Dangerously Incompetent and Good at It

Somebody was recently telling me about his former boss, who was not only bad at his job but good at stopping good work from being done. He ended up concluding that the guy must have been crazy or mentally deficient. Unfortunately, while some of these people might be a card short of a deck, they usually aren’t mentally ill in any way recognized by psychology. Most of them don’t think of themselves as bad bosses. They show up in a lot of good organizations, particularly in the military, despite the way all organizations don’t want them around.

I think the truth is this: Some people have good skills at advancing and getting promoted, at playing politics, and at being impressive to their superiors. (Sometimes even to people at the same level who don’t work with them.) But with people under them, they’re only interested in using them to stay afloat until they can get promoted again. They don’t actually care about their jobs as jobs, or they only care about their own ideas. Either way, they’re unlikely to listen to reason that doesn’t come from their own heads.

I’ve been lucky never to have worked under such people. But I know plenty of people who have.

Anyway, this comes up because an alternate WWII discussion actually suggested that time travelers should make sure to kill or imprison one General Lesley McNair, because he got a lot of people killed with his teachings. And yet, he was the guy in charge of the Army staff college, right before the war. He also had a protegee named Fredendall who was later considered to have been dangerously incompetent; McNair recommended him for all kinds of important jobs.

And no, I don’t think you can blame this all on the way some military people do better in peacetime than wartime, and vice versa. I think it’s a matter of some people valuing social skills too much (and a very narrow sort of social skills at that), to the point that they don’t notice they’re not backed up with results.



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5 responses to “Dangerously Incompetent and Good at It

  1. I think it’s a matter of some people valuing social skills too much (and a very narrow sort of social skills at that), to the point that they don’t notice they’re not backed up with results.

    I think there’s a big dose of people-as-a-means, and plain old blind ambition to boot.

    • Well, I meant not so much motivation of the incompetent folks as why their superiors don’t notice there’s something wrong with them. It is pretty amazing, how far incompetent people can go on that. I mean, it can’t all be kicking them upstairs, can it?

      • This is the Peter Principle — people are promoted to their level of incompetence. As long as one does good work, one gets bumped up level after level until they reach a level that they cannot handle. They can’t be promoted because they’re no longer doing good work, and they can’t be demoted to the last place they were still an asset because of the stigma of demotion (not to mention the likely threat of legal action).

        So in a large organization, you end up with a corporate reporting tree that’s mostly full of people who have reached the level of responsibility beyond their ability to handle.

      • Problem: there are people being promoted who aren’t doing good work, and– in living memory– never did. They are not assets at all, yet for some reason they are much loved by those over them.

        Generally shows up in places where “those over them” are not constantly in direct contact.

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