To learn something at the office can be difficult. But to refrain from learning something requires years of practice and refinement. It’s an office skill that Steven Crawley finds indispensable. “The inability to grasp selective things can be very helpful in keeping your desk clear of unwanted clutter,” says the executive in HR, or what he calls “the dumping ground” of all unwanted office tasks. “I have developed a very agile selective memory across a wide range of nonvalue-added activities.”
The most memorable time he brandished his nonskill was when the president at an automotive-parts manufacturer asked Crawley to organize the company picnic. With a sensibility more dry than bubbly, he wasn’t crazy about party planning. So he began to milk his lack of picnic knowledge for all it wasn’t worth. He responded to any inquiries or suggestions with questions and comments such as “How do you do that?” or “What did you guys do in the past?” or even “Help me remember why we’re talking about this.”
Ultimately, responsibility for the picnic was reassigned. Mission unaccomplished. Says Crawley: “You’d be amazed at how much I don’t know about picnics.”
Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do—without ever having to admit it. For junior staffers, it’s a way of attaining power through powerlessness. For managers, it can juice their status by pretending to be incapable of lowly tasks.
In all cases, it’s a ritualistic charade. The only thing the person claiming not to understand really doesn’t understand: That the victim ultimately stuck with the work sees through the false incompetence.
The tactic starts in early youth with chores. (“How do you open the dishwasher?”) Its puppy-eyed helplessness gets refined through homework with math-word problems and book reports on “Beowulf.” In college, it gets reinforced by enablers who take better notes in class. And in marriage it works—but not as well—by raising the spectre of disaster from a task mishandled: “If I do the wash I might shrink your sweater” and “How do you change diapers so they don't leak?”
At work, it can be institutionalized at customer call centers, for example, whose operators will transfer you to another department before the last department transfers you back to them. And for shady corporations, incompetence is the best legal defense strategy.
For any employee, the soul-stealing complexity of office machinery such as fax machines, copiers, PCs, voicemail and even coffee-makers gives everyone ample cover to studiously never learn how to use them. But the same blank stare accompanies nonmechanical tasks, too. Claire Wexler, an accountant who used to work at a law firm, says lawyers “pretend to be completely flummoxed” by all of those machines as well as “everything related to accounting except for billing.” Their message: “I have so many lofty matters on my mind I can’t be bothered with mastering this small task,” she says.
Rescuing a pseudoincompetent from an office task can mean doing it for life; failing to rescue risks the sting of being a nonteam player. “There’s nothing worse than doing too good a job on something that you don’t want to keep doing,” says Carole Kempler Meagher. She once worked with another manager of a different department who played up the fact that he “couldn’t find his belly button with both hands, a map and a flashlight.”
Each month, he’d start complaining that he couldn’t close his books. Their boss would beg her to help him. “The following month we would go through the whole thing again,” says Meagher. “Sometimes being a team player means getting your own stuff done so that other people can get their own work done.”
Laziness and status issues aside, Tom Colbert, president of a logistics provider, observes that found incompetence sometimes comes from a genuine fear—not of looking stupid, but of proving it. “There’s no reason to demonstrate it,” he says.
Even someone for whom no task is too small, such as Mr. Colbert himself, the fax machine and its labyrinthine menu of options are more trouble than they’re worth. “It’s a jungle! I’ll coerce someone else into performing the task by feigning ignorance or frustration.”
That person is Mary Powell. She reports that Mr. Colbert engages in a lot of shrugging, sighing and throwing up of the hands. “He usually can figure out most things without too much trouble,” she says. “This one particular thing he doesn’t want to take the time to.”
Strategic incompetence involves a lot of unnecessary posturing, notes Robert Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford University. But it’s not all bad. “One way in which lower-status people feel more esteem in the presence of higher status people is to show they have a skill that’s valued and needed,” he says.
It can signify a mutual respect found in other hierarchies, he adds. “I think of apes grooming.”
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