Common Tactics of the Incompetents

From the Game Theory in Management Blog
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Modelling Business Decisions and their Consequences

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Since January’s theme is talent, and given my status as the foremost contrarian blogging for ProjectManagement.com, it’s only natural that I would focus on something that afflicts us all: the presence of no-talent hacks, either in the project team itself, or (worse still) in the role of Project Manager. We’ve all encountered them, since these people can be somewhat ubiquitous. But what can be done about them? They didn’t appoint themselves into their places of authority, so someone in the hierarchy has been fooled into thinking that the particular bungler can contribute to the project, or else increase the chances of an on-time, on-scope delivery. And yet, here they are, doing the precise opposite of contributing, and endangering the success of those around them. Clearly, the un-talented must be countered, neutralized, or at least avoided until they expose themselves for what they are. What are the tactics for doing so?

First off, one must recognize them, which is not always easy. After all, they did fool someone into getting their undeserved position, and that someone had to be in a position of authority. If that person can be fooled, others can be, too, and it’s up to you to, well, not be fooled.  I’ve often referred to Michael Maccoby’s book The Gamesman, where he describes four basic archetypes of workers as The Craftsman, The Company Man, The Jungle Fighter, and The Gamesman. Of these, the inept can be Company Men, but Jungle Fighter is the archetype where concentrations of the untalented tend to congregate. They employ the Jungle Fighter’s strategies of calumny and deceit in order to hide the fact that they have little or nothing to contribute. Within the Jungle Fighter archetype’s strategy, however, I have noticed three favored tactics:

  • The Openly Belligerent. This is one of the easiest types to identify, since they reveal their approaches so readily. I have never known a truly talented manager to engage in insulting or challenging a colleague in a demeaning manner, especially not in front of others. But this tactic of the incapable is often employed readily, since it serves two purposes: it makes others afraid to look too closely into exactly what this person is actually accomplishing (or failing to accomplish), and it also goes a long way towards ensuring that a minimum number of coworkers will involve themselves with this person, effectively insulating them from interaction with anyone who could quickly recognize their lack of talent. This sub-type is often referred to as a bully. While that’s not inaccurate, it should be kept in mind that garden-variety bullying is usually used to make rivals feel or look bad by employing violent or overly aggressive methods, whereas the no-talent hacks are simply trying to protect themselves against discovery.
  • The Glom-Ons. These people are adept at positioning themselves in such a way that it’s widely perceived that they had a role (usually a prominent one) in project team successes, even when their role was tangential. Conversely, they are also very good at creating the appearance of having nothing at all to do with project team failures or difficulties, even if they had a genuinely significant role. They’re always there when the deliverable files are being transmitted, but strangely absent when the actual data-gathering and processing takes place.
  • The Svengali. This person is perhaps the most dangerous, in that they know how to speak the language of the project’s scope, and appear to be enthusiastic contributors, so they don’t present as either of the previous two sub-types. What they can do, however, is quickly identify the truly talented members of the team, and seek to form alliances with them, especially the youngest ones (since the more mature talent will recognize this subtype rather quickly). Once such an alliance is formed, they only need to position themselves in such a way as to be seen as aiding the young talent when, in fact, they are making it so that the young talent can’t get ahead without the Svengali being uplifted as well. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times (heck, it happened to me when I was younger), and it’s really a thing to behold. If there’s an Olympics of career-advancement-at-the-expense-of-others, this sub-type would take the gold, silver, and bronze medals altogether. Always affable, and perennially ready to virtue-signal their “loyalty” to the young guns, they will abandon their charges at the first sign of difficulty, target the next youngest (real) talent, and start over.

How to counter these tactics? Cultural norms can be radically different, of course, but in the West, it’s simple, really.

  • Confront the openly belligerent, but only when you have the superior business case. After coolly making the better case for a given course of action, the belligerent won’t be able to help themselves, and can be counted on to go over-the-top in formulating their response to you. When that happens, all will see the game going on, and the days of the belligerent are numbered, even if Human Resources doesn’t become directly involved.
  • Avoid the Glom-on. Don’t give them the opportunity to take credit for your successes. Be like the Shao-Lin warrior descriptor from the television series Kung Fu: “Looked for, he cannot be seen. Listened for, he cannot be heard. Reached for, he cannot be felt.” Give this person no access to the decision-making process concerning the technical approach to solving problems, and their irrelevancy will be revealed in due course.
  • Troll or mock the Svengali. They won’t be able to stand it, since their self-image is both incredibly lofty and utterly undeserved. A genuine mentor is patient with their charges, but a poor one (or a Svengali) will abandon them at the first sign of resistance or rebellion. Soon they will run out of talented young ones to target, leaving them on the island of inadequate (but highly-paid) team members who can’t really point to any concrete contributions.

Again, the unqualified are somewhat ubiquitous in most areas of human endeavor, and Project Management is not excepted. But keep in mind: when you resist these people, you are in danger of hurting your own career trajectory, since the standard response from the typical project team member is to let them be. These people got ahead for a reason, and are expecting everyone else – and I do mean everyone – to respond passively, if at all, to their antics. They will become aggressive when confronted or frustrated – you can count on it. But, if you are among the talented, you just might pull it off, and earn the mostly silent, but undying appreciation of the rest of the organization.
One last thing: if you are the PM and you happen to find a hard-copy version of this blog taped to a bulletin board in the project team’s break room, you might have a problem.

Posted on: January 22, 2018 10:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Leaving the talented and untalented aside, PM's and managers of any kind just shouldn't display these types of attitudes. The only way they can still keep employed while ruining other people's day is because senior management has allowed it.

Nice article and thanks for sharing.

A very good post.

I would just add - when faced with the folks termed 'Belligerents' in this post - that one should learn to pick one's battles.

There is scope to convert a Belligerent into a productive member of the team by letting him/her have easy wins - especially those which do not adversely impact deliverables. It also provides a bargaining platform for any disputes where one does not have enough latitude to give in.

Michael, thanks for this story. I love the 'Kung Fu' reference!

Good article. The counter tactics are especially helpful.

Great article for the community to learn more.

Good Document. It is important to segregate the "fake talent" team members from incompetent ones to the ones who will actually push you to your limits. A healthy competitor and talented team member is what we always need to improve ourselves as a project manager as well.

Thanks for sharing!

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