Why men weaponize strategic incompetence—and how one man learned to stop

January 31, 2023, 1:33 PM UTC
Illustration by Joan Wong; photo of Bankman-Fried by Gotham/GC Images/Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! PagerDuty’s CEO apologizes for her layoffs announcement, the impact of the pandemic on kids’ education is lasting, and a writer reflects on his own experience with male mediocrity at work. Have a lovely Tuesday.

– Getting ahead. There’s an essay in the new issue of Fortune that is sure to ruffle some feathers. Writer Ross McCammon dives into the idea of “strategic incompetence,” explaining why men weaponize it and how he learned to stop.

What is strategic incompetence? It’s “the colleague who claims to be terrible at math, so that you handle all the spreadsheets” or “the husband who does such a bad vacuuming job that you take on the chore yourself,” McCammon explains with some help from Lise Vesterlund, a coauthor of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.

Men have risen the corporate ladder with the help of charm—or smarm—and avoidance of undesirable tasks for decades. McCammon, who spent years in the especially masculine work environments of men’s magazines, reflects on times in his own career when he offloaded tasks to a female colleague, sometimes without realizing what he was doing.

He writes:

I started to understand some of those behaviors as manipulative, a way of getting others to do work I didn’t want to do. When I saw those tendencies in myself, I couldn’t unsee them. And I began to see the damage this kind of behavior does to women and people of color—and to the morale, productiveness, and creativity of everyone in a workplace.

But times are changing. McCammon is the author of the 2015 book Works Well With Others, which he now acknowledges offers career advice that works best for white men. The type of people skills that propped up the old boys’ club aren’t quite as effective over Zoom. Gen Z has less patience for this approach to the workplace than their predecessors; younger workers would rather ask questions about tasks they don’t understand than strategically avoid them to seem more impressive to superiors.

That change could lead to a more equitable workplace. Because while strategic incompetence helped white men climb the corporate ladder, it left behind the women and people of color who disproportionately took on the grunt work that had to get done but didn’t lead to promotions.

I highly recommend reading McCammon’s whole essay here. Maybe you’ll recognize some experiences from your own workplaces.

Emma Hinchliffe

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Kinsey Crowley. Subscribe here.


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“I’m really grateful for this teaching me humility and resilience.”

Jordan Gibbs, who documented on TikTok her experience applying to 173 jobs after being laid off last year. 

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