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May 26. 2014 8:45PM

Rex Huppke's I Just Work Here: Don't mock incompetent managers


 

Most workplaces have at least a few people who seem to have risen up the company ranks solely on the power of their own incompetence.

They’re the co-workers we look at and say: Who the heck made him boss? Who put her in charge of this project? What idiot named him America’s most beloved workplace advice columnist? (I did.)

But instead of resenting the successful lunkheads in our midst, perhaps we should study their methods. That’s the counterintuitive suggestion posed in a new book called “Stealing the Corner Office: The Winning Career Strategies They’ll Never Teach You in Business School.”

Author Brendan Reid takes the widely held belief that hard work and passion lead to success and blows it to smithereens.

His central argument is this: In a world that is logical and fair, a hard-working, passionate employee will rise to great heights. But most companies function in ways that are anything but logical and fair. You can work hard and be as passionate as you want and still wind up stuck in middle management while your bozo colleague gets promotion after promotion.

Reid writes: “In my experience, the fastest path to getting ahead is to learn the secrets of the group we don’t like to talk about: the Incompetent Executives — the average and below-average managers who make it big: your idiot boss, the useless marketing VP, your half-witted neighbor.”

I’ll point out here that Reid is not saying a strong work ethic and a love for what you do are bad. They’re of tremendous importance. His point is that those things alone might not be good enough. So borrow some of the strategies those less talented than you have used to advance, and see if that doesn’t make you unstoppable.

“I’m not about adding incompetence, but I’m not an incompetence denier,” Reid said in an interview. “Show me a company that is operating entirely logically and perfectly and I’ll show you the Yeti.”

It’s easy to call Reid’s approach cynical, but I think the term “pragmatic” is more apt. For example, he tells workers their primary goal should be career advancement.

“Too many of us take a passive approach to career management,” he writes. “We mistakenly assume the company will eventually recognize and reward our hard work and talent.”

I’ve brought this up in previous columns: As much as I like the thought of showing devotion and loyalty to a company, you have to put yourself and your career first.

Reid puts it this way in the book: “Your number one concern should be your shareholders: you, your spouse, your kids, your pets. These are the people who have invested in you, not the bankers and venture capitalists and high-volume traders on Wall Street.”

So take the qualities you already have, and augment them by lifting strategies from the less qualified folks who’ve oozed their way up the company chain.

Every workplace is going to be different, but Reid offers some generalized approaches common among Incompetent Executives.

One is to not be afraid to promote your own work. Don’t just let people know how busy you are; make sure the people who matter in the company understand how your work will benefit the company and make them look good. Self-promotion is critical, even if that’s outside your comfort zone.

Another tactic is to dial down your passion. If you’re too invested in your own ideas, you’ll never present or accept alternate ideas or compromises. That’s a behavior that can hack people off fairly quickly. You don’t abandon your passion altogether, but you find a way to maintain enough flexibility that people will still listen to and like you.

Reid also warns about the herd mentality prevalent in so many workplaces. Everyone loves to gripe about management, so you join in and gripe. Don’t do that.

Wherever possible, you want to set yourself apart from your co-workers. That doesn’t mean sucking up. It means staying positive, picking your battles and recognizing that the people who matter are the bosses. They’re the ones who can advance or halt your career.

I believe reconnaissance is a powerful workplace tactic. If a co-worker drives you crazy, figure out what triggers the annoying behavior and then avoid that trigger. If you can’t seem to connect with someone, watch how other people interact with that person and learn.

In that same vein, as Reid suggests, if a person less talented than you is rising to the top, figure out what that person is doing right. Observe. Study. Adapt. Figure out your horrible manager’s unique skill set, and add some of those skills to your arsenal.

Your talent alone would take you far in a world where everything makes sense.

But most of us, I’m sad to say, don’t get a chance to work in that world.


Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at rhuppke@tribune.com or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.



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