The Drawbacks of 'Dipping Down'

I’ve met a lot of senior managers over the years, and I’m still surprised by how frequently I see people not adding value at the level where they’re paid to add value. That is (and to adopt a colloquialism), they’re frequently ‘dipping down’ to a point that is well and truly below their pay-grade. Like the CEO who is overly invested in the design details of the new furniture to grace a satellite office, or the General Manager who spends too much time in the department where she came from while learning very little about, and providing no leadership to, other departments in her remit. Like any people manager (and we’ve all been this person at some point) who, when receiving a piece of work from their staff that isn’t up to snuff, redoes it themselves, rather than taking the time to coach or manage the staff member through doing it to the required standard.

And, we’ve probably all been on the receiving end of this, too. You’ve consulted all the relevant people, done all the thinking, and are happily going about your project when wham! Suddenly someone more senior (with far less knowledge of the relevant details) has interjected themselves into what you’re doing, and starts sending it down a different path. *Cue much annoyance and let’s-get-a-meeting-room ranting with your work spouse*

So, why does this happen at all? I speculate there are a number of reasons, including:

  1. The comfort of competence: Very often people are promoted because they’re good at what they do. Except, a promotion doesn’t mean that you get to keepdoing what you’re good at - you’re actually expected to add value at a higher level, now. You need to learn how to do new things, like lead people or write business plans or think strategically, and learning new things often feels really challenging to our sense of competence (and, for some, to their sense of self-worth). Also, organisations often just don't provide any training in the more esoteric stuff that you need to know as you ascend the ladder, like systems thinking or strategic thinking or how to grow bucket loads of emotional intelligence in yourself and others. We over-prioritise ‘doing’, at the expense of ‘learning how to do well’. So, we revert to doing what we already know or like doing as a means of comforting ourselves.

  2. Fear of exposure: We still have this pretty obvious (and extraordinarily limited) societally-mandated version of success which sees many people blindly accepting promotions because they come with more money and perceived prestige, even though they are roles which the person will not be able to do well and which will make them feel self-conscious and miserable (and which will make everyone who works for them feel miserable, too). Like, for example, the kind of scenario that comes about when you put a ‘project person’ in a ‘business as usual’ role, or a technically competent but not people-oriented person in charge of a department. These situations are where we see the phrase ‘promoted to his level of incompetence’ lived out - one simply cannot (due to strengths, personality and or interests) do the role as well as it needs to be done. Once you know you’re not all that good at something, it becomes really hard to say that and to accept the consequences of it, such as a demotion… it might look like failure (rather than an unavoidable reality that requires no judgement), so you tend to try to hide it instead. The person in this situation will frequently find reasons to dip down or across as a means of trying to hide that poor role fit.

  3. Personal interest: When we’re in senior roles, we are often afforded the privilege of our opinion carrying more weight than those in less senior roles. That being so, and, being human, we let our preferences come to the fore on topics that matter to us personally but which have no relation to our role. Like, we’ll get really vocal about where the new office is located, or what colour the walls get painted, or how short term bonuses are calculated. These items are all part of someone else’sactual job description… you’re not paid to care about them (even though you might wish that you were).  

  4. Unmet expectations: People often dip down when they’re not getting the thing that they expected to get from someone. There can be multiple reasons why they’re not getting that expected thing, of course, including their own failure to communicate their expectations clearly, something in the process or a system being broken, or a staff member not being up to the required level of competence, etc. But how someone responds to that scenario is critically important - do you take the time to have the conversation and seek to understand why something occurred, or do you just bandaid the situation (thereby guaranteeing that it will occur again) by doing it yourself?

  5. Habit: This comes up a lot in really reactive environments that celebrate ‘fire fighting’ rather than the planned execution of the business’ priorities. There’s a sense of reward that comes from kicking things off the to do list, even if they’re not things that add real value. If you’ve gotten into a habit of fire fighting, it can be really hard to stop…. Most likely, you will have trained everyone else into involving you in those (so called) ‘urgent!’ things, and then feel as if you can’t escape doing them, or you’ll come to believe that you were always meant to be doing them.

The only person that dipping down isn’t painful for is the person doing the dipping. Everyone else involved is cringing or whinging about the intrusion, and you can see why: the ‘Dipee’, intentionally or otherwise, is essentially communicating to everyone involved:

  1. “I don’t trust you to do your job”; or

  2. “Something went wrong but I'm not having the conversation with you about what that thing was, so you can't fix it”; or

  3. “I don’t think I can (or, I don’t want to) do myjob”; or

  4. “I’m using my position to advance my self-interest”; or

  5. “I don’t have anything better to do”.

None of those things are particularly pleasant, or confidence inspiring, for anyone else to be faced with. In fact, they’re pretty demoralising options to consider. And when human beings get demoralised, disengagement (and the productivity loss that goes with it) is a short skip away.

No one consciously wants to demoralise or disengage people, so how do we prevent dipping down from happening?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Have a clear role description for everyrole in the organisation, that everyone can see: When roles are incompletely, or, not all, defined, then we can’t be held accountable for not meeting the requirements of them and we can’t be held accountable for our jaunts into other people’s role territory. Many people feel very adverse to the notion of their role description being made public, precisely for this reason - accountability for performance becomes a real thing. But! There are so many benefits to having role descriptions done completely and made available to everyone, including the following:

    1. Everyone is clear on what they’re meant to be doing, which means that they can actually do it;

    2. It becomes a lot easier to prevent under-performance, because the criteria for performance is actually articulated;

    3. You can see what is falling in between the gaps of certain roles or certain departments, and you either deem it Out Of Scope for the organisation or make express provision for how it will be dealt with going forward;

    4. The organisation is clear on how it fits together, which means it can then assess whether it is in the best configuration possible. And, in the event of a restructure, it becomes a lot easier to reconfigure, because the scope of the work that is being done is already articulated;

    5. Staff can find out who they need to talk to, quickly and easily, rather than wasting time trying to find the right person;

    6. It sets an amazing example of transparency and accountability, from the top down.

  2. Institute ‘safe words’ for calling out ‘dipping down’ behaviour: We have to remember that people’s intentions are generally good, and offensive behaviour is generally not intended… thus a gentle way of calling out that behaviour is required, which is where agreed ‘safe words’ are often excellent. I was once navigating a long distance relationship, and we realised that conversations about difficult topics only got more difficult when we attempted to have them over the phone, rather than waiting until we were together next. And thus, ‘Unicorn Party Time!’ was born as our go-to way for indicating “this conversation is getting too serious, and we need to revert to something light”. It was so ridiculous that it normally provoked a chuckle, and therefore it was able to achieve exactly what it was intended to achieve. For dipping down behaviour, I like the thought of “Dip It! Dip It Good!” (rather than “Whip It Good!”) as a safe word... (though this is probably because I could also execute a dance move with it).

  3. Help people to become self-aware: Seriously, greater self-awareness is a win for not only the person who has obtained it, but everyone else they then come into contact with. Give your staff access to strengths based testing, personality testing, learning style testing, communications style testing, what-they’re-motivated-by testing… all of this information helps people to understand the way they approach the world - their preferences, strengths and interests - which means they can make more sound decisions for themselves and be a lot clearer about where they will add the most value (and where they won’t).
  4. Train senior managers in the ‘soft’ or conceptual skills that the dream ‘super experienced’ candidate for the role would have: Very few people are born knowing how to get the best out of others. Very few people are born with a latent talent for understanding how things are connected and how they impact on each other - like how the work one department does will impact on another department, or how movement in the market is going to impact on the organisation as a whole. Many leaders were once specialists in a particular field, and they haven't been taught the skills of someone who needs to look at the whole (and not just part) of a business. Each level in the organisation should have a mandatory prescribed learning list that attaches to the job description, depending on that roles’ objective and span of influence in the organisation.

  5. Make ‘acting in’ positions normal: Stop doling out promotions as rewards for good performance, and give them to people who will be a genuinely good fit for the role. How could you know whether or not someone will be a good fit for a role? Well, in addition to the results of any self-awareness testing, by giving them a 1 year long opportunity to act in the role. If both parties already know that someone won’t be a good fit in a more senior role, then enable the seniority of the person to be recognised in their current role in other ways, without making them responsible for things that they won’t be able to, or will hate, doing. I remember when law firms brought in the ability for someone to become a special counsel, rather than a partner: adopting a special counsel role meant that lawyers who really loved the law could avoid the people management and business development obligations that came with partnership, while having their seniority recognised.

Any other thoughts on approaches to dipping down?

It takes a lot of discipline to stay in the space where you’re paid to add value, and to say no to getting involved in things that are meant to be handled by others. But the rewards are there - you free other people up to develop their skills and fully inhabit their roles, while you do the same in yours. As my friend Tim said rather recently, “At the end of the day, it’s down to leadership (as it so often is)”... and that's very true. May your leadership in this area be ongoingly strong.