Small-Business Posts Offer Safety Amid Turmoil

The New York Times
Wednesday, November 21, 2001

By Dale Buss

When Becky Boyd was a sales representative for Hewlett-Packard, she stopped bringing her boss along on customer calls because, she said, "he was so stupid he'd actually jeopardize sales."

For starters, he was incapable of picking up on body language. "When a client was busy and wanted to discuss H.P.'s products, this guy would walk around the room, cracking jokes," she said. When he did get down to business, he would talk about obsolete systems and suggest products that were incompatible with the client's.

"I don't think he was smart enough to know he was doing his job the wrong way," said Ms. Boyd, who now owns an Atlanta public relations firm.

Most workplaces have their share of incompetents, of course, but Ms. Boyd's former boss belonged to a particularly maddening species: ladder-climbers blithely unaware of their own ineptitude. Every office has one, and maybe several. Often, they occupy positions of power.

A manager at a recruiting firm in Pompano Beach, Fla., recalled his encounter with one of them at an Internet start-up where he once worked. One of the founders had hired his brother, who failed medical school, to drive a custom-built, 30-foot armored vehicle emblazoned with the company's logo at trade shows and the like.

The brother kept coming up with outlandish promotional ideas, like paying National Hockey League players to promote the company because hockey was his favorite sport. "We ignored his moronic demands but he'd just get abrasive," the manager said. "He knew no one was going to fire him."

What he probably did not know was that he deserved to be fired. "It's very difficult for incompetent people to know they are incompetent," said David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "If they could figure it out, they probably wouldn't be."

Professor Dunning, whose research has focused on illusions in human judgment, said that the most incompetent people actually tend to think more highly of themselves than do their competent colleagues.

It is a workplace Catch-22: If you think you are incompetent, you probably are not, but if you think you can do no wrong, you almost certainly can and will. "When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden," Professor Dunning said. "Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it."

Roughly one of six employees or managers fails to realize it when they are told about it point blank, according to Frank M. Shipper, professor of management at the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business at Salisbury State University in Maryland.

Their bungling can be costly. Richard Cohen, an information technology consultant in Boston, tells the story of the chief information officer at a giant consumer goods company where he once worked who ignored his subordinates' advice and bought 600 personal computers that the manufacturer stated would probably be discontinued. His reason: they were cheap.

Then he parked them in inventory for a year. "That is like 10 dog years in the technology world," Mr. Cohen said.

For some reason, workplace dummies are often rewarded for their missteps. The phenomenon is known as "failing upward," and Cathy A. Rusinko, an assistant professor of management at Philadelphia University, witnessed it at another organization where she once worked. A colleague was unable to master the basics of the office's phone system. He also had the annoying habit of sending the same e-mail messages over and over again by mistake, prompting 4 of the 20 people in the department to file formal complaints about him.

He was promoted shortly thereafter.

"The good news was he didn't have as many" people reporting to him directly, Ms. Rusinko said.

Of course, some incompetent people were once competent but were promoted to jobs they could not handle. That tendency was satirized in a best-selling book published in 1969 whose title, "The Peter Principle," has become part of the national lexicon. Given enough time, the author Laurence J. Peter wrote, "each employee rises to, and remains at, his level of incompetence."

One skill many incompetent people do have is making friends in high places. Recalling her boss at Hewlett-Packard, Ms. Boyd said: "He was good friends with upper-level managers. I went to his boss one time, and he told me there were reasons he was there, so just leave it alone."

Sometimes, senior executives are unaware of a supervisor's ineptitude because his underlings do his work for him, according to Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist who specializes in workplace stress. The underlings then go home and "kick their dog," he said. "They can't sleep. The sublimation creates symptoms like irritability. That's why people end up coming to me."

Most office workers are slow to complain about their dimmer-witted colleagues, but they would be smart to keep a diary of their own accomplishments to show their bosses in annual reviews, workplace specialists say. Such records will reduce their odds of being laid off for somebody else's stupidity, experts say. "Don't just groan about an incompetent to your supervisors, or you'll come off as a whiner," said Laurie E. Rozakis, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Office Politics" (Alpha Books, 1998).

Even when they know who the dunderheads are, many employers lack the heart to cut them loose. "Some companies, especially small ones, are held hostage by the incompetent, especially if they have been around for a long time and have become entrenched," said Andrew J. Birol, the president of Pacer Associates, a consulting firm in Solon, Ohio.

Bonnie Russell, president of, a legal-resource Web site in Del Mar, Calif., remembers a former boss who never fired anybody, not even a receptionist who answered telephone calls with the word "um" followed by a long pause, and who was forever losing documents.

One day, the receptionist outdid herself, Ms. Russell recalled. She went into a manager's office and told him: "Um ... Don. Your mother is on the phone. Something about your father dying."

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