Lean Back, Do The Job You’re Capable of Doing

Sometimes Doing A Job Lean Back, COMMSTORM.comRight Means Leaning Back.

When the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, she wrote it to encourage women and to argue for a more equal approach. Whether she achieves her objective remains to be seen, but she certainly got a stream of thinking going. Most of the commentary has been positive, praising her for reinvigorating feminism. Some of it has been less favourable, her insights are useful, necessary even in a culture that often assumes that everything is equal between men and women, but hardly original. For me, her book prompted a series of questions that revolve around a central question. Why do people do the jobs they do?


Why Do We Stay Or Go?

What makes people stay in positions they find unsatisfying while others will find new challenges?  What makes people climb the corporate ladder while others strike out on their own and start independent businesses? Daniel H. Pink, author of the book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, might say that those who leave have met their basic needs and now seek that upper tier of the needs pyramid. They are trying to self-actualize.

Economist might argue that we are not so much reaching for spiritual satisfaction, as we are the more basic needs of food and shelter.  In economies where jobs are scarce people are often forced to start their own businesses out of necessity rather than desire. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but that’s probably because it’s some combination of all of those things. Still, it makes me wonder why some bright capable people are increasingly finding their way to independence while other people who would be better off on their own remain inside organizations.


Middle Management Mindset

It would appear that there is an interesting phenomenon that happens at the middle management level. Some leaders discover that they have found their niche and stay in place. Most realize that they are out of their depth, and struggle to avoid sliding backwards or look forward towards still more responsibility. As colleagues and I once noted on seeing the upward trajectory of a particularly incompetent co-worker, the rise in success is often directly inverse to the level of incompetence. In effect, dismal workers will continue to prosper because most leaders would rather promote than fire. Some people just keep moving up as leader after leader palm their hopeless employee off on an unsuspecting department. I’ve seen this in government, high tech and countless other sectors.

The employee quite naturally assumes that they are great at what they do, so they keep doing it. Their confidence grows and thrives and they take on ever increasing challenges. That brings me back around to Lean In. Sandberg notes that studies show that a woman will chase a job if they feel they have an overwhelming number of the skills required to do the job.  While men will chase a position even if they have about half the skills, perhaps even less.  The implication is that women should give themselves an ego boost and go after the big jobs. Frankly, I find that idea disturbing.  Just because someone feels confident that they are ready for more responsibility doesn’t mean they are actually capable of delivering on it.


How About Something Completely Different?

I’m all for women having more confidence and tackling the big jobs, but I like their approach better.  That hesitation in the face of opportunity means that when they do leap, they are ready for the role. I wish more men behaved like women. Just for a change, why not have people go after jobs they actually had the skills to perform? I’m not saying that everyone should have one hundred percent of the skills needed before applying, that would be very tedious. I just think  it would be more productive to have employees who knew what they were doing. Leaders who knew what they were talking about. One of the reasons we have so many incapable leaders is because we keep hiring people with an emphasis on their self-confidence and not their core skills. In fact, we place so much emphasis on bravado, attitude or attractiveness that there should be no surprise that we are continuously chasing what it takes to make a great leader. It should be no surprise either that we lose good people to their own or other businesses.

What do you think? Lean in or lean back?

Image courtesy of stockimages/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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47 Responses to Lean Back, Do The Job You’re Capable of Doing

  1. Dana Buckmir says:

    The question you posed about why people stay at unsatisfying jobs made me think about a discussion I had the other day with my students. We were discussing postsecondary career options and there were a list of jobs with descriptions and salaries. The students all chose the job that had the highest pay. They glazed over the pros and cons and just gravitated to the annual income. I attempted to get them to think about being “stuck” at a job that they didn’t necessarily enjoy just for the money. I argued that maybe a job that didn’t pay so much might be more satisfying, but they were convinced that the money was the only factor that made a difference.

    • Isn’t it funny how quickly people dismiss how much time they spend doing a job? You spend more time at work than you do in just about any other thing in your life. Why on Earth would you want to throw away a third of your time on an endeavour you did not find enjoyable or satisfying? The money is sooooo not worth it.

  2. Sandy says:

    If only we could live in a perfect world where women would be treated equal, and where women or men would be promoted on their skills.🙂

  3. becc03 says:

    I cannot get my head around people who get jobs that they are totally incapable of. How do they not know? Why doesn’t it scare the crap out of them when they are in over their head?
    On the other hand I wish I had a bit of that. I am very hard on myself and wouldn’t bother putting my hand forward if I have doubts. Those doubts may be very harsh and I have probably missed many opportunities.

    • I laughed out loud when I read this Becc, because I always wondered how the heck people have the nerve to chase stuff they have no clue about. I would be so freaked out. I get if you have similar skills, but I have met folks that were just clueless about their job. I get angina just thinking about it.🙂

      I’ve not stepped up to the plate in the past when I should have and subsequently regretted it, so whenever I get nervous about something I know I can do, I remind myself that I’d prefer to try and fail, than fail because I never tried.

  4. I’m not sure of the Lean In Lean Out thing, but I do know when I was in the corporate world, the men I worked for had nothing over me. Women are more sensitive – i.e. intuitive – and make better, more loyal employees. That being said, I stayed at a job a bit too long where I was surrounded by incompetence left an right – all chauvinistic, males. I was competent, they were not. I left and never looked back. Now, I run my own business and several of those kinds of men come to me for help with their marketing. What a pleasure to turn them down. I will not work with a condescending, patronizing man. Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the men I do provide consulting services for are respectful and lovely, but I am guessing they are in touch with their feminine side and that is why they are so good and what they do and realize that a woman, yes a woman (me) might be stronger at a skill set than themselves. Nice post!

    • When I first worked on Parliament Hill several years ago I was amazed to note how many women were in senior positions in MPs offices. When the party I worked for eventually came into power I was equally amazed at how quickly all those women were shuttled out of senior roles to be replaced by men. Apparently getting the party to power was not sufficient proof of their ability to keep the party in power. It reminds me that no matter how far you think you’ve come, there’s always further to go, so celebrate the wins when you can.🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  5. Diana says:

    I guess i have been out of the corporate world for long enough – i have forgotten about all the incompetence-raise correlation🙂 However, one thing i see til today even when “out of office” environment – there are still too many people (both men and women) who go to an interview all confident, land a job because of the super-duper good skills they have, only to find out in a couple of months that they cannot do half of the things they said they had the skills for. Which is counterproductive to everyone. So i definitely think the first step for both men and women is a realistic self-assessment.

    It’s ok to take up on challenges – as you said, no need to have 100% of the required skills when applying – but can you not lie through your teeth, please? It’d save some time and frustration to everyone!

    Great post, Debra – thanks for a good read.😀

    • Diana I used to think that people were lying when they applied for jobs they had no way of performing, but over time it has become clear that most people have no clue how to asses their own skills. I think Jacqueline may have a point when she says that school systems have not done us any favours by not acknowledging failure and building self-esteem to ridiculous heights.

  6. I am not sure where to Lean …. In or Back ….. sometimes you are so much stuck that what you really want you can not take that decision… I was working in a government sector before and I was very happy with job and I had very experienced Boss , it was very good to work with him but then due to some personal reasons I started working in a private sector and I feel sad to know there was no concept of failure …..
    If your management is fair I think there is no chance for people who do not deserve … But if Boss has no specialization then surely some deserving will be out.
    I believe equal opportunity must be given to females in all jobs ….. The only criterion should be Skill and Qualification…. Not the sex.

    • What an interesting comment you made when you said there was no concept of failure in the private sector. I have definitely noticed a trend towards setting goals and then not accepting that they cannot be achieved. It’s a mindset that creates impossible scenarios. An old boss of mine once asked me why I had stopped doing something and when I responded with, “it wasn’t working” he seemed both startled and a bit dismayed. The idea that I would actually stop if I wasn’t getting the results I wanted was something new in an employee. No one would ever admit to being wrong, so how could they stop doing something they had initiated when it failed? Since I had already proven I knew how to get results, he didn’t push and since I had no apologies to offer for knowing how to quit while I was ahead, it set the tone for others.

  7. I just realized recently that I should not be doing jobs that are beyond my capabilities.
    Now, I focus more on what I want and like to do – that is home based jobs.

  8. Lorraine Marie Reguly says:

    Sometimes leaning back is like biting your tongue. It’s painful. Equally as painful, however, is leaning in, but this is a different kind of pain! When you speak up and take action – and even go so far as to demand and facilitate change – more work is created BUT the benefit of it all is that things get changed. And change is GOOD.

    • I agree!!! I have been in situations where I didn’t think I was up to a job but then when a far less capable colleague went after it I immediately wanted to go after it and had to stop myself and say, wait a minute, neither of us is capable. Very true on the other side as well. The most difficult business conversations I’ve had were generally not about me, but about speaking uncomfortable truths to power and understanding I’d have to live with the consequences.

  9. You are right in your assessment of bravado and self-confidence often winning the day over experience and skills to do the job. We have all been won over at one time or another by someone who appeared confident, and that’s all it turned out to be. An appearance. Funny you should be also talking about the differences in which men & women approach things this week. Good post Debra -thank you.

    • I had a laugh when I read yours and thought, hmmm must be something in the air.🙂

      It’s a challenging conversation because while people can be confident and capable, we often assume that one means the other.

  10. Arleen says:

    I think there are many sides here. From the employers side, we tend to keep employees whether they are men or women because of a comfort level. I really don’t care what sex the employee is as long as they do a good job. Many think they know more than the boss and maybe in their minds they do. Well, go out and start your own business. We also as employers get complacent and it is easier to stay with the familiar to stay with the known then fire someone and go after the unknown.
    I never thought I could or not do something because I was a woman. I went after what I wanted. Maybe having a strong personality helped.

    • I agree, it’s not as simple as black or white, but for the purposes of a blog, I try to keep it down to dull roar🙂 For instance I don’t think all men chase jobs they are not capable of and I’ve seen plenty of women go after things they had no ability to handle. I was speaking from the averages, what are the usual findings when we look at who is willing to go after a raise or a promotion and what level of skill they bring when they do.

      I think the point about employers getting complacent is a great one. When you’re looking for someone to do more, most people are inclined to give the work to the person who’s shouting, “Me, me, I’ll do it!”, than to go looking for the person who isn’t saying anything, but is just quietly working away.

  11. Leora says:

    When I read your post yesterday, I was having a hard time figuring out the difference between lean back and lean in. Then I read a little of what Sheryl Sandberg had to say about Lean In, and I discovered she’s part of the that not liking the word Bossy business. It’s hard to keep up with business news and trends and who is saying what.

    I remember years ago working for a PhD who was a lot less competent than his staff. But at least then I think everyone knew it (maybe he included, since he hired smart people).

    • Good tip for me to keep in the back of my head when referencing books in the future. The bossy thing made me laugh, it felt a bit like focussing on the state of your nails when your hand is on fire. However, just as I was going to dismiss it I was forced to look at what’s happening around me.

      In July 2013 Canadians celebrated having six provincial premiers who were women, a moment for the history books. By March 2014, two of them were forced to step down in a flurry of controversy. The quote that stays with me through the process was one from a disgruntled MPP speaking about his female premier, “She’s not a nice lady.”

      Really? I wonder if he would have said that about a male premier? Maybe she was bossy.🙂

  12. hi debra; thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. it seems people either allow fear to keep them from taking chances or they go after things far beyond their abilities. I believe its good to step out in faith and stretch yourself but at th job you have a responsibility to all the other people in the company or organization. take care, Max

    • It sometimes feels like those are the two extremes Max, fear and bravado. I wouldn’t want to do a job that left me with no challenges, but swimming out of my depth just drags everyone around me down. There has to be a healthy balance.

  13. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of working for less than competent men AND women. In my experience, the individuals who had done the hiring didn’t want to admit they’d made a mistake. I think your reach should always exceed your grasp, but within reason. I like to think I’m ambitious, but not greedy. To answer your question, I spend more time leaning back than leaning in!

    • I hear you, I’ve had fantastic and not so fantastic bosses of both sexes. I use men and women here for the sake of simplicity and because…well, studies do break their work traits down that way statistically. I’ll be frank and say I’m more inclined to lean in myself, but I’m tired of dealing with the consequence of aggressive “achievers” who can’t actually get the job done so encourage a little leaning back.🙂

  14. You hit the nail on the head n your closing statement. I worked in the government sector for years and eventually couldn’t take the red tape and bureaucracy anymore. The system penalized individuality and rewarded obedience.

    • My husband once said he’d rather be taken down to the river and beaten on a rock than work for government. Needless to say, he owns his own business. I worked in the political system for years and it’s an experience that I wouldn’t give up for anything, it was an experience of a lifetime, but I’ll admit, while I’ve met countless amazing civil servants, I have no interest in doing that work either.🙂

  15. It drove me bonkers to sit in on interview panels for teaching prospects. I can sniff out a knowledgeable, hard worker because like knows like. More often than not, it was the peppy, self-confident personality that caught the school board members’ attention. Then a year later, there we would be in around the conference room again for the same process in futility. Sigh.

    • Jeri as I watch the emergence in popularity of the introvert’s perspective in business I think it comes as a direct consequence to all of those bad decisions made by peppy personalities. Being outgoing and engaging is not a bad thing, but unfortunately it often hides a host of critical inadequacies.

  16. Lenie says:

    Unfortunately we have probably all worked for some of the incompetents who often lead through bluster and bullying and make life very difficult for their employees. My last boss was a highly skilled and respected leader which made my job the most enjoyable one of all my working life. It makes such a difference.

    • Lenie isn’t it amazing when you find the right blend of know how and leadership in a boss? It makes all the difference in the world to how much you enjoy a job and to your personal success.

  17. I have seen that in action, rising up in an organization despite the fact that the individual is incompetent. It is more usual then it’s not..sigh! Some of these people I have had the bad fortune working for. They do think they’re great and have little to no idea how bad they really are. The worst news is they are very easily manipulated because they know so little. That can work to your advantage depending our your intent. Mine was to help my staff keep the job done and do it well in a good environment. Just my thoughts.🙂

    To answer your question, do both at different times for different reasons.🙂

    • Good answer Susan, there is a time and place for both. I am usually a lean in kind of woman myself, but I have so often seen the poor performers succeed that I’ve started to think maybe leaning back generally speaking might be good idea.🙂

  18. Your referrence to “rising to the level of greatest incompetence” reminds me that I heard the phrase years ago. I loved the analogy then and still love it now. The next part of this are the skilled and useful workers who are never allowed to advance because they are “unreplaceable.”

    The double edged sword of business where we reward incompetence but punish those who deserve more with more work.

    • It’s an interesting environment that we create and I think it pushes people into doing things they would never have dreamt possible. I know more independent business people today, than I did ten years ago and the number of people who are moving that direction is amazing.

      When you applaud poor performers you do more damage than just put a bad person in a good position, you retrain your entire workforce to mimic poor performance. If you compound that behaviour by punishing good performers by giving them even more work, well that’s a recipe for bankruptcy.

      • It does end up being a no win scenario when you end up exploiting your good workers like that. They tend to move on. Companies then wonder why they can’t find good help.

  19. I was thinking after we met last week, I wonder if Debra’s read “Lean In”?? I read it a few months ago and even recommended it to colleague. I agree with Sandberg’s premise that more women need to participate actively, but as my colleague said to me after reading it – it’s a lot easier to Lean In at the office when you have a full-time chef, nanny and secretary to manage the details!

    • Hahhahahahaha…very true, life would be easier for all of us if we had a staff. Sandberg’s lifestyle affords her certain things that do take her out of norm, but I still think its important that women like her speak up, largely because they will be heard. I’m not sold on her approach but I would still share her book with others and I applaud her for making people stop and think.

  20. There is a huge difference between having an entrepreneurial mind and carrying out entrepreneurial activity. The latter anyone can do but the former is genetic and you can not learn to take risks and dare like someone with an entrepreneurial mind does. That explains a lot of what a person does or doesn’t do in life.

    Unfortunately, even in Sweden, there is, again, a need for feminism. It’s a joke that equality between men and women has not improved here since the 80s. Unless companies are forced to have a certain amount of women on their board of directors, very few women will be appointed.

    Have a look at Forbes list of most powerful businesswomen in 2013. It’s led by Brazil, followed by Turkey. Sweden, like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, has one woman on the list. India has 4, China 5 and Britain, with 10, has most women on it.

    Developing countries have caught up with us, or surpassed us. Why? Because women there really want to improve their place in society and have not yet become complacent like a lot of women in the West.

    • No one who has worked with me would describe me as shy, retiring or complacent when it comes to work. I carry too much passion for what I do and I don’t waste time in asking for what I want to get a job done, but I think there has to be accountability.

      I would love to see more women in senior positions largely because their very reticence to chase every opportunity means that they are generally better prepared for them. I do not believe that just because you asked, you should receive. I don’t want women to embrace the mistakes of men in business. I would much prefer that men learn something from women and more importantly, that leaders who do the hiring actually look at how women operate instead of just assuming women should model themselves after “successful” men. As we all know, you can be a failure and still be a leader.

  21. ballnchainz says:

    Very good post. I don’t care about my title long as I’m being paid well for the work that i like to do. If i don’t like the work then i will finds another job. I refuse to be miserable everyday because i don’t like my job.

    • I’m do care about my title, because it generally means being paid well for the work I do🙂 but, like you, if the work isn’t providing what I want and need, I will walk regardless of title. Life is waaaaay too short to go to work miserable.

  22. Paul Graham says:

    Debra I’m never sure which way to Lean, but on this subject there may be a reason they call it the PETER PRINCIPLE and not the PAULA PRINCIPLE

  23. jacquiegum says:

    My opinion is that some of this mindset starts in schools at a young age when promoting them to higher grade, even if they shouldn’t be, is standard practice. The idea is that a child’s self-esteem would be damaged beyond repair. When I was working, it was called the Peter Principal – when someone was promoted beyond their skill level. I can cite countless incidences where a great salesman was promoted to a sales manager and did a really bad job. No one gave much thought to the skill set being completely different! I have given much thought as to how this applies to writing today…seems everyone is doing it, and a lot of them not so well. I think one reason may be that they have been taught self esteem🙂

    • Jacqueline I think the Peter Principle is too kind, some of these folks go well past the first job they were incompetent at and keep climbing!

      I also have a hard time with any school system that doesn’t believe in failure. Life isn’t built on an endless array of passes. If children don’t learn to cope with failure it isn’t self-esteem they have learned, it’s self-esteamroller over anything you don’t like.🙂

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