From the Wall Street Journal:
To learn something at the office can be difficult. But to refrain from learning something requires years of practice and refinement.
It’s an office skill that Steven Crawley finds indispensable. “The inability to grasp selective things can be very helpful in keeping your desk clear of unwanted clutter,” says the executive in HR, or what he calls “the dumping ground” of all unwanted office tasks. “I have developed a very agile selective memory across a wide range of nonvalue-added activities.”
The most memorable time he brandished his nonskill was when the president at an automotive-parts manufacturer asked Mr. Crawley to organize the company picnic. With a sensibility more dry than bubbly, he wasn’t crazy about party planning. So he began to milk his lack of picnic knowledge for all it wasn’t worth. He responded to any inquiries or suggestions with questions and comments such as “How do you do that?” or “What did you guys do in the past?” or even “Help me remember why we’re talking about this.”
Ultimately, responsibility for the picnic was reassigned. Mission unaccomplished. Says Mr. Crawley: “You’d be amazed at how much I don’t know about picnics.”
Strategic incompetence isn’t about having a strategy that fails, but a failure that succeeds. It almost always works to deflect work one doesn’t want to do — without ever having to admit it. For junior staffers, it’s a way of attaining power through powerlessness. For managers, it can juice their status by pretending to be incapable of lowly tasks.
In all cases, it’s a ritualistic charade. The only thing the person claiming not to understand really doesn’t understand: That the victim ultimately stuck with the work sees through the false incompetence.
The only time I do this is when Stephanie’s cat Lucy begs me to feed her when I walk into the upstairs bathroom. “I don’t know where the food is, Lucy.” I tell her every morning and evening.
Stephanie is frustrated by this sort of thing at her workplace, though, particularly with the males in her office who claim “not to know how” to make coffee after they’ve taken the last cup. “There’s nothing in your penis that blocks you from learning to make coffee” she says.