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:
- Devious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
- Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This
excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears
to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
- Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts
- Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts,
operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts?
And what can you do about them?
- Not Really Part of the Team: I
- Some team members hang back. They show little initiative and have little social contact with other team
members. How does this come about?
- The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence
are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at
a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen?
- Allocating Airtime: I
- The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended
to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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