It’s time to talk about male mediocrity at work

·15 min read

The unkempt hair wasn’t the tell. The XXXL T-shirt wasn’t the tell. No, the giveaway about disgraced cryptocurrency exchange founder Sam Bankman-Fried was on his sheepish face: that self-deprecating grin.

“I’m sorry … I fucked up,” Bankman-Fried tweeted in November, owning up with a virtual shrug to a crypto calamity that erased $8 billion in other people’s money. “Had I been a bit more concentrated on what I was doing, I would have been able to be more thorough,’’ Bankman-Fried told the New York Times as his crypto exchange, FTX, unraveled.

Bankman-Fried’s ostentatious display of incompetence is likely self-serving, given that he faces criminal fraud charges, but the implication is unmistakable: Other, lesser minds should have been sweating the small stuff.

When I read about Bankman-Fried’s professed ineptitude, my first thought was “What a clown!” But increasingly I’ve begun to feel a wary connection: “There, but for the grace of God …”

I wrote the book on workplace behavior. Okay, maybe not the book. But a book. It’s called Works Well With Others. Published in 2015, it tells the story of how I, as a young in-flight-magazine editor from Texas, navigated New York City’s famously status-conscious media world. My book’s thesis is that being well-liked by your colleagues and bosses is a path to professional success, in whatever field you’re in. There are chapters on shaking hands, making small talk, and giving a toast, and a chapter called “How to Have a Meaningful Lunch in a Fancy Restaurant Full of Important People.”

I didn’t write the book just for men. But in retrospect I see that some of its advice works best for the demographic I happen to belong to: straight, white, male.

And at some point in the last few years, I started to realize that those particular “people skills” weren’t working for me the way they used to. Maybe it was the COVID-19 pandemic and rise of remote work, which stripped away many of the hierarchies, conventions, and pretensions of office life. Maybe it was the reckonings about sexism and racism that have eroded some of the baseline privilege granted to people who look like me, while elevating some of those who have been historically marginalized. Maybe bullshit has simply become less of a currency. Whatever it was, my go-to moves of humor, ingratiation, and self-deprecation just didn’t seem to be landing.

Even worse, 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.

Whether they are truly competent or not, many men are very good at performing competence. It’s kind of easy, actually. You don’t talk a lot in meetings, and when you do you ask questions of the people who made assertions, or repeat and praise good points others made. You ride the wake of the boldness and risk-taking of others.

A related behavior, says Lise Vesterlund, who along with three coauthors wrote The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, is “strategic incompetence” (sometimes called “skilled incompetence” or “weaponized incompetence”). Strategic incompetence is the colleague who claims to be terrible at math, so that you handle all the spreadsheets. The husband who does such a bad vacuuming job that you take on the chore yourself. It’s not straightforward laziness—it’s a reluctance to do the lower-value jobs that Vesterlund and coauthors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, and Laurie Weingart call “non-promotable.” This is the work that doesn’t get much credit or garner accolades; work that’s often invisible. It’s not just men who avoid it—but who am I kidding? It’s mostly men.

“It’s very convenient,” Vesterlund told me, that women and people of color tend to get saddled with this non-promotable work—organizing the office party, sitting on hiring committees, chairing a DEI task force. “Oftentimes the reason we ask women is because, Oh, they’re so good at it, because they’ve demonstrated time and time again that they are good at it. But it might be worth sort of taking a step back and saying [to men], How could you possibly do all the promotable work, and not be able to do the non-promotable work?”

I immediately recognized what Vesterlund was talking about, and it made me think of a Zoom call I was on with two women colleagues a couple of years ago. My boss, a woman of color, asked that I map out a timeline for completing a project. “That’s a great plan,” I said, then looked to my other colleague on the screen. “I’ll just need help working up a project flow,” I said to her. I made a self-deprecating joke about my inability to plan complex initiatives without help.

The thing is: I didn’t actually know if I was bad at mapping out a project timeline. I just had never done it, and I didn’t particularly want to learn how. I knew my colleague to be an excellent project manager, so it only made sense to me that she should take on that responsibility.

But this time, my request was not seconded. What I was expecting was a “Sure!,” but what I got was a protracted, excruciating silence, like in a Western, when a gunslinger with a suspiciously clean hat enters a saloon. After a few long seconds, I backtracked. “You know what? I’ll handle it myself!” I said. Then I metaphorically backed through the swinging saloon doors and shuffled on my way.

For my then boss, the incident didn’t amount to more than an eye roll. (She didn’t even remember it when I asked her about it recently.) But that meeting was the first time I realized—really understood—that I had made a habit of using charm (or smarm, depending on how you see it) as a way of getting other people to do work for me.

Of course, the benefit of the doubt granted to some white men has never been invisible to women and people of color, says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet. “I see it in almost every aspect of the work that we do,” she says. “There is a bias toward what competence looks like. It’s a racial bias, a gender bias … it’s incredibly pervasive.”

The converse of this phenomenon is the persistent underestimation of women and people of color. Vesterlund recounted an example from her book of an attorney who was asked to recruit a cohort of interns. It was presented as a terrific opportunity for growth, Vesterlund explained, but the time-consuming work of reading applications and interviewing ended up cutting into her billable hours, and stalling her advancement at the firm. “So the conversation shouldn’t just be, Are you good at recruiting interns, or do you enjoy recruiting interns?” Vesterlund told me. It should be: “If you want to make partner, you can recruit interns for one year, but then we’re going to give [that job] to somebody else.”

In their 2022 Women in the Workplace report, and McKinsey & Company found that women leaders were switching jobs at an unprecedented rate. The researchers’ surveys of 40,000 employees found that the women had similar ambitions to men, but that “they experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance.”

“There is a bias toward what competence looks like. It’s a racial bias, a gender bias … it’s incredibly pervasive.”

Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO, ReadySet.

Reading this, another professional episode came to mind, and made me cringe. A woman colleague and I were looking at some printed materials and needed to FaceTime someone who was working remotely so that he could weigh in. I didn’t have my phone on me, so I asked my colleague if she could use hers. “Sure,” she said. The task required her to hold her phone toward a wall for about 15 minutes as we talked about things we wanted to change. I thought nothing of it, but for weeks after that I felt a chill in communications with her. Eventually it became clear to me that the phone incident was the reason. I was defensive and confused. I didn’t think what I’d done was even remotely objectionable behavior.

Now I understand that my colleague may well have experienced the moment as offensive and demoralizing. When I told Vesterlund the anecdote, she said, “This probably wasn’t the first time that she was in a position where she was doing the equivalent of holding the phone, unable to participate in the meeting on the same level as everybody else.”

Why didn’t my colleague just say no, or hand me the phone to hold? That’s easier said than done, in a culture that still expects women to do much of the grunt work. In a series of experiments, Vesterlund and her coauthors found that women are 44% more likely than men to be asked by male managers to perform non-promotable tasks such as taking meeting notes, and 50% more likely to say yes. It’s only when women aren’t in the room that men volunteer to do that necessary, unglamorous work.

I learned early in my career that getting other people to do your job was what success looked like. Working in the Mad Men–like environment of glossy magazines, including Esquire and GQ, was a master class in bluster and strategic incompetence.

I would raise my voice while I was on the phone, so colleagues would know I was talking with someone important. I would furrow my brow anytime I was at my computer. (You can’t relate to what it’s like to be a man in the modern workplace unless you’ve scowled pensively while Googling frittata recipes.)

The men’s magazines I worked at, like so many other traditionally masculine organizations, are places driven by fear as much as opportunity. The risk of failing, or embarrassing oneself, especially if you’re a man who has risen to a leadership position, can feel pathetically existential. You must succeed from day one.

This is an impossible standard, so the obvious strategy is to fake it, and to avoid any situation where your inadequacy will be visible. If you don’t know how to run a meeting, avoid doing so. If you haven’t ever created a profit and loss statement, delegate it.

This behavior is obviously unfair to those who are left doing the real work, of any gender or race. But it’s also corrosive to those asserting this privilege themselves, and to companies. It suppresses risk-taking, innovation, and “psychological safety”—the quality that Google’s much-cited 2015 study of successful teams found to be “far and away” the most important dynamic of the highest-performing groups. Without psychological safety, we’re reluctant to try new things, and we miss out on opportunities to learn and grow professionally.

The best way to learn how to run a big meeting is to run a big meeting—even if you screw it up the first, second, third time; even if you make ridiculous flubs. Without the experience of trial and error that leads to real mastery, many men suffer from a kind of strange impostor syndrome: I think of it as a male mediocrity disorder. We can be successful, and even get plum assignments and promotions, but we have no real idea whether we’re any good at our jobs. Often, we’re not.

To be clear, I’m not asking for sympathy. If traditionally masculine bullshit is losing its currency at work, that’s a good thing. A generational change is underway in every industry, says Stacey Staaterman, a career coach specializing in pivots. “Thank God for what Gen Z has brought to the table,” she says. “It’s harder to hide now. It’s harder to cover up your sins. It’s harder to cover up your inadequacies.”

The kind of candor I see in Gen Z colleagues is inspiring. They are quick to tell you when they are overloaded and can’t take on more—because why should anyone be overloaded with work? Isn’t that bad for the employee and the business? They are quick to ask questions. They’re open about their deficiencies and areas for growth. And they are bewildered by managers who won’t come clean about their own.

If I had a chance to revise my book, I’d say: Whatever your demographic profile, ask uncomfortable, revealing questions about yourself. What are my weak spots? What would I say about myself if I had to work with me? What am I bad at? What do I avoid in a knee-jerk way? And perhaps most important: Who picks up the slack?

“Thank God for what Gen Z has brought to the table. It’s harder to hide now.”

Stacey Staaterman, career coach

Lately, I’ve begun to see the “non-promotable” work I’ve always tried to avoid as an opportunity for growth—project planning and note-taking, for example. And in doing these tasks, I have found puzzle pieces that I should have located years ago: qualities that make me a better colleague who produces better work.

I have started using my people skills—communication, collaboration, and emotional intelligence—in a different way. When I read a room now, it’s less about how I think people are seeing me, but how they are seeing and understanding and influencing one another. And I’ve discovered unexpected talents in myself. For instance, I often find that I can sense and identify unrest, and defuse it before it escalates.

These “soft skills,” traditionally associated more with women than men, are key for getting ahead in today’s transformed workplace—but they don’t work unless you’re also doing a great job.

But the sun is setting on the age of unchecked male mediocrity, and thank goodness. It’s a relief for everyone, including mediocre men.

How to stamp out ‘strategic incompetence’ at work

There’s a lot that managers and company leaders can do to ensure that everyone is sharing the burden of “non-promotable” work.

Explain the difference between reasonable delegating and the offloading of drudgery.
There’s nothing wrong with delegating; indeed, often it can be a kindness, an opportunity to let colleagues shine. And some tasks have to get done, even if they’re not particularly rewarding. Still, it helps to name what’s happening when the same colleagues always take on the “office housework” and others shirk it entirely: Make “non-promotable” work a part of your workplace’s vocabulary. Encourage clear conversations about the value of all tasks, even if they’re not billable hours or high-profile assignments.

Don’t ask for volunteers to do tasks nobody wants.
Studies show that women are more likely than men to raise their hand when it comes time to take meeting notes or order lunch for the group. To avoid this imbalance, pick names out of a hat, or take turns.

Build psychological safety.
Creating a work environment where employees feel safe taking risks and failing is key to innovation and productivity, study after study has shown. Employees build skills and competence through trial and error, so it must feel safe for them to try out new, unfamiliar kinds of work.

Spread widely the opportunities for  high-profile,  “promotable” work.
“There is a bias toward what competence looks like,” says Y-Vonne Hutchinson of the DEI consulting organization ReadySet. Unfortunately, many companies “recognize genius in some spaces and not others,” she adds. Some geniuses look like the archetypal wunderkind founder or the disheveled tech brainiac—but many great minds don’t fit those rather limited demographic contours. Give people throughout your organization opportunities to challenge themselves and prove their talents. You’ll likely find your next star performer.

When you make a mistake or display “strategic incompetence,” fix it and apologize.
On an ongoing basis, examine your own behavior and the entrenched systems of your workplace. Ask colleagues present and past about their experiences and impressions. Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes you may realize after an incident that someone felt sidelined or offended. Acknowledging the harm that was done and apologizing for it can go a long way, says Stacey Staaterman, a professional coach: “The way to renew integrity is to speak the words out loud.”

This article appears in the February/March 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, "It's time to talk about male mediocrity at work."

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