Competent Slacking Requires Incompetent Work

A for effort?

One of my fondest memories of working at Kohl’s was when I purposefully went slow on a particular night.

We were doing the usual drudgery of taking clothes off a container and putting them in them in the appropriate place. This was fairly mindless, uninteresting, repetitive and frankly, insulting work that I generally disliked. It wasn’t all bad though as could listen to my music and there were much less people around because it was the night-shift. But even so, within a few hours of doing this (or less!) I just stopped caring and slowed my pace.

This was a risky move, to say the least.

I was a low-paid worker in a retail environment, working for a store around a particularly poor part of town that would likely itch for a job if they could get it. Not only that, but it wasn’t as if I had a lot of bargaining power in terms of time. I had only been working at this Kohl’s for a few months by the time this happened. And though I hadn’t heard of any of my fellow coworkers being fired for anything this minor I also wouldn’t have put it past any of my bosses to do so.

That said, it was certainly a calculated risk. Due to the store being heavily understaffed most of the time, due to it being located in a dying mall and the fact that the store was usually a complete disaster, I figured that they probably couldn’t afford to get rid of employees for small infractions. Keeping all of this in mind, I decided to take the risk and it paid off.

Sure, I got hassled a bit, “Nick, why aren’t you going faster? I really need you to pick up the pace. Look, I’m gonna have Dave over there help you out just to move things along.” I don’t remember if Dave was his real name, by the way.

But that was it, that was all that happened.

In the end my incompetency just meant that one of my co-workers had to share in the particular sort of drudgery that I was going through. And yeah, I felt a little bad about it (to this day, thinking about it, I feel a little guilty) but it wasn’t as if the job he was doing before was much better. In addition, the work was shared instead of being handled by just one of us. So it was much more effectively done individuallybecause we each felt less of the weight than we would have otherwise doing it individually. Plus, where else was Dave going that night, exactly?

I’ve discussed these issues before in my “slacking tips” series. Specifically about the morality of passing on your slacking to other people who may not want to work harder to literally pick up the slack for you. I’m not about to say that in the time since lamenting these issues I’ve come up with some solution for this issue. It just seems like an unfortunate reality that if you prefer to fuck over your bosses that this could also pass on unwanted costs to your coworkers as well.

This might happen because your boss is trying to single you out and make you feel disliked. It may be because the boss simply wants the job to get done and doesn’t particularly care who is holding the process up, so long as someone is. They might also just pick out a coworker of yours they don’t like as punishment or something you may not like.

Whatever the case may be, it’s best to accept the consequences of your slacking. Unfortunately capitalism pits us against each other and sometimes that means that we have to accept that our individual actions (if we can’t organize more collaboratively) may injure others.

The best I can do here is to advise y’all to slack but slack wisely so as to minimize unwanted harm.

A recent article on the Atlantic makes my point, for those who might choose to either go the opposite route of competency:

A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.

By the by, you can find that study here. I didn’t give it a super thorough reading I’ll admit but nothing glaringly bad was notable from their methodology or sample size. It seems like a fairly straightforward study with (cumulatively speaking) decent participation numbers and a fairly intuitive premise and conclusion.

But feel free to check it out and draw your own conclusions!

More specifically the Atlantic article quotes from one of the lead researchers who said:

“People ask high self-control people to do more for perfectly logical reasons—because they think that those who successfully demonstrate high (vs. low) self-control will perform better and accomplish more. So it is a reasonable thing to do, from the perspective of the partner, the manager, the coworker,” says Christy Zhou Koval, a Ph.D student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and lead author of the study. “But for the actor, it can feel like a burden. Why should you do more work for the same reward, while your less capable coworker coasts along with lower expectations and work?”

So let’s go back to Dave (sorry, buddy).

Let’s say the bosses presumed or saw that he had better self-control than I do (incidentally I do have ADHD and as a result have impulse control issues at times). The boss would most likely hand some of the work over to Dave instead of letting it lay with me because I have less self-control than Dave does. This makes total sense but ignores the fact that Dave may take on so many other intermittent institutional roles that at this point he is feeling exasperated.

Now, I’m not the best at reading people’s facial features, social cues or body language at times. So when I was working with Dave I couldn’t particularly tell if he felt like this. But let’s presume that this is something that happens to him more than it happens to other coworkers. In such a case he is likely to feel like he is being shortchanged because, as Koval says, the same reward is then being given for much more work while the person who is incompetent gets less work.

So in this case slacking has some notable consequences that other folks may be passing on to Dave. But it isn’t all about slacking. The article itself mostly revolves simply around people who did try but couldn’t handle the tasks they were assigned. Or else passed it on to a more self-controlled person not because they are lazy or want to undermine the boss but because they figure the person with more self-control can handle it more effectively.

Here again, we run into problems:

The researchers then tried to understand how these expectations play out in real life.

In a survey of more than 400 employees, they found that high performers were not only aware that they were giving more at work—they rightly assumed that their managers and co-workers didn’t understand how hard it was for them, and thus felt unhappy about being given more tasks.

Further, in a survey that was completed by more than 100 couples, partners who had greater self-control said they also felt burden and fatigue from being relied on more at home. (Interestingly, the results of these studies were not broken down by gender, though this certainly opens up a new angle for future study.)

“This disconnect in how we see ourselves and how others see us can create problems in our relationships, both at home and at work,” says Koval. “Part of the issue is that people with high self-control are probably less likely than others to complain; they’re just likelier to ‘suck it up’ and do the extra work. But our findings suggest that they probably feel frustrated by that, and less satisfied with their relationships with others who do ‘over-rely’ on them.”

So not only are the more competent workers getting hung out to try but the coworkers or bosses who do that to them underestimate the extent to which the competent workers may feel like that. In sum, that means that the less competent workers get less work, less attention from the bosses while the more competent workers (some who frankly want to rise in the hierarchical chain of command anyhow) get the “attention” they so desperately wanted and then some.

Which means I feel a bit mixed on more competent people in the workplace.

On one hand, I feel bad if anyone gets more work than they want to.

But on the other if they do really want the work, are looking to rise in the ranks so they can boss others around and limit their autonomy…how bad can I feel for them? But there’s also the cases of folks who simply give the occasional burst of effort and just have the misfortune of running into the boss when the deadline is only a few days away.

A good way to avoid all of this though?

Be incompetent.

One of the most time-tested and favored strategies among us slackers is slow-downs. And slow-downs often involve purposeful incomptency at some level. Whether that means at the area of production, distribution, when interacting with customers on this level or that or simply getting from one place to another.

Whatever the case may be, being competent at your job has never (to my knowledge) been a very sought after tactic for industrial revolution. Well, as long as you don’t count “working-to-rule” which could be argued as a way to be too competent at your job. But I feel like that’s it’s own form of incompetency but done so competently that it’s indistinguishable from a normal day’s work.

It isn’t all bad for those with high levels of self-control as there are obvious benefits to having such a high level of mastery. If you can control your actions or end results to the extent that folks rely on you then that can be a bit self-esteem boost. You can gain a lot of self-confidence and feelings of capability from being not only relied on but also dependable when it comes time for people to rely on you. On the other hand you want to be careful who you are reliable to.

Especially since costs are subjective and hard to measure from the outside:

“Productive work requires being reliable, and being open to relying on others,” Fitzsimons said. “What our research suggests is that when people look at whom they should rely on, they get it right: they rely on the people who can help them, those people with good self-control who can overcome temptations and push through even when they are tired.”

“But they aren’t seeing the potential costs for those people,” Fitzsimons added. “Our research showed that high self-control people feel more burdened by helping others in the workplace, and if you want to keep these high self-control employees, you want to make them feel good, and appreciated.”

It’s not hard to understand why bosses wouldn’t be able to correctly parse out what their decisions do to the workers on the bottom. Whether it’s due to problems of rationality or knowledge, hierarchy tends to get in the way of decisions that’ll make the most sense and accumulate the best sorts of knowledge for the right job.

So if we want to help make employees feel “good, and appreciated” perhaps we should appreciate the value of slacking, the value of abolishing work and the value of being a bit incompetent from time to time.

Workers of the world, be incompetent!


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