My in laws are having some health issues and we just moved them from Tucson to Modesto so that they would have access to better care. As Humans, we have a strange attachment to our stuff and rather than giving away their house full of stuff, flying them to Modesto and replacing it at Target we spent a couple days loading it onto a 26-foot U-Haul truck and then I drove it 1,000 miles to Modesto.
Most of the route was in California and it included a stint in LA so I was pretty nervous. California driving is Darwinian and I knew that I would be at a competitive disadvantage. I spread the trip out over four days and counted the times that someone cut me off. That number would be: Zero.
And do you know what happened whenever I signaled a lane change? People slowed down to let me in.
I was beginning to think that California drivers had suddenly become polite but then I realized what was really going on. Nothing screams incompetence like a rented 26-foot truck. Drivers who were tempted to cut in front of me realized that I would do my best to avoid hitting them--and that was the problem.
What did it mean when I signaled a lang change? It meant that I was changing lanes. You can play chicken with me if you want to. You can assume that I'm not coming over. But drivers could tell at a glance that I couldn't see them. My signal was not a request for space. My signal indicated that I was changing lanes.
California drives treated me with respect because they knew that I was incompetent.
I've been in a lot of high-level negotiations. I've been on the leadership team for two multi-billion dollar mergers. I've settled a dozen $100 million rate cases and negotiated a few multi-million dollar salary packages. Usually these negotiations go well, but sometimes they go badly. Sometimes other parties will blow something up and my clients will comment on how evil they are. My clients believe that the other party has hurt everyone else through pettiness or spite. Of course, I've blown up a few negotiations myself and I'm sure that the other parties wonder why I am occasionally so mean.
My response? "Ask yourself if they are evil or incompetent." Most of the time you will settle on "incompetent." Why do they go wrong? Because, unlike when I drive a truck, when I negotiate, my incompetence is not obvious. Parties engage in risky behavior because they underestimate the incompetence of the other parties.
There are reasons to be polite. We signal our lane changes and avoid cutting off other drivers for the same reasons that we grant extensions, write clear contracts and disclose our weaknesses. We do those things because it is important to treat people with respect.
We also follow those protocols in case we have made the mistake of overestimating the competence of the other party. A rented truck is a 26-foot long billboard that warns you not to overestimate me.
Maybe we should all start writing that on the top of our briefs.