Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 48;   December 1, 2021:

Surviving Incompetence: I

by

When your organization decides to undertake an effort that will certainly fail, you have options. Continuing to oppose the decision probably isn't one of them. How can you respond to this incompetence and emerge with your career intact?
A white shark off the California coast

A white shark off the California coast. Not what you want to see when you go for a swim.

Photo courtesy U.S. NOAA.

What do you do when your team or your supervisor insists that you follow a course of action that has little likelihood of success, and when you're certain that there's a much superior alternative? Do you do as you're told and hope for the best? Do you question your superiors about it? Do you simply refuse to comply? Do you pretend to comply while secretly avoiding compliance? Sabotage the effort? Start a revolt?

These are some of the options. I'm sure there are dozens more. Choosing a response that fits for you is perhaps a little easier if you consider the problem as if it were someone else's to solve. That is, pretend that someone came to you for advice about this situation, and work out what you would say to him or her.

A widely favored version of that advice is something like this:

If you think the failure truly is inevitable, then there are two scenarios. In Scenario 1, the failure won't affect you much. Stay in your job and try to help, but don't become insubordinate or start a revolt. In Scenario 2, the failure will affect your career or your wellbeing in a seriously negative way. In Scenario 2, get out. Now.

But the real world is rarely so simple. For example, you might be unable to determine whether your situation is Scenario 1 or Scenario 2. And even if the situation is Scenario 1 for you at the moment, you might be unsure how the situation could unfold — Scenario 1 could become Scenario 2 overnight.

To navigate through this fog of uncertainty, I like to think of a Scenario 1+: It's Scenario 1 for now, but it could be harboring elements of Scenario 2. Below are two important strategies for working through Scenario 1+ situations in a way that might help you avoid falling into a pit of trouble.

Do your job
The temptation to "slow-walk" your work might be intense. You might feel as if your efforts are totally wasted, given the turn your organization has taken. But if you demonstrate anything less than an acceptable effort, and failure does ultimately occur, you could be held accountable, even if that is unjustified.
Although an acceptable level of effort is the wise course, you need not demonstrate the high levels of performance for which you have become known — if you have become so known. "Do your job" means more than the bare minimum, but only enough so that you won't be seen as contributing to the inevitable failure. And "Do your job" also means knowing what is not your job — knowing what is someone else's job, and letting him or her do theirs.
Stay away from the battlefield…
…if you can. Controversy probably accompanied the decision to move in the direction you find so troubling. You might have participated in the debates, albeit on the losing side. But all that is in the past. The decision has been made. Undoing it is unlikely. Continuing to oppose a bad decision might eventually lead to charges that you are in part responsible for the inevitable failure.
Among those who prevailed — those who advocated or supported the bad decision — are some who recognize this aspect of the controversy that accompanied the bad decision. They know that if they can tempt you into restating the position you had previously defended in vain, then they can later accuse you of bringing about the failure, when failure finally does occur.
Do not cooperate with these wily individuals; don't take their bait. Practice saying things like, "The decision has been made and I accept it." The difficult questions will come in the form, "We know the decision has been made, but do you support the decision wholeheartedly?" Practice responding to these difficult questions. Learn to say, convincingly, "I'm a loyal member of this team and I wish for its success no less fervently than the next person." In other words, practice your non-affirmation affirmations.

Your only real option in this unfortunate scenario is to exit. You can transfer to another position in the same organization, or you can exit altogether and join or start another organization. But exit in these circumstances is different from the more ordinary job search. How it differs, and how those differences affect your exit strategy are topics for next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Surviving Incompetence: II  Next Issue

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