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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!


[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

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