I’ve been back in IT for 7 years now, after over 10 years teaching high school. With 14 years of IT experience and 16 in teaching, I can tell you all something that you’re not going to like, but you need to hear it. A lot of people that learned how to lie their way through high school have figured out how to lie their way through a career, and they may very well be working for you, over you, or as a peer. I can spot them when I see them, but an untrained eye and ear is almost always baffled by the BS these people know how to put up to screen their incompetence.
I’ve seen some people with below-average skills muddle through in various areas of IT. As long as they can stay in their lane, they do well enough to justify getting paid to do their work and there doesn’t have to be much worry about damage that they can cause. But when the work moves to security, things get very complicated and multidisciplinary very quickly, and those people with below-average skills find themselves in a stressful situation.
When we put people into stressful situations where their knowledge and expertise play an important role in getting a successful outcome, we want people to be honest with us and to let us know when they need more help and guidance. Often, employers want to see their best employees get better. Frequently, we make mistakes that we have to learn from – but the learning is a good thing, and a positive in career development.
But what about people who don’t learn from their mistakes? What about people who aren’t honest about their shortcomings? They know they’re in over their heads and that they have to use survival strategies to keep from getting fired. What are their typical go-to behaviors that keep them employed, no matter what damage they may do?
1. Control Information Flows
This is a major survival strategy, one of the best. If all information passes through the employee, that employee can control what form it takes when it gets passed along. Did a vendor explain a complicated solution that they can’t understand? Tell the manager that the vendor has no clue what’s really going on. Does the manager want to speak directly to the vendor? Poison the well by saying things like “good luck, I can never reach the guy, and when I do, he just blows smoke…”
I’ve worked with people who somehow seemed to never get along with other teams, ever. They were impossible to work with, they didn’t know their jobs, they didn’t do their jobs, they were complete train wrecks. Could I talk directly to those other teams? Well, wouldn’t you know that when the people who never got along with those teams tried to send invites, they never got a response? Wow, what dumb luck, that. I guess these guys are tough to work with…
… except they’re not. Seriously, I’ve seen this before when kids never got notes back to their parents or the parents didn’t seem to care about the notes. So I called the parents directly to work things out. Suddenly, I’m talking to people who care and who had no clue how their kid was forging signatures on report cards for years. They think he’s got good grades because he’s also been forging the report cards! Truly, it’s amazing what modern color printers can do these days…
But, yeah, when I was told that the other teams were impossible to work with, I didn’t waste time arguing. I said that that was just unacceptable and got hold of a manager to let him know that we couldn’t get our project going without help from the other teams. When the manager set up meetings, it was like day after night. I found the other teams were a delight to work with and a fount of valuable information. And that the guy who threw them under a bus was himself unable to keep up with the discussions we were having, even on a basic level. Once the information flow control is broken, it’s much harder to stay incompetent.
2. Escalate Emotions
Not really bullying all the time, although bullying would fall into this category. Emotional escalation goes like this: you’re about to be shown up as a fraud by a line of discussion, so you start to make things personal. You get mad. You come out and demand to know if the other party in the discussion is casting aspersions on you. Are you being insulted? Are you being called an idiot? A liar?
Kids do this all the time, with the benefit of an often-sympathetic classroom audience. But this stuff works just as well in one-on-one situations.
Most people back away and never bring that up again, as it’s embarrassing. The next most common response is a corresponding escalation, verbal battle, and then having to apologize for having said things you later regret. Maybe the person who starts the escalation can get a response so toxic and nuclear that it’s the competent responder that gets let go and not the incompetent instigator.
If you back down, you lose power and respect in the relationship. If you escalate, you lose possibly your job. To win, you have to take a different path, the one teachers are taught to take: abide.
To abide means to follow the rules, but to remain unchanged, to endure. Remember that “follow the rules” means following the rules of the company, not this guy’s personal bending of the rules for his survival. Companies have rules on civil conduct. It’s very easy to say, “There’s no need to raise your voice. If I’m doing anything wrong, let’s take it up with HR/our manager/some other authority.” That usually prompts consolation, apologies, and other rapid de-escalations so that it does not go up the chain of authority to someone who might issue a reprimand for the escalation.
If you accept the de-escalation at face value, be prepared to be blindsided by this guy controlling the flow of information and getting you fired before you get him fired.
If this happens in a meeting that got recorded, get a recording of the meeting ASAP. If this happened in front of other people, get their witness statements ASAP and document your own recollection ASAP. If this was one-on-one, go to your HR/manager/some other authority ASAP before this guy gets to them and fires torpedoes into your career. When this guy raised his voice to you, he declared war. Machiavelli teaches us that war does not end until one or both parties are vanquished or no longer have the motive and capability to attack each other.
3. Odd Working Hours
Why is so-and-so late or not coming in today? Does so-and-so claim to have been in a very early or very late meeting with a team that nobody else has any real contact with? If that’s the case, it’s time to develop some contacts to see if the meeting actually exists and if so-and-so does anything useful in it.
If a teacher falls for excuses like this, the kids will never show up to class and will skate by because their sob stories earned them makeup work exemptions without penalties and other goodies like that. You have to do a little digging, if you want to be sure of things…
If the meeting actually exists, well, you may not have much to go on except to watch out for the other behaviors. If the meeting doesn’t exist or he isn’t really needed in the meeting, then you’ve got evidence this guy is faking things. Not only does the meeting mean he basically gets paid to take a nap during that time, it also means less total time in front of people who can call him out on inaccuracies. Double bonus, there.
Long lunch hours because of bad service? Having to leave early to avoid traffic? Coming in late because of traffic? Missing meetings when remote because of a home emergency? If these excuses come up once in a great while, then they’re either genuine… or the person making them just needed a 2-hour vacation and maybe you just let that slide. But if these happen frequently, it’s a strong sign that the person making the excuses has every intention of reducing interaction so as not to be fired for incompetence, and he knows that most people are sympathetic enough to let even a habitual behavior like this go on, if it’s wrapped up in a good enough story.
I once worked with a guy who didn’t show up for work for 2 days. The manager called and was devastated when he got the reason: the guy’s wife had just been diagnosed with cancer and he was overwhelmed by it all. He got a few free days off of work, not charged against his PTO, and we bought him and his wife a nice bouquet. Now, this guy never was one for punctuality in all the time he worked there, and his lunches always seemed to go long. But, he also bought lunch for guys on the team frequently, so it was “our little secret”.
Another set of missed days came up and the manager called again. Again, he was devastated by the reason, as it was the same one from a few months ago: his wife had just gotten diagnosed with cancer. This time, the manager’s devastation was in realizing that he had been played for a fool. A quick call later to the wife revealed that she did not, in fact, have cancer. Nor had she ever had cancer. She had, however, kicked the husband out of the house because he was always turning up drunk after these multi-day benders and she’d had had enough of that garbage.
It shouldn’t have taken that second time through the excuse to notice that the excuses weren’t real, and that there’s a difference between letting something slide every now and then and letting those things slide all the time.
4. Look! A Distraction!
So here’s the scene… we’re having a technical discussion or we’re in a working session… and this person starts with the small talk. Before long, nobody’s working on anything technical and we’re instead considering the truly weighty matters of the world that everyone has an opinion on but nobody can prove.
I knew when students were drawing me out to tell stories. To be honest, if we had the time, I’d tell the story. But I always held everyone accountable for their work, on schedule. It’s pretty much the same in business.
During lunch or dinner or in the elevator, this stuff is fine. If we’re all chatting in the five minutes before the main call starts, no problem. It’s team building or something like that. Building camaraderie or whatever. But if we’re on the clock, time is money, and we’re being paid to do the work we said we’d do.
Now, it’s one thing to have a discussion of sports, issues, the paranormal, and like topics as we wait for a power cycle or other time-consuming operation to complete. We may have already done all our email for the day, it’s 2AM on an overnight change cycle, and we know the patch takes 2 hours to download and apply. We are going to talk about non-work related stuff and that’s fine.
But when we’re in the middle of the business day and are doing non-trivial tasks, these distractions are attempts to steer things away from where they’re vulnerable – technical topics – and to areas where you are vulnerable. After all, if you spend time chattering away on the company dime, aren’t you as guilty as the distractor? Or maybe even more so, if he can claim he was only making small talk, but you’re the one who derailed the work session…
5. Activate the Blame-thrower!
I’ve played enough FPS video games to know that the guy with the flamethrower is pretty much going to get us all killed. Either his fuel tank gets shot and explodes or, more likely, he opens fire from a position of cover (so as to avoid the fuel tank being shot) and then kills all the team members in front of him. A blame-thrower works on the same principle, but with the lethality transferred to the career rather than the person’s life.
I’ve also had plenty of students that, when brought before the principal, start to spew the wildest stories about one and all. That’s why I know how to deal with this behavior.
When something goes wrong, an honest person admits where one contributed to the failure. A dishonest person plays up the confessions of others and makes none of their own. If directly confronted, they will let the blame fly out towards everyone. If it’s groundless, the accusers will have spent time proving it so. If there’s a shred of truth, no matter how small, then, “See! I told you so! It’s not my fault!”
In teaching, the response had to be direct: “This is not about others. This is about what you did.” The same thing applies here. Don’t allow the person to use questions that start with “What about…?” in their defense. Don’t allow speculations or random accusations, either. Chances are that this guy’s got a personal file on everyone he works with, all stored in his mind, and when he’s pressured, he knows how to dangle details that put others in a bad light. The hope being that the questions coming at him stop because of other concerns or because the questioner fears that the next set of details will be personally directed. If someone says to a dishonest person using the blame-thrower tactic, “Let’s keep this all between just us”, the blame-thrower wins.
If you’re the victim of a blame-thrower, you have to fight fire with fire, I’m afraid. But your fight doesn’t start all at once. The ground must be prepared. When I was a teacher, I spoke with a principal about potential serious discipline issues as they manifested themselves to me. I spoke with other teachers and department chairs. When the eruption happened, nobody was surprised.
For your defense, as soon as you have a suspicion, talk about it with your manager. That way, when you have to defend yourself, it’s not a surprise to your manager. Your manager will have a situation in which an incompetent employee is wrongfully accusing a competent employee who has previously been concerned about said incompetence. The decision in that situation is much easier to make than one in which the accusations of incompetence suddenly emerge. Do you want your manager to respond to your defense with a question: “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” If not, tell your manager sooner.
Hopefully, the above descriptions set of some thoughts in your head about times you were dealing with someone covering up their own incompetence and help give you some tools for dealing with that so that you protect yourself and your career from the pitfalls these behaviors create.