The Power of Incompetence

For those of you who (like me) read Harvard Business Review regularly, please don’t skip the “forethought” section at the beginning. It often has some real gems in it (that don’t require 45 minutes of focused reading, either).

This month is no exception. There’s an article by Samuelson and Gentile about “passivity” that explores why people don’t “blow the whistle” when they see obvious wrong doing. It is not that people have the wrong values. Their research shows that people in such situations had values that clearly indicated that they should blow the whistle…yet they don’t. The reason? Because they “don’t consider such action to be a part of their jobs,” according to the research.

I find this somewhat amazing. They will apply their values when making a tough sale or developing a new business venture, but when it comes time to apply those values to an ethical dilemma at work, they become paralyzed SIMPLY BECAUSE IT IS NOT CONSIDERED PART OF “WHAT THEY DO.” More specifically, because that situation is viewed as an exception to their job, people feel it is outside of their area of competence, so they dare not go there.

This is the key lesson: people who feel incompetent in something will not do it—regardless of their values, the compelling logic, or the cost/benefit analysis. This matches my experience. It is particularly harsh for leaders, because our work cultures rarely offer them the luxury of admitting incompetence in any area, so they just keep it to themselves and continue doing nothing. So keep your eyes open. When people in your workplace are strangely NOT doing certain things that you think they should be doing, look for how perceived incompetence might play a role and see if you can shift the conversation to defuse it.