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By Naomi Hattaway, #LeavingWell Consulting

File under: Things that make me tired.

Every single one of us is a leader. Our kitchen tables are our most powerful platforms, the community trust we hold is potent, and we frequently share similar experiences in our personal and professional lives. 

We bolster each other by encouraging our colleagues and friends to lean into their leadership traits and prod them to own (and use) their voice. We uplift and sponsor each other’s work and greatness by sharing it as far and wide as possible, and when we are given the opportunity to link arms with each other to strengthen the collective or further the mission, we jump at the chance.

And yet, time after time (after time after time after time), we witness the actions of those privileged with decision-making power — often white, cis, het, abled — being contrary to what we strive for every day. 

Before I share the rest of this article, please note that it’s been written for two audiences. One audience is folks in positions of power and leadership; I’m calling you in with this article. As you read the following, note whether you see yourself in the behavior below, and pay attention to the recommended language and attitude shifts. 

The other audience is folks who witness those in positions of power and leadership shirking their responsibility of leadership simply by uttering the six words, “I know enough to be dangerous;” I’m nodding in your direction and letting you know that I see you.

The ways in which incompetence is weaponized against marginalized colleagues

Raise your hand if you’ve heard these words spoken by folks who have been given the mantle of leadership by title: “I know enough to be dangerous.”

Definition

When someone, typically in a position of authority, has basic competency in doing something, but they are unwilling to admit they don’t have the necessary knowledge or expertise for the task at hand.

Upon hearing this phrase, we politely chuckle or offer a waning smile. It’s just self-deprecating enough from the person using the phrase that we offer a pass and let it slide. 

Would we react the same if the speaker had said something more honest, like: 

I don’t know enough about this but I’m claiming I do.

Or

I know just enough to be baseline effective.
I know enough to get the job done.
I know enough to hold on to my trustworthiness.
I know enough to maintain mediocrity.
I know enough to be overly confident about what I’m about to say.

Would we still let it go by unchecked? Would we still chuckle?

In the article “Things to Stop Saying,” Dan Slaski asks the questions about those who use this phrase: “Why did they choose to step out of their area of core competency? Why have they chosen not to ‘stay in their lane’?”

“The side effects [of the phrase “I know enough to be dangerous”] are often demeaning, deleterious, and downright destructive.” -Dan Slaski

My assertion? The phrase “I know enough to be dangerous” is actually a tool of weaponized incompetence.

Definition:

Weaponized incompetence (sometimes more softly referred to as strategic incompetence): a behavior pattern used when someone pretends to be bad at something to defer or deflect responsibility to another person.

Weaponized incompetence can look like someone playing innocent, doing a task poorly, or reverting to someone else because “you’re better at this than I am.” It can lead to a toxic work environment, and breed distrust among collaborators on a project. For those recently hired into positions of authority, strategic incompetence is often used as “cover” for being new on the job. 

This is especially troublesome behavior when conducted by individuals and systems who consistently uphold white-dominant (often also male-dominated) practices. In my personal experience, I have yet to hear someone who holds a marginalized identity utter this phrase. It’s never happened. I’ve only heard the words “I know enough to be dangerous” from white folks in leadership and decision-making positions.

In reality, it shouldn’t be a big deal to just admit to whatever context we don’t know. The systems we all swim in are complicated and intentionally built to hold a certain level of complexity. No one person will ever know all there is to understand, say, how to end homelessness or permanently solve the affordable housing crisis. Wouldn’t it be better if we all stepped into a posture of humility and shared power by stopping the use of that phrase?

Enter the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area causes them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone and underestimate their relative abilities as well. 

Perhaps this is simply about a lack of confidence, a literal knowledge gap, or in some cases, imposter complex. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter the details of where the phrase comes from. The impact and harm felt is the same whether the words are uttered from a place of naivete or spoken with intention.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky notes the following about this effect: “One rule of thumb is to go on high alert when we’re dealing with a complex issue, and we notice a pleasant feeling of certainty.”

To those who have said those words before, I offer two words in response: Stop. It.

It’s a phrase that should be removed from the speech patterns of every single person in a leadership position in the nonprofit sector.

In just six steps, matching the number of words in that terrible phrase, do this instead:

  1. Stop saying those words. Literally. Put a rubberband on your wrist and when you’re tempted to utter the phrase, snap that rubberband and course-correct yourself. 
  2. Whenever you’re tempted to speak those words, be grown enough to instead say, “you know, I’m not sure about that” or “I don’t know the answer to that.”
  3. Then, go learn the answers, and explore possible solutions. If and when it’s applicable, compensate the person behind that knowledge. 
  4. Hand the mic to your staff who do know enough to be impactful. There is a misnomer in the nonprofit world that frontline, program, director level, and individual contributor employees do not possess the right knowledge set for certain meetings or to lead development updates with donors. I’d offer that the true barrier for the majority of those staff members is that budget choices and decision-making power is being withheld by the very people who … know enough to be dangerous.
  5. If you just can’t seem to break the habit of saying, “I know enough to be dangerous,” try these instead: “I know better than to insert my thoughts here. I’d like to ask my colleague to speak to this” or “I realize I’m out of my scope on this topic, and I don’t know the answer.” Even this option would be an incredible pivot: “I’m new to this organization and am soaking in everything I can. I don’t know the best next step, so I’d like to bring my team in to help and assist.”
  6. Share this lesson with others who need to hear it. Bonus points go to those of you who recognize this habit in yourselves and also bring others along in the journey. Keep your ears open for moments when you hear the phrase uttered by others. Call them in and help spread the ripples of responsibility!

To those who are on the receiving end of those words: help stem it.

If you are on the receiving end of the phrase, or on the other side of the video call screen when the phrase is spoken, what can you do at that moment?

Copy and paste this article link into the chat, of course!

If you feel you have a certain level of relationship with the leader-by-title, consider offering this response — in the moment, or at a later moment that feels aligned:

“If I might share some feedback? You just said: ‘I know enough to be dangerous.’ I’d like to offer that it’s a super loaded and damaging phrase that can often cause actual danger. I recently read an article that I’d love to share with you that offers some alternatives.”

If you’re sharing space (in person) when you hear this phrase, it can feel a bit more intimidating to address it at the moment. You also might feel uncomfortable sharing your thoughts due to your role, title, or position at the organization or the power dynamics at play.

In that case, know that I see you! Simply knowing you’re not the only one experiencing the impact of this phrase might be just enough support to simply keep your lips pressed firmly together as you choose not to respond with a half-hearted chuckle or a forced smile. 

I imagine a future where those in leadership roles regularly examine their behavior and actions, and practice radical and candid honesty about their own competence. I also can see a future of leadership that prioritizes shared power and opportunities to truly co-lead. I have a vision that we will say “remember back when folks used to use that phrase?” I hope for the day I can tuck the phrase “know enough to be dangerous” away in the file: Things they used to say.


Naomi smiling towards camera in front of a brick wall

Naomi Hattaway (she/her) is passionate about community building, diversity, and accessibility in online and physical spaces. Naomi serves in executive leadership at Front Porch Investments and led COVID-19 eviction prevention and rental assistance program, and Winter Plan non-congregate shelter efforts in Omaha, Nebraska. She serves on the Board of Directors for several nonprofits, and consults with organizations on communications strategies, inclusive program design, board effectiveness, and housing solutions. Naomi recently launched #LeavingWell consulting, a practice for individuals, organizations, and boards in periods of transition (providing org assets protection, purposeful knowledge transfers, stability for “The Stayers”, and support for those leaving). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter, and buy her a coffee if you enjoyed this article.

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