How to spot the chancers who are ‘winging it’ at work

We are bad at assessing others’ performance but true slackers will always slip up

‘This one is going to be pretty special,” teased the Australian reporter’s Instagram post. How right he was. Accompanying a television crew to interview Adele, the British pop star, he discovered too late that he had missed an email containing the preview of her new album, 30. Talking about the album was the entire reason for their encounter. “This is the most important email I have ever missed,” he said. The interview was binned.

The story emerged on the same day that UK prime minister Boris Johnson delivered a speech ostensibly about the UK creative industries to the CBI, the UK’s largest employers’ group. Instead, he lost his place in his notes – pleading “forgive me” – and swerved into talking about Peppa Pig. I’m no expert on public speaking but asking the audience for forgiveness might be an error.

As examples of winging it go, these were both spectacular fails, criticised for being unprofessional and disrespectful. We’ve all been at meetings, watched panels or seen speeches where participants are bluffing, having failed to do their homework. Some (many?) of us may even have been the bluffers.

Winging it has appeal. It’s a lot less work, for starters. And it can appear charming: making its practitioners human rather than robotic, fitting the business vogue for authenticity. A few people can genuinely pull it off.



However, beware the faux-wingers (FWs). Anyone who has been to school will be all too familiar with the person who rocks up to an exam claiming not to have done any revision, concealing the fact they studied hard. Falling for an FW’s spin is a mistake that might cause you to fall flat on your face.

One classic FW tool is spontaneity. It looks effortless but can be hard work. I called an FW friend I’ve known since university, where he would procrastinate by evaluating different types of biscuits. Today he is a senior barrister. Unsurprisingly, he’s left the biscuits behind, and prepares for cases with rehearsed arguments, strategy and detailed answers, reams of notes, including gags and analogies that appear to have been made on the spot, to keep the audience engaged. “You have to work harder if you want to riff,” he says.

Another friend prepares sports stars to go on television. He works with two sportspeople (frustratingly, he won’t name and shame) who have very different attitudes. One puts the work in and appears fluent and natural at press conferences, the other puts no effort in and clumsily and inaccurately tries to parrot the words he has been fed.

Chaos is Johnson’s schtick. The broadcaster Jeremy Vine once wrote an entertaining post about watching the prime minister prepare for an after-dinner speech by jotting a couple of random notes down just as he was about to go on stage and then forgetting half the joke. Only to see him do exactly the same thing – and the same speech – at another function. On many occasions, the prime minister would appear to be a classic FW.

No excuse

Those at the top of their professional game may be permitted some genuine winging, not needing as much prep because they are experienced. But as demonstrated by Johnson’s recent performance (which appears to be a case of genuine winging) and the Adele interviewer, there is no excuse for an experienced professional who fails to cover the basics.

It can be hard to tell the fake from the genuine winger. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, an organisational psychologist who has researched confidence, says we are not very good at assessing performance, either in ourselves or others. And, as he says, the more “inept you are, the less good you are at evaluating your performance”. (In other words, the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

One of the paradoxes of the modern world of work, Chamorro-Premuzic says, is that “the more complex, skilled, and well-paid your job is, the harder it is for others to tell if you are performing well or not”. In other words, greater complexity makes performance harder to judge.

Those who are overconfident often end up doing too little work: they might pull it off, but there is a strong chance they won’t successfully wing it. “Having less confidence can enhance performance as it means you prepare and study,” Chamorro-Premuzic points out. Which for all the worriers out there (like me) is a great comfort.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021