Avoid “Strategic Incompetence”

Today is Wednesday, so this post is on outstanding performance.

The Cubicle Culture column in the Tuesday, April 17 edition of the Wall Street Journal caught my eye.  It was entitled The Art of Showing Pure Incompetence At an Unwanted Task.  It begins with a story about Stephen Crawley an HR executive, who told how he was able to get an assignment he didn’t want – running the company picnic – reassigned to someone else. 

Mr. Crawley’s method – acting dumb.  Here’s a little piece of the article –

  • “He began to milk his lack of picnic knowledge for all it wasn’t worth.  He responded to any inquiries or suggestions with questions and comments such as ‘how do you do that’, or ‘what did you guys do in the past’ or even ‘help me remember why we’re talking about this’.  Ultimately, responsibility for the picnic was reassigned.  Mission unaccomplished.”

All I have to say about this is “shame on your, Mr. Crawley”.  I can understand why he didn’t want to take responsibility for the company picnic.  However, Mr. Crawley would have been better served by explaining to the company president, who assigned the picnic responsibility to him, why he didn’t want the assignment.  And, that explanation should have been focused on how planning the picnic would have detracted from more important HR responsibilities – not that it was beneath him. 

Mr. Crawley may think he cleverly got out of an assignment that he didn’t want.  In my opinion, he made himself out to be an incompetent – and to make matters worse, he did it by lying.

Jared Sanberg, the author of the article says:

  • “Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds.  It almost always works to deflect work on doesn’t want to do – without ever having to admit it.  For junior staffers, it’s a way of attaining power through powerlessness.  For managers, it can juice their status by pretending to be incapable of lowly tasks.

Whoa there, Mr. Sanberg.  Junior staffers often get the grunt work because they’re junior staffers.  The best way of becoming a senior staffer is to do the work you’re assigned and do it well.  And managers who need to “juice their status” probably shouldn’t be managers anyway. 

To Mr. Sanberg’s credit, the paragraph that follows the above quote says: “the only thing the person claiming not to understand really doesn’t understand: that the victim ultimately stuck with the work sees through the false incompetence”. 

This is true – but it misses the bigger point – doing unpleasant and unwanted jobs, and doing them well indicates that you’re a team player and are willing to do what it takes to succeed at your company.

My friend Bill White, author of From Day One, advises people to be willing to take on the dirty jobs – doing so gets you noticed in a positive way.  I once had the unenviable task of running my company’s United Way campaign.  Asking people for money is never my idea of a good time.  But I did it – and we had a record year for contributions. 

The upside of this was a promotion for me.  My VP told me that he didn’t realize that I had strong organization skills until he saw me in action on the campaign.  I got a management job because of my willingness to do a good job on an unpleasant job. 

And that brings me back to Mr. Crawley.  Company picnics tend to fall into the HR realm.  I think he would have done himself a favor by doing a good job running the picnic, instead of making himself look like an idiot in order to get away from the assignment.  To me, it’s only common sense. 

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website www.BudBilanich.com for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: www.CommonSenseGuy.com for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to www.FirstGiving.com/TheCommonSenseGuy to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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