Have you experienced collusive incompetence?

Andy kelly sundial consulting
Andy Kelly

Collusive incompetence within a team is a powerful block to organizational change. It’s a really hard struggle for leaders. Here, at Sundial Consulting we have have recognised and understood how it manifests itself. Read on (or listen to the video) to learn how to recognise collusive incompetence in your teams.

It is important to understand how building confidence can help fast track change in organizations. But, unless we speak about tough issues change can never happen. This post may be another support to this issue: Why Executive Leaders Must Talk About Elephants. (Opens in a new tab for your convenience).

Have you experienced collusive incompetence? – script

We at Sundial Consulting help people with confidence. We help people build confidence to fast track change in organizations.

I was reminded recently of one of the most powerful blocks to organizational change – collusive incompetence. Teams that collude together to be incompetent. Most of us struggle with change and find it hard. When change happens we typically feel a feeling of shock or surprise. We go into a flight or fight mode. Some of us are just more sensitive to that than others. When those people see colleagues around them that start to embrace change it can be scary. And they are scanning for it, they are scanning for that treat. When they see it, they feel the need to stop it. This may be subconscious or even conscious. These people may be risk adverse or they may be struggling with some other change in their life or dealing with insecurity. When they see change begin to happen in the team they can embark on a campaign of denial and start to construct a self imposed learning block for the team.

At an organization I recently worked with, its leaders all recognised a particular team was desperate for change. They were not performing and it needed to be dealt with fast. Rather than performance management the leaders invested in this team to give them an opportunity to get through this problem together. It was absolutely obvious when we met them. There was low performance and customer satisfaction. There were dysfunctional relationships – people who didn’t get on or even talk to each other. They were very slow at making decisions and their communication was poor.

Once we started to raise ‘the elephant in the room’ and started to talk about the big issues, you started to see the people, particularly one, who didn’t like the look of this, didn’t like the look of change. I’ll call him ‘Johnny’ (not his real name).

So we talked about decision making. “Decision making is glacial – it’s way too slow”.

“No no, you’ve got that wrong. That’s unfair” pipes in Johnny, “We are really good at change. We may take a really long time, but when we get there we make good decisions. Right? Right, everyone?”.

The room starts to agree, the room starts to nod. Denial is a more comfortable place. So, when you start to hear people defend, sometimes when you hear someone deny, it can feel more comfortable to collude and join in with them.

So, then the leader says, “Hey, Sharon. What do you think? You never speak up in these meetings, I’d love to hear what you think about this”.

As she starts to agree, “Yes, I have been very quiet…” – Johnny jumps in again! “No no, that’s not fair. Sharons great. We love Sharon, she’s a real big thinker. She may not say anything, but I know she has really good ideas”. “Right, Sharon?”

Sharon starts to agree.

Then we get to the break we start to see people still on the fence. They are typically surrounded over coffee and convinced that this team’s okay.

And the team start to come together, they actually start to become effective – AT BLOCKING THE CHANGE.

But, then there’s Julie. We are back in the room and Julie has already started embracing change. She’s already started doing things she’s never done before to help the organization move forward. She’s really scary and at this stage people are starting to look at her from across the room, “Julie, you’ve changed. I like the old Julie. What happened to you? You’re not buying this are you? We want you in – we are a great team”. And even Julie starts to find that desirable.

We naturally fall back to our habits and when we have our teams support it’s even easier.

So, the team blocks the change. We don’t make any further progress. Then, of course the leaders reconvene. And at this stage they decide, this can’t be done. The team is blocking us, so what is our alternative?

Then they engage Performance Management.

So, when Johnny thought he was helping himself and helping his team actually now they have got a bigger problem on their hands.

As leaders and as colleagues you need to firstly spot collusive incompetence and then call it out quickly! You need to help people to feel more confident to embrace the changes together, to support each other and do something you have never done before.

Good luck and I would love to hear your views on this subject by commenting below!


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