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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Times Playing Dumb at Work Can Actually Advance Your Career

I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a terrible idea. In a setting where your goal is to show how capable you are, why would you ever want to downplay your brilliance?

Because it can help you navigate challenging situations—and actually preserve your shining reputation. If you’re looking to push back against the status quo, build inroads with an angry client or co-worker, diplomatically disagree with someone, or stay out of office politics, playing dumb (OK, confused) is the way to go. Read on to learn how it works.

1. If You See an Area for Improvement

I’ve written before on the power of “I’m new here.” As a newbie, your first couple of weeks on the job are the perfect time to mention that something brand new—and (coincidentally, wink) inefficient—doesn’t quite make sense to you. Your unfamiliarity is an in to discuss other ways you’ve seen similar tasks accomplished, as well as parts of the process that seem counterintuitive.

While you can’t play that card once you’ve been somewhere for months or years, you can always ask for more information. In other words, if your boss doesn’t usually take too kindly to, “Let’s change this,” skip that approach. Instead try, “In our next meeting, could you walk me through the thinking behind [a certain process]? It would help me [sell our product/work collaboratively/train someone new] if I had a better understanding of the [context/details].”

You’ve tied learning more to doing your job better, so it’s likely your boss will oblige. Then, when you are discussing the particulars of how a certain process works, ask the occasional, “Have we considered [this innovation]?”

Another possible outcome: Once your boss walks you through the details, maybe you’ll understand the why and no longer see the need to make improvements.

2. If You’re Dealing With a Difficult Person

Feigning naiveté is also a great way to approach difficult personalities. Let’s say you’re told that a certain colleague or stakeholder is known for being abrasive. You could go into your first meeting with this person planning to be especially patronizing (or confrontational), or you could pretend that you had never heard he was difficult. When a co-worker says, “Oh, well you know George is the worst,” you respond, “Really? I hadn’t heard that.” Then you enter the meeting truly acting like you’ve never heard that before.

Now, who do think is more likely to build inroads with George?

This approach is good for other common workplace annoyances. With the co-worker who takes credit for your work, you can try, “I had no idea we were on the exact same page about X. Great minds think alike!” With the manager who always assigns you projects on Friday at 4 PM, you can try, “I looked back through my project list and couldn’t find this anywhere. Did I miss something during our check-in?”

These responses allow you to address the situation without being confrontational. Ironically, the subtext of these lines is, “I know exactly what’s going on here,” and that can make the difference in how these people treat you in the future.

3. If You Disagree

Picture this: A teammate—or worse, your boss—suggests the worst idea you’ve ever heard. “That’s a terrible idea” isn’t going to win you any congeniality awards, and it will probably make the other person defensive.

If there are red flags jumping out at you, odds are they may be in your colleague’s blind spot (or, the overwhelming benefits aren’t yet clear to you). So, before you launch into a counter-attack, ask for clarification.

Try: “I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re saying. Could you explain it differently?” Asking someone to explain her point in a new way should bring additional information to light. Of course, she’ll be more likely to walk through her thinking if you choose the non-confrontational, “I’m not sure I get it…” over the arrogant: “I’m not sure I understand how this would work, given these five things I’ve already considered as well as their possible repercussions.”

4. If You’re Trying to Avoid Office Politics

Repeat after me: “I must’ve missed that.” Now, imagine a co-worker stops by your cubicle to ask your opinion on nasty words exchanged in a meeting, someone being passed over for a project, or some other salacious news.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who can craft a diplomatic response on the spot (in which case, rock on!). But for the rest of us, the best bet is often not to get involved. And if you go with “no comment” or “I’d rather not that discuss that,” you may be seen as stiff or judgmental. With, “I must have missed that,” you manage to remove yourself without taking sides.

Some people think the office is the place to be all power, all brilliance, all the time. And while you should strive to make a powerful and brilliant impression, an occasional question or clarification won’t discount your abilities—but it may help you squeeze through a tricky situation with your reputation intact.

Photo of confused woman courtesy of Shutterstock.