One common source of frustration at work is incompetence — whether one's own, or the incompetence of another, or the incompetence of the organization. By incompetence I mean a lack of skills, abilities, or understanding relevant to the problem at hand. I include also a lack of ability to acquire the relevant skills, abilities, or understanding. Incompetent individuals or organizations, then, can neither do the job nor address their inability to do the job.
This definition is at odds with a common use of the term. I've often heard one person judge another as incompetent when more appropriate terms might be untrained, inexperienced, uneducated, demotivated, overloaded, or something similar. In other words, not everyone who can't do the job is incompetent. Some people who can't do the job merely lack enlightenment, or devotion, or resources.
A lack of enlightenment, devotion, or resources might appear to be repairable, and often it is. But in some cases, that lack is irreparable. When that happens, we're not dealing with mere incompetence. What we have is either an Incompetence Trap or an Incompetence Snare.
The differences between traps and snares can be subtle when viewed from afar. A snare is a kind of trap, but not all traps are snares. In a trap, the force or obstacle that keeps the victim from escaping is inherent in the trap. A snare is a trap in which the force that keeps the victim from escaping comes from the victim. The classic mousetrap is a trap that isn't a snare, because it holds the victim by the force of a spring. An example of a snare is a loop of wire laid across a small game trail. When a rabbit, say, runs along the trail and catches itself in the loop, it keeps running, tightening the loop, from which it cannot then escape. See "Snares at Work," Point Lookout for May 30, 2007, for more.
- Incompetence traps
- An incompetence trap is a situation in which a situational factor prevents people from acquiring the enlightenment, devotion, or resources needed to carry out their responsibilities. For example, they might not have time to learn a new skill. Or they might be directed by a supervisor not to be concerned about serving a particular class of internal customers. Or they might have been directed not to repair certain classes of defects in software, even though they might be accountable for repairing such defects.
- To the customersAn incompetence trap is a
situation in which a situational
factor prevents people from
acquiring what they need
to do their jobs these people are supposed to serve, they appear to be incompetent. Some customers might even advocate termination of the people they regard as incompetent. The people entrapped might indeed be incompetent, but a more likely possibility is that they are trapped in incompetence by their circumstances.
- Incompetence snares
- An incompetence snare is a situation in which factors associated with the ensnared person or organization maintain the incompetence of the ensnared person or organization.
- For example, suppose Daniel believes that acknowledging the superior judgment of experts is tantamount to acknowledging Daniel's own inferiority. This can be difficult for some senior managers who must consult — or accept the judgment of — expert subordinates. Daniel is therefore reluctant to consult experts, or to recruit them to help him solve his problem. He is thus ensnared in incompetence by his own beliefs about asking for help.
- As a second example, suppose Daniel's project encounters trouble as a result of a faulty decision he made. If Daniel believes that acknowledging his error is an impossibility, he's more likely than he otherwise would be to continue making similar errors, because he's unlikely to have learned from errors he's already made. Daniel is ensnared in incompetence by his inability to acknowledge that he needs to improve his own performance.
Some traps are concealed. They exploit deception to capture their victims. But some traps attract their victims with bait. The classic baited trap is a mousetrap with cheese. The classic baited snare is the hope that if my personal preferred view of reality turns out to be correct, all I need to do is hope and then all will be well. That rarely works out, because hope is not a strategy. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- More Indicators of Scopemonging
- Scope creep — the tendency of some projects to expand their goals — is usually an unintended
consequence of well-intentioned choices. But sometimes, it's part of a hidden agenda that some use to
overcome budgetary and political obstacles.
- Extrasensory Deception: I
- Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong,
or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus
about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace,
but that trouble is often avoidable.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Surviving Incompetence: II
- When your organization undertakes a misguided effort that will certainly fail, you have options. One
is to head for the exit. To search for a new position in such circumstances requires some care. Example:
an internal transfer might not really be an exit.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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