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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

Upskilling incompetence

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Chris Argryis wrote a very powerful article called "Skilled Incompetence"for the 1986 Harvard Business Review. You can access an online version HERE.

Within this article he discussed the executive "defensive routines" that managers follow which result in confusion and a lack of productivity in the rest of the organisation.

These included:

  • Giving ambiguous messages eg "Be innovative and take risks, but be careful."

  • Providing information but avoiding conflict eg "Pros and cons..." (with no decision)

  • Not changing the cause of action - although not contributing to it (Argrys gives the example of "Clearing deckchairs on the Titanic"...I look like I'm doing something...

  • Leaving things in a drawer - often so when they are "found" the decision has been made

These, for Argryis, while on the surface seem to be incompetent behaviours are actually practised routines performed by those with a high level of emotional intelligence - they are "skilled" behaviours.

While these routines cause a great deal of frustration in staff who are often silently screaming "MAKE A DECISION ALREADY!!" a key point that Argryis makes, which tends to be overlooked in the 'heat of the moment' is that such "skilled" incompetence arises not always from a need to take credit if things go well/look good/avoid doing any work - but from a need to avoid conflict.

Often executives practised in these behaviours care a great deal about harmony within their team.

In some ways - they are behaving as one would wish a coach to behave - saying little other than paraphrasing or offering observations.

The difference is, in a coaching situation, the motivation of the coach is to get the executive to make a decision and move forward - and all parties are aware of that. The "skilled incompetent" executive is not necessarily trying to move anywhere because moves can cause conflict.

So what can we do?

Argryis - and numerous articles on the subject that have followed - suggest practicing "double loop learning". Firstly one needs to identify what routines are present - and Argryis suggests the following:

"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 to communicate (for whatever reason). "

(Chris Argryis, 1986)

Once the routines are identified, he suggests asking WHY those routines are performed eg "Because I feel it is a hopeless situation", or "Because I don't want it to harm the morale I've built up", or "Because conflict upsets me.", and once there is an honesty of reasoning, it is possible to practice new routines which deal with the reasons behind the old ones - rather than attacking the old ones themselves.

When executives learned to say

"I understand your intentions are good, but the phrasing really pushes my buttons"


"If you would like to discuss it, we should set aside a time when we can plan our action - as that's how I prefer to visualise the problem."


"That method won't work for my team about trying..."

...progress could be made, and in many ways conflict - in this managed context - meant that more ideas and solutions were generated.

I do not propose to explore the reasons why some executives fear conflict - that is for a counselor should the negative impact on work be great enough. However, take the time to understand that "skilled incompetence" is often the product of a child who has regularly sat with his or her hands over their ears, and this can dilute your own frustration and give you a better starting point to make changes.

Five simple things that you can do to try and chip away at the defense include:

1. Ask questions politely, but directly.

2. Give a specific (and fair) time frame for an answer if you require one.

3. Ask for clarification on "blanket" statements eg "Oh, pros and cons, pros and cons"...sometimes while saying "YOU don't need to make the decision, but if we can all see your thinking it helps."

4. Recognise when a "new" (open) routine is practiced by responding in kind ie. if someone gives you a suggestion, consider it fully - they will have struggled to offer it. If you dismiss it immediately - no wonder they prefer not to make a suggestion.

5. Always check that YOU aren't contributing to the defensive behaviour (see point 4) - self awareness is not only an advantage in any form of interaction - but essential.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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