In Conspiracy or Incompetent

Over the years, I’ve led many investigations. A few looked at the workings of good stuff, but mostly they involved uncovering the chain of events that led up to something shit. Those were obviously formal and all about getting the facts and the context and the interactions and the expectations, out in the open. I’ve also done several less open favours for a few important people, which has even included following reprobates and taking pictures of them not doing, what they are supposed to be doing.

Don’t worry, if you’ve worked with me, you can be certain that I wasn’t sneakily investigating you, because if I was, you wouldn’t have seen me. All very clandestine, but in order to catch clandestine people, you got to go there, well at least a bit.

To say that I know a great deal about the various policies and the pertinent laws, is not a boast but an inevitability of many years of hard work – that only a few sponsors were ever aware of. Another inevitability is that one also learns a great deal about how those rules are broken by the sneaky, cheating, lying and proper horrible buggers who take advantage, of bad situations and good people. But after all these years, I remain bewildered by the inability of my sponsors to distinguish incompetence from conspiracy. Surely you can do that, after all the two things are very different:

Conspiracy: is a secret plan or agreement between conspirators, for an unlawful or harmful purpose, such as bullying or murder or corruption, especially motivated by personal protection, while keeping their agreement secret from the public or from the people affected by it.
Incompetence: "the set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable, and improve the efficiency or performance of a job, first articulated by R.W. White in 1959 as a concept for performance motivation": is the opposite, of that.

Trouble is, out of the theory and into the real world of organisations, the effects of Conspiracy and Incompetence, look remarkably similar. In my experience the vast majority of those in conspiracy are making accusations that somebody competent is not, to hide their own incompetence. Bullies in a work setting don’t tend to punch you in the face anymore. They’re usually shithouses who prefer to abuse their authority and are much more likely to be sneaking around in the background, with a knife or a policy. It can be quite hard to spot or even articulate what’s happening without sounding nuts or looking pathetic, but be under no illusion: the worst cases of organisational Gaslighting, have pushed innocent people into episodes of serious mental illness.

On the other hand, please don’t be too paranoid, as it’s more likely that your life is being made harder accidentally, by some bloody idiot, splashing down into the shitpit of incompetence.

Now let’s be fair, incompetent people often don’t know that’s what they are. It’s called the Peter Principle, whereby: if you toe the line without actually achieving anything – beyond that specifically required of you by the next one up in the hierarchy – you will be a fair bet for promotion into your maximum level of sustainable incompetence.

Conspirators are not like that, they know what they are doing is wrong and like to think they are some kind of espionage chessmaster; all very clever. Unfortunately, you can also be incompetent at conspiracy and not know it. And therein lies our problem in spotting the difference. To be good at conspiracy, first before all, you must have psychopathic tendencies, which are of course, usually hidden under a veil of regularly expressed acceptability. Then you gotta be Napoleonic, in strategising the interplay of untruths and deniability. No lies, because for every lie you need two more to keep it concealed and for every concealment, another conspirator.

It can quickly get out of hand and of course the more conspirators involved, the more likely that one of them is also incompetent, especially at keeping cats in bags. That phrase actually originates from selling expensive piglets in sacks, which the unscrupulous dealer would switch for a worthless cat. The more discerning customer would then, spotting the switch, let the cat out of the bag.

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, it is now just as easy to let the cat out of the bag with the simplest investigation, that the organisation will have to do for you! Most bullies and conspirators are so chuffed with their narcissistic power and cleverness, that they are careless, prattling on in all sorts of ways. Fortunately, we all now have recording devices in our pockets but much more importantly, everyone’s emails are never really deleted. In fact email is now the leading source of evidence in all sorts of incompetence and conspiracy cases. I’ve a suspicion that when this becomes better known, organisations will quickly lose their infatuation with email. Personally, I bloody hate email, but that’s for another equally sarcastic blog.

You can tell a great deal about an organisation by it’s email chatter, especially the sort circulated to everyone. Does your organisation update on the budget, democratise key decisions and promote opportunities for team development. Or is the CEO doing another video about themselves and Marjorie, doing another leaving card for someone that nobody likes. Or is it pizza day and happy clappy mindlessness class in the foyer?

Or worse, is your organisation full of really nice people called Chip, who’s job is to file emails sent to them by nice people called Kitty, who files emails sent to them by nice people called Chip …. Kitty will be holding her breath for charity and Chip declares undying love for the new corporate values (on a Reply to All), hashtag smiley face!

Human Remains…

That kind of organisation is a scary place, spending their time on smiley faces and almost completely ignoring the lived experience of their own people. It’s a big, Emperor’s New Clothes thing, when we start to notice being kept in the dark; behind a thin veneer of public relations; desperately attempting to present a reputation; that the organisation has long since departed from. After a while the various Directors start to believe their own hype and it’s a bloody shock when they are eventually brought to account. Typically in: an embarrassingly public display of incompetence.

If you research those exemplars who have fallen at the feet of the law, it’s typically some faceless Human Resources Director that is sent on gardening leave along with the CEO, never to emerge from the long grass. But it wasn’t HR, they were just openly abusing organisational policy and statutory employment law, to keep their job, by following the express orders of Peter the Psychopath. You would too!

Before any real Personnel people blow their well coiffured stack, I bet, that you were around before HR was invented. I used to have two marvellous Personnel Managers (no permission for names) but they were amazing. The first thing I knew about a vacancy was the impressive description of the ‘up and coming’ who got the job. There were no Union disputes, we didn’t move until we balanced that equation and their two very different personnel-ities were the very reason that it, got solved:

X Usefulness + X Kindness = X2 Happy Staff


At one point, my department had 0 – that is zero – vacancies out of 400wte. We had 0 – that is zero – formal policies underway and for several periods of almost 6 months, a 0 – that is zero – sickness rate. That is what a proper, qualified and dedicated pair of Personnel Managers can do for you. We actually had a list of people – who’d both expressed an interest in and were interviewed as appointable – already in the blocks, for the next half a dozen jobs that popped up. A personnel performance target that if you ever aimed for, you’d never hit.

The diagram above is an imaginary birds eye view of an organisation and a great game I play with people when teaching them the art of investigation – how many different social behaviours can you see? My Personnel Managers were brilliant at this, because it was their job. They understood the place, structure, experience, intelligence and culture of the organisation as an emergent property: of people’s individual purposes; their collective function; innumerate interactions; their longstanding relationships; and the synchronised movements of their heads and hearts and hands and feet.

There is hell of a lot of stuff in that last long sentence, but if you know organisations, you also know that most of how it works, we can’t quite articulate to anyone who doesn’t do it. Anyway, we shouldn’t have to:

“If you have to ask, you will never know. If you know, you need only ask Personnel.”


Both the best of JKs many cracking lines and the motto of a cracking Personnel Department. I know I’m an old goat but my Personnel Managers were there for the staff: to help them develop in both their Practice, the enemy of Incompetence; and their Wellbeing, the enemy of Conspiracy. But in recent years, the shift to HR has also come with an unnerving shift in focus; from helping the staff, to helping the managers.

In some organisations they are even called business partners or some other impersonnel insult that results in the nickname, Human Remains. Only well educated and experienced personnel people are able to keep the management in check, for their responsibilities to the staff, the organisation and the law. If they are now helping managers with whatever they want to do, who’s keeping them both in check?

So now, I may have confused you, in saying some complimentary and some irreverent things about HR. So in no uncertain terms, any HR operative who helps management to abuse both policy and staff should be struck off, never to work in personnel again. BUT and that’s a big but, when it comes to incompetence and conspiracy, a bloody good Personnel or even a HR Department, contains the only people capable of saving your organisation from descending into: an embarrassingly public display of incompetence.

A Gravity Vaccine…

I’m not referring to a vaccine against gravity, but an analogy that gravity acts like a vaccine. It’s slow and steady and invisible but the continuous pull means that unless you work harder and harder to maintain your conspiracy, you will eventually slip back into transparency. Unfortunately, gravity also acts on competence. In most fields of life and work, practice is a perishable skill. So unless you keep practicing your skills, expertise, insight, experience and principles, your competence will similarly slip back to incompetence. At this point, I’d better explain the header image.

Incompetent and Transparent:

I’ve taken into account the force of gravity on Conspiracy and Incompetence in twisting the axis, to illustrate the effect and to account for the fact that all shit sinks, eventually.

Please don’t assume that this is an analogy for intellectual superiority with clever stuff at the top, as everyone is incompetent at everything in the world, apart from the few things that they not shit at. This space is easy, the focus of concern is incompetence and it’s obvious, because it’s also transparent.

Not forgetting of course, that the novice Peter’s live here, so you’ll want to distinguish yourself from them, by picking the right direction to climb out of the shitpit. It’s surprising how many people get a dose of Imposter Syndrome as they climb out, but don’t fall for it, just cast an eye across the precipiss and make a note of the Peters climbing out the other side.

Competent and Transparent:

This is where you want to be. Obviously once you are competent, then total transparency is not needed or even helpful. You’re trusted to do stuff well and even add your own little twist of style.

As you gain mastery those without it, don’t understand how it works, even if you tell them. It’s like some of it is hidden, but that shouldn’t be confused with deliberately concealing it.

Plus I’ve worked with brilliant people who develop themselves and their practice almost in spite of their organisation, which is why the good things are often confined to the dark corners and nerdy edges of the organisational culture, not the standardised middle. And let’s be honest, most people at the top of hierarchies don’t like change, which is why Innovation requires a little deviousness in those dark corners. You can take risks and at the same time, protect yourself from those who’ve climbed up the other side.

Competent and In Conspiracy:

This is where the conspirators like to think they are. Super clever and super sneaky, which in and of itself is a sure sign of narcissism. Add a little nastiness or malignancy toward other people and you might even say psychopathic.

Sidney Reilly was an actual spy and said to be the muse for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This is where the real difficulty comes, because some secret plans can be good ones, despite them being at someone else’s expense. Outside of science fiction, this is really really rare and across an entire career, you’re unlikely to see the extreme versions of Competence and Conspiracy in action.

In fact, whether for the good of humanity or it’s subjugation, this extreme corner holds some of the most brilliant people but you don’t know who they are and never will. Many investigators seem to imagine this is what they are dealing with, but this is not the realm of investigation, but exploration and infiltration and possibly either Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist or a Nobel Prize Committee.

Incompetent and In Conspiracy:

This is the reason for the blog. This stuff always eventually comes undone, typically in an embarrassingly public display of incompetence. The conspirators are both not clever enough to beat gravity and too dull to learn . These are the Peters and arseholes of your organisation, interested only in maintaining the illusion that their personal contribution is worth considerably more than the other people, at the sharp end of their conspiracy.

The funniest one of these I ever found was an executive – with way too much power and little accountability – in league with an absolutely incompetent ‘business partner’. They left a trail of policy debris, like breadcrumbs of lies and misconduct, straight to his door. It didn’t end well for either of them, particularly as it was the target of their conspiracy, who called me in. Yes policy allows for you to investigate upwards, typically called Raising Concerns or Whistleblowing and it’s designed specifically for this corner of your organisation. Incompetent but powerless people can’t sustain conspiracies, only the powerful can do that. Psychological Safety my arse! Let’s talk about the real and present danger from these psychopaths.

One Way Out…

There is only one guaranteed way out of a Conspiracy that avoids the gravity of an embarrassingly public display of incompetence, especially for those involving an incompetent conspirator. You have to extend your Conspiracy to include the target.

Swallow your pride, get them in and make everything transparent with a massive apologetic hug. Transparency beats conspiracy every time, but then you need to apply a Restorative Justice sized reparation, that’s big enough to ensure that any ongoing shit is properly flushed. In public bodies for example, a judge will usually find against any organisation that actively escalates a dispute, when they could have settled before wasting public money in court.

At the moment in the UK we have a Public Interest Disclosure Act, but it’s got no teeth in terms of prevention and is usually settled out of court, rather than enacted inside it. But Gravity works here too, eventually. In many countries including the UK there is now a groundswell of support to Legislate for an Office of the Whistleblower. The powers are intended to not only protect employees right speak out, but also act as a punishing disincentive, against cover ups.

Why that sort of thing is needed is frankly disgusting. I’ve just been working through the umpteeth investigation report of my short career, describing some serious shit happening to people and the results and recommendations give me a sickening dose of déjà vu.

As an aside, being an ex-maternity manager, it’s never a surprise when the next Maternity scandal breaks and I think we’re about due a nasty one. Maternity is not like the rest of the Hospital, the standardised pathways, scientific management and budgetary prioritisation of your typical Leaderist ideology, all fall at the feet of the first fetus who could not read the plan. But most interestingly in Maternity, it seems that more and more staff are actively helping the families to expose their concerns.

It seems that this professional reaction, is now spreading to other parts of public services, not to expose incompetence, because mistakes do happen, but to expose conspiracy to hide the truth and punish staff who speak up. I think the tide is turning and @WB_UK is doing a great job.

“Those willing to speak up and stand up in the face of injustice and impropriety, are the single most effective drivers for improvement in any organisation and yet they are berated, instead of celebrated.”


Have you ever been given a new badge or job description, that has no resemblance to what you actually do? It’s a standardised insurance policy weighted toward the employer, who’ll never hold you to it, until they can make you a victim of it. The real trouble is when you are personally at the sharp end of a conspiracy, subject to the ignominy of catastrophic incompetence, it’s really hard to keep your chin up and maintain the self belief that you are the custard, not the shit. The central circle in the diagram.

But the truth is, that with good support from a Union or Professional Body or ideally a bloody good Personnel Department, there is a big difference between being incompetent and being in conspiracy, and they will help you to see it. The single biggest improvement in the management of any organisation, is when concerns arise, the HR department appoint a personnel manager to both sides of the dispute.

For some reason, at the moment, HR universally and brainlessly, stands behind the most senior person on the organogram, not the one, raising the concern. Honest, there are thousands of examples, all over the world of how stupid this policy is. Where are the HR managers, policing their own business, because until they do, it’s certainly never going to be distinct, from any other managerial bureaucracy.

The Two Clocks Principle…

A clock is very similar in it’s apparent precision, to the theoretical hierarchical structure on an organogram: as similarly the face bares little resemblance to how it’s organisation actually works around the back. Imagine a clock at half passed five and half past six, the picture in your mind is very similar, until you actually put the clocks side by side out in the open, transparently so to speak, for everyone to see.

We all are happy to cope with slightly vague descriptions of time in terms of the detail, the hour is fixed, but quarters and halves, will do for the little bits. To most investigators it’s the bits that matter most, as it’s quite common for the whole thing to rest upon a key connection or tiny piece of information akin to the minute hand, that when discovered, allows all the lines of inquiry to merge.

But this is not entirely true, the missing piece of the puzzle can be a big one akin to the hour hand, but you’re too close to see the wood from the trees. So in this situation, the best course of action – and counter to the typical organisational rules of investigation – when you’re faced with Conspiracy and Incompetence: is to open it all up to transparency and like two clocks, side by side, people will see the truth.

Unfortunately, not many inquiries do this, which is why upon reviewing a recent description of a pitiful, arduous and wholly self-injurious, slide into the shitpit of conspiracy and incompetence, I’ve chosen to share this salubrious bit of insight right now. As usual when I read a big report, I go Nerd Diving into the references, the data and the details and very quickly I spotted an ugly old clock, not pointing where it should.

I’ve only ever missed one reprobate and over the intervening years, I’ve got really annoyed imagining that they’d be up to the same bigoted, arrogant shithousery somewhere else. A classic ignorant, narcissist, who I’m sure was completely self-congratulatory after narrowly escaping a sudden dose of unwanted transparency. But Gravity has been kind and slowly gathered the shit left behind him over many years into a nice neat trail, the far end of which, was very pleased to receive my 600 page clock, to compare with.

I think I’ll give up the investigation lark, now that I’ve got a clean sheet. Oh and sorry to all the lovely Peters, who will ironically get the same advice for dealing with incompetence and conspiracy as everyone else… don’t take it personally.

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