By Chris Clarke
Are there people in your organization who look extremely busy all the time but few know what they actually do? Or people who say a lot without really meaning much? Then it’s time you wizened up to the invasion of the time snatchers
Is a manager who gets along with others an asset to the company? Not always. Because, by skillfully avoiding conflict, some managers can actually hamper the growth of a company.
I call this phenomenon ‘skilled incompetence’. Consider the problem of meeting to formulate a new research and development strategy. The vice-president (VP) of R&D assembles the department heads, and since the subject involves technical issues under the purview of the head of the department (HOD), several of his scientists are invited as well. The VP outlines his preferred strategy. The HOD is convinced this is a loser, but because he wants to avoid conflict and please the VP, he quickly mentions his views, without showing the actual depth of his concerns. As a result, nobody pays much attention to his concerns.
What’s happening here? The HOD is a skilled communicator, and he thus produces what he intends to produce—an exposition of his views that avoids conflict. He has used his skills to reach his primary goal—to avoid upsetting the vice president—and thus his skills have produced a policy based on ignorance.
The HOD feels that the VP and the other department heads don’t really care to learn the facts. They didn’t prod him for more details. The bench scientists, aware of his opinions and seeing timidity in their chief, lose respect for him and start to emulate his behavior
What results is a seemingly-smooth and harmonious loop of communication that is rooted in suspicion and ignorance. The VP feels good about pursuing his favored strategy, not having heard any strong opinions against it. And the HOD puts his objections on record without displeasing the VP.
To participate in this loop takes skill. It can be difficult to elucidate many viewpoints so they don’t surprise, embarrass or threaten.
Skilled incompetence easily pervades an organization, until the corporate ideal reads like this:
- Agree with your superiors.
- Provide information, but don’t create conflict.
- Don’t change the course of action.
Another version of this scenario is when the VP doesn’t have strong opinions on the issue and wants the department heads to arrive at a conclusion. If cordiality among department heads tends to dominate, then arguments are suppressed. Such a meeting results in a list of things to do, but no conclusion. Then everyone—all the people who are so skilled at avoiding potential interpersonal friction—wonder why nothing gets done.
Skilled incompetence is a hothouse for breeding mixed messages, which are in turn convenient for several levels of the organization. Managers say: “Be innovative and take risks, but be careful.” But this translates to: “Go, but only so far”, without specifying ‘how far’. This ambiguity covers the executive who doesn’t want to state in advance what is ‘too far’. The receivers may like ambiguous messages since they help cover their own shortcomings. The HOD understands the mixed messages and avoids discomforting requests for clarification.
Another common example of skilled incompetence occurs when the VP gives his HODs the message that they must be more autonomous and take more responsibility. The VP says: “I mean it—you run the show down there!” The HODs looking forward to demonstrating their abilities believe him. Then, an important issue comes up, and the VP forgets his promise and begins micromanaging. Suspicions well up, effective management diminishes, and defensive routines proliferate.
People can’t abandon their skilled incompetence without overcoming suspicions, and they can’t do that without discussing the suspicions. But this openness violates an unstated rule in most organizations. Uncomfortable situations shall not be discussed; business will continue in its cordial but ineffective manner.
Cordial meetings often result in a list of things to do, but no conclusion. Then all the people who are so skilled at avoiding potential interpersonal friction wonder why nothing gets done
Unlearning Skilled Incompetence
Most people are unaware of their skilled incompetence. But if skilled incompetence is so pervasive, how can we break out of it so that companies can avoid the damage it causes?
It takes practice to overcome skilled incompetence. You must devote time to reflect on it. When you find yourself playing skilled incompetence tricks, concentrate on overcoming them. Concentrate on getting your views across—on helping the company benefit from your expertise.
One group I worked with arranged a meeting away from the company in which managers were instructed to:
- Describe a key organizational problem.
– Describe, in a paragraph or two, a strategy to discuss this problem with anyone.
- Divide a page into two columns. On the right, explain how you would begin a meeting to discuss this problem, and what you would say. Add the anticipated responses, then write your reaction to them.
- In the left column, outline ideas or feelings that you did not want to communicate (for whatever reason).
The action of writing a case study was an eye-opener for many of the participants. Once the stories were distributed among the managers, reactions included: “Oh my God, this is us.”
This exercise exposed several examples of skilled incompetence. For example, to the comment “I don’t understand. Tell me more”, the response was “I’m sure you are aware of the changes”. But the feelings behind the response were: “Like hell you don’t understand. I wish there was a way I could be more gentle.”
We saw how each person skillfully avoided upsetting colleagues, while at the same time trying just a bit to change the other’s mind.
This exercise also increased sensitivity to the defensive routines that prevent us from solving organizational problems, routines that prevent managers from making honest decisions. People naturally use defensive routines to avoid uncomfortable situations—to prevent surprise, embarrassment, or threat.
Good politicians are skilled communicators. A successful politician who is a skilled communicator is usually excellent at concealing problems. We’ve got to work to reveal and overcome these defensive routines; otherwise they will pervade our organizations and prevent us from reaching our goals.
Dr Chris Argyris is James Bryant Conant professor of education and organizational behavior at the Harvard Graduate School of Business. He has published numerous books, including Overcoming Organizational Defensive Routines and Knowledge for Action.
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