[August 9, 2018] The biggest mistake I’ve ever made was failing to listen to my maternal grandmother (we called her “bigmama”). She told the gaggle of her grandkids sitting in a circle one day to never underestimate other people.
“Golden rule of life: never underestimate your rivals.” – Sid Waddell, English sports commentator and television personality
We were getting ready to play a game of marbles; one of my favorites. Since we had very little money in those days, we bet a penny on each game and possession of the loser’s marbles. I lost terribly to my cousin Vicki. Vicki was our least favorite cousin and generally poor at any physical activity. Unexpectedly, she was great at marbles. Not only did I lose about 25 cents (which was a lot), I also lost all my playing marbles.
People do it all the time. We are always underestimating other people and do so, so frequently, that you would think the human population would learn better. We also overestimate people too but less frequently and that is for another post.
Underestimating others can have unfortunate results. If you underestimate an enemy during wartime, you can lose your life and a nation could be destroyed. One of the Twentieth Century’s greatest strategy blunders was Japan’s Imperial Navy attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941which brought the United States into World War II. In 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally.
I thought that I’d learned a tough lesson with marbles as a kid but as an adult, I again made a number of mistakes by underestimating people. In my engineer design section was a young Lieutenant who had poor people skills and was a bit awkward physically.
I generally dismissed his suggestions on how to bring much needed electrical power to our grid that supplied the base camp. One of his sergeants took me aside to tell me the plan devised by the Lieutenant. I was impressed and quickly implemented his ideas but lost precious time. No one died but we suffered longer in the heat than we should have.
Psychologist will tell you how we do this but their reasoning is unimportant to me. There is an interesting article on this topic in Psychology about the destructive power of underestimating.1 What matters is we do it and do it every day. Leaders must be vigilant about this human weakness and how it can sneak up on your without notice.