I remember having a discussion with a more tenured coworker, with the subject being the impending departure of another coworker. I said, “man, it’s going to be rough when he leaves, considering how much he’s done for us over the last several years.” The person I was talking to replied in a way that perplexed me. He said, “when you think about it, though, he really hasn’t done anything.” Ridiculous. I immediately objected and started my defense:
Well, in the last release, he worked on… that is, I think he was part of the team that did… or maybe it was… well, whatever, bad example. I know in the release before that, he was instrumental in… uh… that thing with the speed improvement stuff, I think. Wait, no, that was Bill. He did the… maybe that was two releases ago, when he… Holy crap, you’re right. He doesn’t do anything!
How did this happen? Meaning, how did I get this so wrong? Am I just an idiot? It could be, except that fails as an explanation for this particular case because the next day` I talked to someone who said, “boy, we’re sure going to miss him.” It seemed I was not alone in just assuming that this guy had been an instrumental cog in the work of the group when he had really, well, not been.
In the time that has passed since that incident, I’ve paid attention to people in groups and collaborating on projects. I’ve had occasion to do this as a team member and a team lead, as a boss and a line employee, as a consultant and as a team member collaborating with consultants, and just about everything else you can think of. And what I’ve observed is that this phenomenon is not a function of the people who have been fooled but the person doing the fooling. When you look at people who wind up being highly overrated, they share certain common habits.
If you too want to be highly overrated, read on. Being overrated can mean that you’re mediocre but people think that you’re great, or it can mean that you’re completely incompetent but nestle in somewhere and go unnoticed, doing, as Peter Gibbons in Office Space puts it, “just enough not to get fired.” The common facet is that there’s a sizable deficit between your actual value and your perceived value — you appear useful while actually being relatively useless. Here’s how.
I’m putting this term in quotes because it was common enough at one place I worked to earn a spot on a corporate BS Bingo card, but I’ve never heard it anywhere else. I don’t know exactly what people there meant by it, and for all I know, neither do they, so I’m going to reappropriate it here. If you want to seem productive without doing anything useful, then a great way to do so is to make lots of phone calls, send lots of emails, create lots of memos, etc.
A lot of people mistake activity for productivity, and you can capitalize on that. If you send one or two emails a day, summarizing what’s going on with a project in excruciating detail, people will start to think of you as that vaguely annoying person who has his fingers on the pulse all of the time. This is an even better strategy if you make the rounds, calling and talking to people to get status updates as to what they’re doing before sending an email.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — that might actually be productive. And, well, it might be, nominally so. But do you notice that you’ve got a very tangible plan of action here and there’s been no mention of what the project actually involves? A great way to appear useful without being useful is engage heavily in an activity completely orthogonal to the actual goal.
2. Be Bossy and Critical
Being an “overcommunicator” is a good start, but you can really drive your phantom value home by ordering people around and being hypercritical. If your daily (or hourly) status report is well received, just go ahead and start dropping instructions in for the team members. “We’re getting a little off schedule with our reporting, so Jim, it’d be great if you could coordinate with Barbara on some checks for report generation.” Having your finger on the pulse is one thing, but creating the pulse is a lot better. Now, you might wind up getting called out on this if you’re in no position of actual authority, but I bet you’d be surprised how infrequently this happens. Most people are conflict avoiders and reconcilers and you can use that to your advantage.
But if you do get called out (or even if you don’t), just get hypercritical. “Oh my God, Jim and Barbara, what is up with the reports! Am I going to have to take this on myself?!” Don’t worry about doing the actual work yourself — that’s not part of the plan. You’re just making it clear that you’re displeased and using a bit of shaming to get other people to do things. This shuts up people inclined to call you out on bossiness because they’re going to become sidetracked by getting defensive and demonstrating that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of doing the reports.
3. Shamelessly Self Promote
If a deluge of communication and orders and criticisms aren’t enough to convince people how instrumental you are, it never hurts just to tell them straight out. This is sort of like “fake it till you make it” but without the intention of getting to the part where you “make it.” Whenever you send out one of your frequent email digests, walk around and tell people what hard work it is putting together the digests and saying things like, “I’d rather be home with my family than staying until 10 PM putting those emails together, but you know how it is — we’ve all got to sacrifice.” Don’t worry, the 10:00 part is just a helpful ‘embellishment’ — you don’t actually need to do things to take credit for them (more on that later).
Similarly, if you are ever subject to any criticisms, just launch a blitzkrieg of things that you’ve done at your opponent and suggest that everyone can agree how awesome those things are. List every digest email you’ve sent over the last month, and mention the time you sent each one. By the fifth or sixth email, your critic will just give up out of sheer exasperation and agree that your performance has been impeccable.
4. Distract with Arguments about Minutiae
If you’re having trouble making the mental leap to finding good things about your performance to mention, you can always completely derail the discussion. If someone mentions that you haven’t checked in code in the last month, just point out that in the source control system you’re using, technically, “check in” is not the preferred verbiage. Rather, you “promote code.” The distinction may not seem important, but the importance is subtle. It really goes to the deeper philosophy of programming or, as some might call it, “the art of software engineering.” Now, when you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you’ll understand that code promotions… ha! You no longer have any idea what we were talking about!
This technique is not only effective for deflecting criticism but also for putting the brakes on policy changes that you don’t like and your peers getting credit for their accomplishments. Sure, Susan might have gotten a big feature in ahead of schedule, but a lot of her code is using a set of classes that some have argued should be deprecated, which means that it might not be as future-proof as it could. Oh, and you’ve run some time trials and feel like you could definitely shave a few nanoseconds off of the code that executes between the database read and the export to a flat file.
5. Time It So You Look Good (Or Everyone Else Looks Bad)
If you ever wind up in the unfortunate position of having to write some code, you can generally get out of it fairly easily. The most tried and true way is for the project to be delayed or abandoned, and you can do your part to make that happen while making it appear to be someone else’s fault. One great way to do that is to create a huge communication gap that appears to be everyone’s fault but yours.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you’re working with Bill and Bill goes home every night at 6:00 PM. At 6:01, send Bill an email saying that you’re all set to get to work, but you just need the class stub from him to get started. Sucker. Now 15 hours are going to pass where he’s the bottleneck before he gets in at 9:00 the next morning and responds. If you’re lucky and you’ve buried him in digest emails, you might even get an extra hour or two.
If Bill wises to your game and stays a few extra minutes, start sending those emails at like 10:00 PM from home. After all, what’s it to you? It takes just as little effort not to work at 6:00 as it does at 10:00. Now, you’ve given up a few hours of response time, but you’re still sitting pretty at 11 hours or so, and you can now show people that you work pretty much around the clock and that if you’re going to be saddled with an idiot like Bill that waits 12 hours to get you critical information, you pretty much have to work around the clock.
6. Plan Excuses Ahead of Time
This is best explained with an example. Many years ago, I worked as lead on a project with an offshore consultant who was the Rembrandt of pre-planned excuses. This person’s job title was some variant of “Software Engineer” but I’m not sure I ever witnessed software or engineering even attempted. One morning I came in and messaged him to see if he’d made progress overnight on a task I’d set him to work on. He responded by asking if I’d seen his email from last night. I hadn’t, so I checked. It said, “the clock is wrong, and I can’t proceed — please advise.”
After a bit of back and forth, I came to realize that he was referring to the clock in the taskbar on his desktop. I asked him how this could possibly be relevant and what he told me was that he wasn’t sure how the clock being off might affect the long-running upload that was part of the task, and that since he wasn’t familiar with Slackware Linux, he didn’t know how to adjust the clock. I kid you not. A “software engineer” couldn’t figure out how to change the time on his computer and thought that this time being wrong would adversely affect an upload that in no way depended on any kind of timestamp or notion of time. That was his story, and he was sticking with it.
And it is actually perfect. It’s exasperating but unassailable. After all, he was a “complete expert in Windows and several different distributions of Linux,” but Slackware was something he hadn’t been trained in, so how could he possibly be expected to complete this impossible task without me giving him instructions? And, going back to number five, where had I been all night, anyway? Sleeping? Pff.
7. Take Credit in Non-Disprovable Ways
The flip side of pre-creating explanations for non-productivity so that you can sit back in a metaphorical hammock and be protected from accusations of laziness is to take credit inappropriately, but in ways that aren’t technically wrong. A good example of this might be to make sure to check in a few lines of code to a project that appears as though it will be successful so that your name automatically winds up on the roster of people at the release lunch. Once you’re at that lunch, no one can take that credit away from you.
But that’s a little on the nose and not overly subtle. After all, anyone looking can see that you added three lines of white space, and objective metrics are not your friends. Do subjective things. Offer a bunch of unsolicited advice to people and then later point out that you offered “leadership and mentoring.” When asked later at a post mortem (or deposition) whether you were a leader on the project, people will remember those moments and say, grudgingly and with annoyance, “yeah, I guess you could say that.” And, that’s all you’re after. If you’re making sure to self-promote as described in section three, all you really need here is a few people that won’t outright say that you’re lying when asked about your claims.
Is This Really For You?
Let me tell you something. If you’re thinking of doing these things, don’t. If you’re currently doing them, stop. I’m not saying this because you’ll be insufferable (though you will be) and I want to defend humanity from this sort of thing. I’m offering this as advice. Seriously. These things are a whole lot more transparent than the people who do them think they are, and acting like this is a guaranteed way to have a moment in life where you wonder why you’ve bounced around so much, having so much trouble with the people you work with.
A study I read once of the nature of generosity said that appearing generous conferred an evolutionary advantage. Apparently generous people were more likely to be the recipients of help during lean times. It also turned out that the best way to appear generous was actually to be generous since false displays of generosity were usually discovered and resulted in ostracism and a substantially worse outcome than even simply being miserly. It’s the same thing in the workplace with effort and competence. If you don’t like your work or find it overwhelming, then consider doing something else or finding an environment that’s more your speed rather than being manipulative or playing games. You and everyone around you will be better off in the end.