In the business world, it is called “skilled incompetence.” By skillfully avoiding conflict, managers are destructive to an organization.  It’s their rhetorical skills that’s the problem. When a skilled communicator expresses his views in a way that avoids conflict, when his primary objective is not upsetting people, he may reduce conflict but his rhetorical skill produces policies based on ignorance. Good politicians are skilled communicators. A successful politician who is a skilled communicator is usually excellent at concealing problems. 

“Skilled incompetence is a hothouse for breeding mixed messages, which are in turn convenient for several levels of the organization,” writes Dr. Argyris, James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Graduate School of Business. “Managers say, ‘Be innovative and take risks, but be careful,’ but this translates to:  ‘Go, but only so far’ without specifying ‘how far.’  This ambiguity covers the exec who doesn’t want to state in advance what is ‘too far.’  The receivers may like ambiguous messages since they help cover their own shortcomings:  The department heads understand the mixed messages and avoid making discomforting requests for clarification.” 

Keeping the idea of skilled incompetence in mind, consider what the president said in his joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. President Obama said he wants to find a way to keep his campaign pledge to toughen labor and environmental standards — and told Harper so — but stressed that nothing must disrupt the free flow of trade between neighbors.

This is the classic mixed message delivered by a skilled communicator intent on avoiding conflict at the expense of clarifying issues. He’s telling Congress, trading partners, and U.S. companies that he wants to level the playing field between the United States and its trading partners, but then adds the caveat, that “nothing” must disrupt the free flow of trade between neighbors. The ambiguity about how far toward toughening labor and environmental standards he’s prepared to go (or for that matter who is a “neighbor”), protects the president from specifically offending Prime Minister Harper. It also sends the mixed message to Congress and the bureaucracy to create legislation and policy that imposes labor and environmental standards on our trading partners, but “go only so far.” They aren’t about to call him on it.

The president’s ambiguity provides cover for even more ambiguous legislation and policy. Lack of conflict may produce consensus, but it also produces policy based on ignorance. Issues aren’t aired. Information is concealed. Accountability is avoided. Skilled incompetence doesn’t solve problems; it only conceals them in a fog of consensus where no one really knows what it is that is being consented to.