Do people actually know what they want, personally/professionally?

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People don’t know what they want.

You hear this a lot. Probably the biggest context in which it’ll come up is relationships, usually around the male. (Although let’s be honest — females have many of these same issues with “people don’t know what they want.”)

This concept is probably less applied in a work context. That’s only logical. If you live in a capitalism, there isn’t a ton of choice around if you’re going to work. You are. (In 45 years, that sentence may not be true.) Right now the only way out of it is maybe having a trust fund or going into the family business, which is cool — but let’s be honest, ain’t much choice there either.

But work is challenging. You come in with one set of ideas on what it might be like, and then within six months you catch your first terrible boss. Then you move through roles and jobs and kinda sorta maybe keep thinking it’s gonna get better. It really never does, until you end up at a place that’s largely passable (with a good boss or two) and stay there. This is the cycle for a lot of people.

But when you’re down in the weeds with a terrible manager, you gotta ask yourself what the hell you’re even doing. We’ve all hit that moment/nadir. On the general employee side, that’s where it feels like “people don’t know what they want.” You’re totally confused and wondering why you work here with these people. It sucks. Wharton calls this “chimp rape.”

There’s another side to this whole issue, though.

The managerial side of “people don’t know what they want”

This occurs at a complex intersection:

At that car-crash-prone intersection, what happens is that a lot of workplaces are low-priority, low-feedback, ideas-go-nowhere voids. But at the same time, some executive is yelling at some middle manager about wanting to see a “Twitter strategies” deck ASAP. So there’s a lot of sense of urgency but not a lot of priority-laden, context-heavy stuff.

What happens therein? People don’t know what they want.

(There’s also a whole tie here in that “people don’t know what they want” is a quote favored by both Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, two of the most important men of the last 100 years. Chew on that for a second and maybe everything I’m saying here is wrong. Although they’re discussing consumers, and I’m discussing internal processes.)

Let’s run a few examples of this concept

Personal one: Wrote a few articles for a lady recently. She basically stopped giving me bullet points or topics; just needed something every Tuesday. Tuesday mattered more than the quality of the content. (This is a “process play.”) I followed up with her after a few weeks and she said “These pieces are missing the mark, maybe we take a break.” We had never once discussed strategy, placement, context, keywords, etc. Of course it was missing the mark. Eventually I was chasing a check. Aren’t we all? But that’s people don’t know what they want. They know they need something — content! — but they have no idea what to do with it, so idiotic stuff like that happens.

Broader one: Most people that work in sales/marketing have no idea what “branding” means. They think it means adjusting logos on PDFs. That’s not branding. But why do they think that? (1) is because they want to sit in meetings and discuss elements they can control — like where a logo goes or how big it is — and (2) is because, well, people don’t know what they want.

I know what you want: to subscribe to this email I do every week where we talk about how to make work better.

Personal one: Worked with a kid on the “launch” of his product. He wanted some emails. Gave me no context for what the emails should say despite repeated questions and meetings. Then he wanted some “entrepreneurial backlinks, so write an article on that…” It’s all absolutely miserable garbage at some point. People don’t know what they want, but they think they have a handle on the buzzwords they should use when they describe the no-context project to you.

So can people ever know what they want at work?

It will be hard, because work is very much about “a quest for relevance” and “a desire to seem competent.” At that intersection, you’ll over-focus on stuff you can control. So every meeting becomes about these little details and no one talks about bigger picture stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The devil is indeed in the details. I ain’t flinging feces over that. Details matter, but if all you do is discuss and debate details — frequently without any data on perception of those details among your customers — then the bigger “strategy” means nothing. You ever seen stats where 95% of employees can’t name the strategy of where they work? Know why that is? Because they never get access to it except in buzzwords at all-hands meetings. Every meeting they attend is people don’t know they want BS with a back-and-forth about the font size of some circulated document. (“I think Jane would prefer it to be larger…”)

Related problem, by the way: most managers have no idea how long any task really takes, especially if it’s a newer, digital one. That also effs with time management and productivity, as does this culture of people don’t know what they want.

What’s your take? Seen this with managers? A bunch of “people don’t know what they want” fools, or had a few good ones who did drive clarity?

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