Strategic incompetence

by Carl Dyke

This Fall I’ll be teaching my normal four-course load, three sections of introductory world history plus an upper-division seminar in world history since 1945. As an overload I volunteered to teach a section in the newly-revamped freshman introductory course, which we’re trying to move away from elementary life skills and shocking v.d. videos to something more like a college class. I’m on the Tenure and Promotion committee, I’m the faculty athletic rep, and of course I now have a rigorous blogging schedule to maintain, including all the fabulous value-added I offer to other sites with my wise and perspicuous commentary. Busy-ish by academic standards. Hey, it beats driving truck.

Yet yesterday I also agreed to serve on a distance education task force that will apparently be humping to make up for years of lost time by generating a strategic plan for the university in one semester. Happy to do it, I said, because asking was my friend and admired colleague Jane. And in some larger sense of duty and camaraderie I am happy to do it. But in another larger sense of life management I notice that I must have let my strategic incompetence skills deplorably erode.

Strategic incompetence is the art of making yourself more trouble than you’re worth in some area of unwelcome effort. This can involve being a painfully slow learner, a bumbler, or an impediment. In each case the objective is to make it easier for someone else to step in and do the work than to leave it to you. Arguably a species of passive aggression, although shading off into mere passivity or genuine incompetence. A famous example is from studies of gender-typed tasks. It seems that men who have done their own laundry just fine as bachelors will become helpless and, if necessary, error-prone (the red sock in the whites load) once they’re married; women who figured out just fine how to change tires, get things from high shelves, and take out the garbage when they were single become damsels in distress when a man is about.

No one thinks they are personally strategically incompetent or passively aggressive, although most of us recognize it easily enough in others. Dynamically it comes from some blockage on just plainly saying ‘no’, which may in turn come from real or perceived power gradients, conflict aversion, cultural programming (habitus), norms of courtesy, role confusion, communication styles, chickenshit, or a combination of these and other factors.

My own best strategy is “loose cannon.” In actual work I take pride in and responsibility for competence, so the classic strategies of incompetence are closed to me. (In fact, for this reason I am myself vulnerable to the strategic incompetence of others.) Instead of sabotaging any task I use more casual interactions over time to cultivate a general reputation of edginess, unorthodoxy and unpredictability that seems to disqualify me from being asked to do ‘serious’ tasks in the first place. I also express irony about tasks and ask meta-questions about their presuppositions and consequences, which has nothing to do with competence but does make me a PITA to those whose orientation is more narrowly performative. I’ll call this para-incompetence and in a larger sense certainly passive-aggression. By the way, I do none of this as a conscious strategy. It’s in the first instance an emergent effect of my unconventional personality in relation to conventional environments, in the second instance therefore a necessity of which I make a virtue.

In the strategic incompetence link above, the example is organizing the company picnic. Like many tasks subject to strategic incompetence this is a thing worth doing that no one wants to do. Ideally we take turns with such tasks or reward them extravagantly with money or praise. In the alternative it’s important to consider when one can actually say no but would rather not. Saying yes when one could say no would seem to ethically preclude later deploying strategic incompetence. In most situations there’s a possible negotiation over terms of service that is only activated by not instantly saying yes. Costs (e.g. PITA reputation, cultural dissonance) have to be weighed against benefits (e.g. not doing the nasty task, not going to the top of the patsy-for-nasty-tasks list, getting real help for the nasty task). When you’re really stuck doing the nasty task, strategic incompetence becomes a weapon of the weak and may be romanticized as resistance. When you’re not really stuck doing the nasty task, trying to get resistance cred is especially lame.

Social esteem and status are at stake both in the doing and the not doing of nasty tasks, and this too can sometimes be strategized. In general one wants to leave the nasty tasks to others, to redescribe nasty tasks as special and essential (this is an example of stigma management), or at least to be in charge and delegate. As Douglas and Isherwood point out in The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, a remarkable attempt to anthropologize economics and especially economic blind spots like ‘tastes and preferences’, nasty tasks are status-degrading when they are or resemble high-frequency service of low scope (‘chores’, e.g., housework): “Anyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility.” In fact, competence at any common task is potentially status-degrading, as so many of our faculty colleagues understand: “All goods to some extent emanate messages about rank…. The class of pure rank-markers could be the highest-quality versions that serve no other purpose, like the best porcelain, the family heirlooms, ancestral portraits.” Or professors in named chairs.

Clearly enough one ideally wants to teach as little as possible, badly, and then only grad students who will go on to be professors; do arcane research of no immediate applicability; and by all means stay away from any sort of campus service, committee or administrative assignment where things are actually done. I am so getting it wrong.


12 Responses to “Strategic incompetence”

  1. I wish I knew how to do strategic incompetence. I think. There are things I’d love to say look, I am just not the one to be doing this, but they’re required. Someone else got out of one of them though, supposedly by *actual* incompetence, I don’t think it is strategic or that it is even incompetence, I think it is just a difference in methodology. Why this never works for me when I want it to, I do not know. And I hate working with people who are doing the strategic incompetence thing. Hmmmmmm….

  2. Hi, Profacero, so nice of you to visit! Your situation was a complicated one, for sure. And I don’t believe you’ve ever come close to trying what I’m calling strategic incompetence, so of course it doesn’t work for you. It would kill you to be pathetic and useless, admit it. But a while ago I saw a couple of senior colleagues (who probably shaded into true incompetence for the occasion) draw a couple of others (no less senior) into writing a nasty report because theirs was so tardy and half-assed. Nothing overt, mind you, just letting that feeling of responsibility in others work its magic. Hmmmm indeed.

    Bourdieu talks about class habitus and a ‘feel for the game’ that applies here. It’s very helpful to grow up expecting other people to do the high-frequency, low scope chores; this is a definition of ‘privilege’. Those of us who did not grow up with these expectations don’t really have a feel for the game of privilege, and we get it wrong. We’re used to covering our own asses and maybe to covering others’ too; doing so ultracompetently may have been our strategy for levering ourselves out of the condition of brute work that characterizes the low side of class and gender hierarchies. Once we get up and out we can’t entirely trust that we’ve fully arrived because all of our habits of thought, feeling and action are shaped in the contingencies of leveraged social mobility. It’s a little like ptsd. And since our origins are stigmatized, that may not be an idle fear (although it’s worth noting that at this point more academics than not are from traditionally marginal origins in some dimension or another).

    I also think that because of the historical dynamics of expansion in higher education that drew us newbies into the halls of privilege over the last 50 years, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the lines of force and divisions of labor are. I mean, I don’t even know how to ask the divisional secretary to do something for me, whereas in the old days departmental secretaries typed out and copy-edited whole manuscripts from longhand. From this perspective it’s both delightful and inconvenient that the smart, competent women who used to be stuck in secretarial work are now themselves professors, as are the smart, competent faculty wives who used to organize the company picnic. All the old ideas about how things work and who works them are being shaken up and renegotiated on the fly. We’re pretty sure we shouldn’t be doing the nasty tasks, because ‘professionals’ don’t, but who should be then? How much less pay would we be willing to take to hire them (or how much more tuition/tax subsidies would we be willing to charge)?

    I haven’t found a general rule. We’re often in our own way and the little resistance others supply seems overwhelming. Am there, do that. A lot of times we can say no, we’re just afraid to. A lot of times saying yes is the path of least resistance, at least in the short term. And sometimes whatever it is that we don’t want to do really needs doing for good reasons, and we’re really the best one to do it for good reasons, and shit I guess we gotta do it. At least until we publish that fourth book in a status-y field and get the named chair someplace.

  3. Btw that’s a neat point about “difference in methodology” vs. incompetence, and looking back on it maybe the Kliban cartoon I used illustrates your point better than mine!

  4. So Carl, my question here is: can there be a condition known as acquired strategic incompetence? Or is this a condition one must exhibit from the very beginning? Is SI genetic? Or might it also be… environmental?

    Because I personally think I feel a painful case of ASI coming on, and I want to know how I can best explain my suddenly lessened capacities to my colleagues…

  5. NP, this is a serious question and urgently demands further research at great public expense. I hereby offer to write the grant proposal, of course with the understanding that I’ll cock it up and you’ll have to do it at the last minute under enormous pressure.

    First I think we will need a way to measure rates of ASI, an ASI-metric as it were. Once we’ve got a procrustean interpretive schema with graphable quantification systems, backed up by a nicely positivistic and soundbite-friendly nature-nurture binary, the rest should easily fall into place.

    In the meantime, the good news about your own incipient infection is that yours is not the pain. I do note, however, that the normal course of the disease involves a much more gradual degradation, with a final catastrophic decline upon receipt of tenure.

  6. Well, “loose cannon” only gets one out of the kinds of service assignments that are actually recognized as good, so that’s that. But I am now on a committee where, precisely, I do (and am expected to do) too competent a job for the reasons you suggest … and this spring I will practice strategic incompetence there, yes I will.

  7. Eh, good luck. I lost my head and got back into the gen ed reform game this semester, little good it did either gen ed or my zen…. Also, my apologies if you got a flood of pingbacks just now – I pushed all my old teaching/learning posts over onto my new t/l journal blog, and apparently WordPress thinks that means it gets to do all the pings again.

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