Firebreak Chat / Be Less Cutting with Hanlon’s Razor

Your friend in every meeting room — benefit of the doubt should never be forgotten.

Jons Mottram
3 min readNov 13, 2020

I wanted this to be my first actual post from a content point of view: Hanlon’s Razor — a mental model that had followed me for years before it crystallised when I started reading Shane Parish’s Farnam Street posts back in 2016. It is something that the effective version of me tries to employ everyday and in every single interaction I face. Many days I fail, but some days I don’t. Those are the good days. The days where I waste the least energy on meaningless conflict.

Image by author | Your friend in every meeting room — benefit of the doubt should never be forgotten.

Hanlon’s Razor states "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Put simply — that time that person did that thing to slight you in some way, they probably didn’t actually mean it personally. Chances are [hopefully] that they are human and made a mistake.

This does not just extend to mistakes though, and the word stupidity in the definition can create negativity or elitism in deploying this mental model. Sometimes people just are not equipped to act, behave or respond in a way you wanted or expected.

So, how do we deal with this? I’m going to use today to talk through why we should all pretend we work with kids [in a good way!] and how it has specifically changed my approach to a variety of situations.

As very much a younger man [boy], I spent a lot of time coaching junior field hockey. From ages 8 to 18, you get a significant difference in not only attention spans, but “physical literacy” of players. This is a perfectly natural thing but can lead to frustration when trying to deliver sessions if it’s not something that is front of mind.

Example: A player didn’t stop the ball because, for whatever reason, they were not in the right place to stop the ball — maybe their hand-eye coordination is not developed to that degree just yet, maybe they lack the orchestration to get limbs in the right place. The list continues.

Importantly though — they didn’t not stop the ball to specifically anger me.

And, of course, you give the kids the benefit of the doubt. You simply adapt sessions to allow for this: Maybe for younger players, the player “stopping” has a wall behind them. You put in guard rails to minimise the impact of a negative outcome, and condition your reaction as a mentor intentionally.

You are the coach. Your sole role in the situation is to aid learning.

Yet in a workplace, we don’t generally work with junior hockey players, and we change. Worst case scenario: We look for a mistake amongst colleagues, or worse yet, deliver a hospital pass. When someone drops the ball, we maybe even then see it as intentional.

Why would I even bother trying to stop the ball next time if I’m just going to get shouted at if I fail?

Why? Maybe it’s easier to highlight a mistake in others rather than admit to your own failings? One thing for sure though is that it breeds negativity and crushes psychological safety in teams. Goes without saying, we are far from being the coaches that are looking to enhance learning.

This has been so pertinent this year especially — 2020, the year we all became oh so familiar with the great indoors. We’re all still learning how to adapt best to a totally new way of working. We’re those school kids trying to grapple maybe not with physical literacy, but certainly with the oddities of virtual interactions in a digital workplace.

Sure — briefs are muddled, deadlines are occasionally missed and the odd Zoom link is erroneously added to the wrong Google Calendar invite. The best thing you can do is be that coach — working out what guard rails you can put up for yourself and others in future.

I think it does wonders to one’s energy levels too. To actively acknowledge that it happens. Do not spiral into the reasons why somebody actively meant to annoy you. Be the coach, because we’ve all at some point been that kid failing to stop a ball.



Jons Mottram

Budding growth marketeer, wannabe creative and serial sportist. Student of human mixology: improving understanding with a twist of lime and a spritz of sarcasm.