Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 18;   May 11, 2022: Capability Inversions and Workplace Abuse

Capability Inversions and Workplace Abuse


A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work than are the people doing that work. In some capability inversions, abusive behavior by the unit's leader might be misinterpreted as bullying.
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Jardin des Plantes, Paris. The sunflower is an example of a pseudanthium, which is actually a compound flower. The "petals" of the sunflower are complete flowers. And the center is a dense pack of individual flowers.

So it is with abuse at work. What appears to be one kind of abuse might actually be another kind entirely. Distinguishing types of abuse typically requires more contextual information than most outside observers have.

Photo by Alvesgaspar (cc) by SA 3.0 courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Bullying at work is one form of workplace abuse. Many organizations are now enlightened enough to have deployed anti-bullying policies, and that's certainly progress. There is a problem, though, associated with applying these policies. And the problem arises from the distinction between bullying and other forms of workplace abuse. All bullying is abuse; not all abuse is bullying. This distinction is especially clear for abuse that occurs in the context of what I call capability inversions.


Let's begin with two definitions.

Bullying behavior is behavior primarily motivated by the intent to inflict physical or psychological pain and then to witness the target's suffering. It need not be series of incidents involving the same target. It arises from a compulsion whose urges must be satisfied with some regularity.
Capability inversion
Capability What appears to be one kind of abuse
might actually be another kind entirely.
Distinguishing types of abuse typically
requires more contextual information
than most outside observers have.
inversions can occur in groups that have specific missions. An inversion occurs when those who have the highest levels of formal organizational authority also have relatively lower levels of subject matter expertise. And those with lower levels of formal organizational authority have relatively greater levels of subject matter expertise.

In what follows, I use the name Lester to refer to the less competent leader, and the name Martine to refer to the more competent subordinate.

Concealed capability inversions

A capability inversion can be healthy and effective when the group members acknowledge it. Typically, Lester (the less competent leader), and Martine and her colleagues (the more competent subordinates) recognize the capability inversion, and adopt a configuration I have termed "a leader with expert advisers." [Brenner 2020.1] [Brenner 2020.2]

But some unit leaders are uncomfortable with acknowledging the existence of a capability inversion. They insist upon denying its existence. And that's when trouble can arise. Failing to establish a team of expert advisers, Lester tends to intervene in the detailed work of Martine and her colleagues. Meanwhile, because Lester lacks a basic understanding to the unit's mission, he commits leadership errors that undermine Martine's work. In some cases, these actions are identified as micromanagement on Lester's part, but a capability inversion might be a better description of the root cause.

Tensions rise. Some Lesters come to regard their Martines as insubordinate. They interpret as political plots and mutinous activity actions Martine undertakes to advance the unit's mission despite Lester's blundering interference.

Non-bullying abuse

If Lester is in an organization that's trying to deny the existence of a capability inversion he might face a difficult choice. As Martine engages in what she sees as activities necessary for protecting the organization, Lester experiences these actions as insubordinate or even hostile. In defense, he takes steps to limit the "damage" to the organization and to his place within it. He might begin by warning Martine, or limiting her involvement in unit activities. But if she persists in her attempts to save the unit from Lester, he escalates, possibly becoming abusive. In some cases, Lester's actions might appear to be bullying.

But though they might appear to be bullying, they might not be. Lester's actions aren't driven by a compulsion to inflict pain. Rather, he's trying to prevent Martine from damaging his own career, and with it his own view of his own performance. He's driven to this stance by his insistence that Martine, his subordinate, cannot be permitted to demonstrate capabilities he lacks. If necessary, Lester terminates Martine, or changes her assignment to one less likely to afford her opportunities to engage in "insubordination." If he can isolate her in this way, his need to deal with her vanishes. If Lester were bullying Martine, his inner compulsions would lead him to continue the abuse, even though she could no longer harm him in any way.

Abusive it may be. Bullying it is not.

Last words

It is of course possible for a bully to ascend through the ranks of an organization to achieve a position of a less competent leader responsible for a unit that's populated by more competent subordinates. When that happens, unless all involved acknowledge the capability inversion, the abusive behavior of the less competent leader might actually be bullying. Distinguishing this case is possible if one considers accounts of the leader's bullying from subordinates in previous situations that did not involve capability inversions. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Obscuring Ignorance  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2020.1]
Richard Brenner. "Concealed Capability Inversions: Questions," Point Lookout blog, May 27, 2020. Available here. Back
[Brenner 2020.2]
Richard Brenner. "Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect," Point Lookout blog, June 3, 2020. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Agreeing to a dealObstacles to Compromise
Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
The 1991 eruption of Mount PinatuboManaging Pressure: Communications and Expectations
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
Accretion Spins Pulsar to Millisecond RangeBemused Detachment
Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.
An Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) with head flattened in a threat postureReframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little skill and discipline, but it can work.
Gen. Robert E. Lee's traveling chess setSo You Want the Bullying to End: II
If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A blue peacock of IndiaComing October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
Men in conversation at an eventAnd on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.