#60 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 10          October 1993

Beware of Skilled Incompetence
by Chris Argyris, Ph.D.

Dr. 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 (Allyn-Bacon, Needham, MA, 1990) and Knowledge for Action, (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 1993).

Is a manager who always gets along with others an asset to the company?  No.  By skillfully avoiding conflict, some managers can be destructive to an organization.  It’s their skill that’s the problem.

I call this phenomenon "skilled incompetence."  Consider the problem of meeting to formulate a new R&D strategy.  The vice-president of R&D assembles the department heads, and since the subject involves technical issues under the purview of department head Smith, several of Smith’s scientists are invited.  The VP outlines his preferred strategy.  Smith 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.  What happens?  Nobody pays much attention to his concerns.

What’s happening here?  Smith 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 VP—and thus his skills have produced a policy based on ignorance.

Smith feels that the VP and the other department heads really don’t care to learn the facts.  They didn’t prod him for more details.  The bench scientists, aware of Smith’s opinions and seeing timidity in their chief, lose respect for him and start to emulate his behavior.  Things don't look any better from the top.  Won't the VP and other directors conclude that Smith is not interested enough in the organization to fight for his ideas?  

Thus what results is a seemingly-smooth and harmonious loop of communication that is actually rooted in suspicion and ignorance.  The VP can easily feel good about pursuing his favored strategy, not having heard any strong opinions against it.

To participate in this loop takes skill.  It can be difficult to elucidate many viewpoints so they don’t surprise, embarrass, or threaten—but people learn to do it.

Skilled incompetence easily pervades an organization, until the corporate ideal start to read 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 genuinely 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—wonders why nothing gets done. 

The space shuttle disaster is an example of such a closed loop.  Only when outsiders questioned the participants, were the mixed messages and defensive routines during the decision to launch exposed. 

Mixed Messages

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 exec 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 department heads understand the mixed messages and avoid making discomforting requests for clarification.  

Another common example of skilled incompetence occurs when the VP gives his department heads the welcome message that they must be more autonomous and take more responsibility.  The VP says, “I mean it—you run the show down there!”  The department heads, 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.  These defenses, as in the space shuttle disaster, are hard to identify until a glaring error blows things apart.

Mixed messages destroy trust, but the department heads find ways to live with them, by explaining to themselves and their subordinates:  “He never really meant increased autonomy.”  Or, “He’s not really interested in us.”  Department heads never bring these concerns to the VP, and the VP won’t discuss why he doesn’t trust them. 

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.

Unlearning Skilled Incompetence

Most people are unaware of their skilled incompetence.  If skilled incompetence is so pervasive, so "normal," how can we break out of it so our 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:

1)  Describe, in a paragraph, a key organizational problem.

2)  Describe, in a paragraph or two, a strategy to discuss this problem with anyone.

3)  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.

4)  In the left column, outline ideas or feelings that you did not want tocommunicate (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”;  “Joe does this all the time”; “Oh, there’s a familiar one." 

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."

I Don't Want to Bother You with the Truth

We saw how each person skillfully avoided upsetting colleagues, while at the same time trying just a bit to change the other's mind.  We could examine behavior which originated in less than a second, and we therefore had the chance to alter it.  Members noticed both interpersonal actions and substantive issues, a balancing act that's usually difficult at best.

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. 

Too bad the routines also prevent learning.   

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.

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