.
From personal experience, the internal monologue goes something like this:
This is unfair! Because here I am trying to see both sides and embrace diversity. In walks someone with a single, narrow, confident view of what is right and wrong. And they don't even seem aware that other valid views exist! They are flat-out rejecting my view!
Next, the monologue shifts to introspection and questions:
Do I need to be that confident to get ahead? But that's not me. Is my attitude helping me here? I'm just burning cycles trying to see both sides. Maybe they are right, and I'm wrong? Maybe it doesn't matter if they are right, as long as they believe they are right?
Some Personal Conclusions
I've arrived at the following conclusion for myself (n=1):
Save Your Energy
A common threat response is a self-serving smugness. We fall back on self-identifying as "curious" and "open-minded", and casting those who threaten us as "stubborn" and "narrow-minded". While we may feel this in our bones—or need to feel it in our bones—it probably doesn't help us show up in a way that advances our needs. It is hard to be at our best when we need to feel better than others because we perceive they feel superior to us. I don't think you can 100% avoid this response, but taming it helps.
Overall, we need to protect our energy and direct it in ways that advance our needs.
Address Fundamental Attribution Bias
Ask, "how did they, and I, come to believe the things we believe?"
What have they observed? What have they experienced? We all suffer from fundamental attribution bias when assessing the people we work with. When things go right, it is our genius. When people do us wrong, it is their fault. When things go wrong for us, it is "the system". Why not "the system" (or circumstances) for the people who seemingly judge us and others harshly?
Avoid Stereotyping Back
Watch out for lumping people into a stereotype and becoming like the people you see as close-minded. I'm always surprised by what I learn when I take the time to dig deeper with people who are highly confident about their takes. As always, it is a spectrum. Yes, sometimes they turn out to be people who I don't particularly agree with, but there are always interesting and telling twists to the story. Those twists can be a foothold for a mutually beneficial path forward.
Again, protect energy, and direct it in ways that advance our needs.
Pick Your Battles and Get Clear About Your Needs
Where should we take a stand to advance your cause?
Say you want to help your peers fend off a narrow-minded manager or leader. What will improve the chances of that happening? You will unlikely do anything that will change the manager's views. But you may be able to help your coworkers figure out how to advance their own needs and navigate the mess.
The same holds for addressing your own needs. What do you want to happen? If this is about seeking validation from others—having someone in power say, "yes, I acknowledge and respect what you are saying"—then you may be sorely disappointed. There's a good chance that will not happen. But if your goal is to get to a certain level of influence in your organization to create the change and environment you desire—for you and the people you care about—then that may be much more feasible.
Fight for what you believe in—100%. But again, be strategic about how invest your energy to get there.
Hopefully, this post has been helpful. I certainly haven't figured this all out.
What helps you deal with Very Confident People who dismiss you and your beliefs?
Being a reserved and "laid back" person, the biggest surprise for me as I began to assert my own ideas was the strength of the emotional response that happened to me. That can make saving your energy a difficult task, and being blindsided by this kind of dismissal when you have big ideas and deep beliefs can reveal extremely energy consuming emotions you didn't know you had.
One tool that has helped me in situations like that is disassociation. There's any number of methods or tricks for that - and I won't pretend to be anyone's therapist - and what works for me is Jack. Jack rants and raves and blows off immense amounts of emotional energy. But that's Jack. In the moment, I can tell Jack to shut up, he'll get his opportunity later, right now I need to focus on this zoom call or finish this piece of work or this day or whatever.
Great post, John! It reminds of a time when I was interviewing with Amazon for a UXD role. While discussing my case studies with a principal designer, he gave me the idea that you have to be confident while pushing back and people need to respect your expertise. He told me that his experience is so vast that if we start debating on a point that I feel is worthless, I say so with conviction. If the other party starts talking about data or research to identify this, I tell them No because I've enough experience in this and doing any more research is a waste of time.