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April 29, 2008

Planning the Company Summer Picnic: Prepare To Be Unprepared

Filed under: General HR Buzz9:41 am

You would think it a fairly simple task to select a day during the next 90-120 days to hold the annual company summer picnic. Let’s see  . . . ideally it would be held on a Friday. That narrows it down to 16 potential days. Take away holiday weekends, factor in school graduations, the boss’s vacation, other scheduled staff vacations, etc. and you now have a short list of no more or less than 5 potential Friday’s.

Next you need to select a location, check availabililty (you are now down to 3 potential Friday’s) and make the reservation.

I’ve only selected the date and sent out a ‘save the date’ email to the company staff and I’m already wondering what I got myself into. There’s still food, snacks, drinks, activities, prizes, communication, scheduling, ice, decorating, shade, foul weather contingencies, and of course the obligatory speeches and employee recognition. But the thought that keeps the party planner up at night is the casual comment by the company president to “make it better than last years.” Inevitably the thought enters the mind of the most stalwart employee volunteer, “I’m screwed. Why did I ever volunteer for this and how can I get out of it?”

This thought brought me to an article written by Jared Sandberg for the Wall Street Journal column ”Cubicle Culture” titled: The Art of Showing Pure Incompetence At an Unwanted Task.

The reason I found this in the first place was because I entered in “company picnic” into a Google search for some free company picnic type clipart. It seems one of the top unwanted tasks being blogged about is planning company social functions. I read with bemused interest the entire article which was right out of a Dilbert cartoon. Essentially readers are instructed on how to fain incompetence at a task [note: and here's the pure art of the ruse] while appearing to be fully committed and trying their best — and get this; winning the appreciation and sympathy of coworkers. Ultimately the poor wretch (who has played his or her cards right) hits paydirt and the task is assigned to someone else.

This brought me to wonder on how many other levels and tasks this same mindset plays itself out on a daily basis at the workplace.  The main weapons of the purported “non-skilled” are never ending questions such as, “How do you do that?” or “What did you guys do in the past?” or the coup de grâce “Do we really need ice cream?” Eventually other committee members will tire and panic and name a replacement chairperson. Mission accomplished.

Jared Sandberg writes:

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 tactic starts in early youth with chores. (“How do you open the dishwasher?”) Its puppy-eyed helplessness gets refined through homework with math-word problems and book reports on “Beowulf.” In college, it gets reinforced by enablers who take better notes in class. And in marriage it works — but not as well — by raising the specter of disaster from a task mishandled: “If I do the wash I might shrink your sweater” and “How do you change diapers so they don’t leak?”At work, it can be institutionalized at customer call centers, for example, whose operators will transfer you to another department before the last department transfers you back to them. And for shady corporations, incompetence is the best legal defense strategy.

To read the entire article, go to:


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