Stories about Software


Appeasers, Crusaders, and Why Meetings Usually Suck

I think this is about to get weird, but bear with me, if you’re so inclined.  This is going to be another one of those posts in which I try to explain myself by way of a vague apology for my abnormality.  But maybe if enough of you are similarly abnormal, it’ll gain a little steam.  I’d like to talk today about my odd, intuitive approach to disagreements over the rightness of opinions or beliefs. (For epistemological purposes, consider anything that you’d think of as a “fact” to fall into the belief category.)

So, let’s say that Alice and Bob are sitting on a bench, and Alice proclaims that blue is the best color.  Bob might agree that Alice is right.  He might disagree with her on the basis that red is actually the best color, or he might disagree with her on the basis that this is a purely subjective consideration, so the idea of a “best” color is absurd.  In short, Bob thinks that Alice is wrong.

Perception of rightness affects different people differently, it appears to me.  There are a lot of people out there for whom rightness is extremely important, and the idea that someone might be wrong and not corrected offends them deeply (as shown here, ably, by xkcd).  I am not one of those people.  I might be baited into the occasional back and forth online (or in any asynchronous form) when someone directly accuses me of wrongness, but that’s pretty much it.  I almost never seek out people to correct general wrongness, and I certainly don’t do it in person — with the exception of very close friends and family, and only then in casual conversation.  By and large, other people being wrong about things doesn’t matter to me.  If I’m sitting in the bar, having a beer, and some drunk is yammering political opinions that get increasingly moronic with each boilermaker, I have an innate gift for quietly enjoying the free spectacle.

But there are situations that require cooperation, often professional ones.  Working with another person, there may be some debate or disagreement over the course of action that ought to be taken, and, in such cases, the moment happens when I’m convinced that someone is wrong, and they’re equally convinced that I’m wrong.  The first thing that I do is evaluate whether or not the wrongness negatively impacts me.  If not…meh, whatever.

Let’s say that, Bob, my cohort, insists that we capitalize prepositions in a title for some corporate PowerPoint because it’s the right thing to do, according to him.  I could tell him that he’s wrong, and that might result in escalation until we googled a bit by way of finding a tie-breaker.  But even after confronted with evidence to the contrary, there’s no shortage of Bobs that would persevere in their arguments thanks to confirmation bias.  I often let them because being right about that doesn’t matter to me.  If the casing of a PowerPoint title is wrong, I think I’ll survive, and it’s not worth spending interpersonal capital and general unpleasantness squabbling with Bob over something stupid.  This is the thing for which I feel quasi-apologetic — I’m willing to let other people get things wrong simply because correcting them seems like a chore that isn’t worth the bother.  I’d ascribe this to me being an introvert, but I don’t think that’s really the reason. I think there are introverts that spend their energy correcting people.  So, instead, I’ll just label myself “appeaser” for this post.

Now, let’s say that Bob and I are back at it — but, this time, about something that matters to me.  Maybe we’re driving to catch a plane and arguing over directions.  At this point, I can’t really just let him be wrong and make me miss my plane.  So I sigh and dive into the argument.  But when I do this, it’s as if I’m entering an underwater cage fight where the loser is the one that taps out first.  I might start off with a good bit of vigor, but as things go on, I get lethargic, winded. Eventually, my will to fight further melts.  There is a point of absurdity beyond which I’ll just miss my plane and let Bob be wrong rather than continuing.  If Bob is like me, an appeaser, victory is going to be a toss up as we both run out of steam and steer toward tired, out-of-breath diplomacy.

But if Bob is a member of the other archetype, one that I’ll call a “crusader,” he will never run out of steam.  When it comes to the underwater fight, crusaders are basically like Aquaman in that they can breathe down there and throw haymakers at you indefinitely, getting stronger as they go.  As appeasers start to get dizzy and disoriented, preparing to tap out, crusaders continue to pummel them with mounting fury, even past the point of unconsciousness, leaving a relatively ugly situation when they finally snap out of it.  They win by brute force, simply sapping the appeaser of whatever stake in rightness he may have had, originally.  If two crusaders are going at it, they may eventually need to be separated like children.


Crusaders simply lack the social grace to control their own impulses or — else they lack the social grace to understand the toll their crusade exacts on their relationships with others.  Crusaders tend to have sort of a glass ceiling in terms of influence, even when they’re really smart and often right.  The glass ceiling exists because so many of their victories in interpersonal situations are of the pyrrhic variety.  Bludgeoning people around you into submission by brute force is a way to squash resistance, but it’s not a way to build a supporting network of followers and allies.  And the bludgeoning can take the form of anger, loudness and repetition, but it can also come quietly via institutional support, such as in the case of Expert Beginners.  You will encounter the occasional crusader that is influential or powerful, simply by virtue of pairing their dogged persistence with an uncanny ability actually to be right almost all of the time. But that is more the exception than the rule.

I think that being an appeaser tends to result in better outcomes over the long haul, so why apologize for this trait in myself?  Well, because I think I often take it to the extreme.  Appeaser to crusader is probably a spectrum, and it’s not just that I’m an appeaser — I’m a lumpenappeaser to the point of quasi-nihilism.  My reaction to arguments that I consider to be wrong, in many situations, is to immediately check out and start mentally solving some other problem.  I’m a feedback-driven, extremely impatient Type A, so in my mind, if I’ve already solved the problem, persuading others that I’m right becomes a waste of time if they don’t agree quickly.  But the worst part is that I don’t entirely forget the unpleasant interactions — they sit in my head, percolate in cynicism, and often turn into fully-formed counterargument rants in the form of things like, oh, say, blog posts.  It might be better to engage more, but it’s really hard for an introverted, impatient appeaser to summon that mental energy.

And that brings me to wrap up with a bit about why I really, really don’t like collaborative meetings. (And I’m referring to meetings of the “let’s all get together and write a presentation” variety.)  I think I might have promised once to write more on this subject and, if so, better late than never.  If you take a look at this chart I generated, you can see the percent effectiveness of meetings, as perceived by me, varying with the number of people.  Starting at 1, where there’s 100% effectiveness, meetings usually decrease exponentially in value. One might argue this happens combinatorically, but I’m just trying to supply a nice visual here.  This is the average case, in my experience. There are certainly instances of several people actually being productive, even if that’s not especially common.  Also, this specifically pertains to collaboration/working meetings, and not announcement meetings or meetings with specific, well-formed agendas.


The exponential (combinatoric) dropoff in productivity can be explained simply by the number of potential arguments varying at least exponentially with the number of participants.  Each additional person in the room might start arguing with any of the people already in there, wasting everyone’s time.  The curve won’t generally be as strong in situations where impasses are less likely and collaboration is somewhat constructive, but a even single crusader in the mix generally nukes that possibility.  Still, if people aren’t arguing for whatever reason, productivity can remain reasonably high.

If there is a room full of appeasers, they’ll probably squabble and bikeshed for periods, but sooner or later, they’ll all come up for air.  The fact that not all of them start to brawl underwater helps them preserve their collective stamina, so the meeting is more likely to go on for the full allotted time instead of ending with fireworks.  With a room full of appeasers, it’s good to employ gentle nudging techniques, like scheduling meetings right before lunch or the end of the day so that they lose what little appetite they have for the underwater rumble and decisions can be reached.

If there is a room full of appeasers and a single crusader, things tend to go quickly, if not productively.  Crusaders will just run roughshod over people, and a single blowhard imposing his will on a bunch of people is not ideal in terms of effectiveness.  But the worst situation is one in which there are multiple crusaders.  This tends to be a terminally stupid exercise in which the appeasers quickly get tired and sit back watching the crusaders duke it out until separated.  Way too often, this separation only happens when the meeting is interrupted by the people who reserved the conference room next.

And of course, the greater the number of people, the greater the odds of having multiple crusaders.  In my experience, meetings with more than five people that are intended for collaborative work are so close to zero productivity that the difference is a rounding error.  In these situations, I usually make sure to bring some work, or at least a book to read, in case I can’t reasonably negotiate my way out of the situation entirely.  I also believe that non-participation is the ethical thing to do in this case, since the most value any one person can hope to add is to end the meeting as quickly as possible to stop the negative productivity.

One final thing to note is that I’ve assumed a pretty uniform distribution of organizational power across the meeting participants.  This has been like the special relativity of meetings, but if you introduce high ranking people and/or corporate opportunists, a much more nuanced, general relativity of meetings is required.   Perhaps I’ll opine on that at some future date and bear out an operating hypothesis that opportunists and crusaders are just about mutually exclusive.

That’s my long, kind of strange story and piece of self-explanation.  Don’t take my lack of argument for agreement, and don’t take my lack of participation in large group settings personally.  It’s not that I’m trying to be rude — it’s just that I’d prefer, impatiently, to concede the argument so that I can find something else to do.

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