Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 16;   April 15, 2020: Incompetence: Traps and Snares

Incompetence: Traps and Snares

by

Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs.
Child's toys known as Chinese finger traps

Child's toys known variously as Chinese finger traps, Chinese finger prisons, Chinese finger cuffs, Chinese finger puzzles, and more. But these "traps" are actually snares, because the player's fingers are captured as a result of the player's attempts to extract them. Photo (cc) carol.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Intentionally Misreporting Status: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

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People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people.
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People can be astonishingly inventive when trying to harm others. Some strategies involve driving to distraction the target of their malevolence by humiliating the target and lying about the target's character, deeds, or abilities. Targets who recognize these methods are more likely to be able to maintain composure.
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See also Workplace Politics and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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