Don't stay in your lane

How "trained incapacity" could be damaging your career

Don't stay in your lane. Avoid tunnel vision and broaden your sights to increase your impact
How "trained incapacity" could be damaging your career
Illustration: Zenzen (Shutterstock)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s an onboarding technique job switchers are no stranger to—seeking out a peer with seniority and asking for keys to success in this uncertain setting. Maybe you’ve offered that advice to a new hire, or maybe you’ve been the one asked for tips. Perhaps they suggested you ask a lot of questions. Or to stay flexible because things change a lot around here.

But among the pieces of advice, a dangerous one persists: stay in your lane.

When we work to grow our career, we have a choice to be a generalist or an expert. The generalist is useful for many functions, while the expert usually dives deep into one domain. When you hone one skill set and ignore everything outside your area of expertise, you can indeed achieve mastery. But the cost is often a limitation in problem-solving called trained incapacity, which prevents individuals, teams, and entire organizations from being agile.

What is “trained incapacity,” and how it happens to you

The term trained incapacity, initially coined in 1914 by Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, describes what happens when employees—either through education or habitual practice—develop an affinity for what they know and an inability to see beyond it.

Trained incapacity comes with a desire to find a way forward but a narrowed vision of how.

Maybe you’ve always relied on your COO, a seasoned logistician, to get your product out the door. But when the pandemic impacted the transportation sector, all their suggested solutions only involved methods or vendors to transport the same product. They failed to see how they could convert tangible products into digital offerings.

Consider a CEO who’s been growing a company quite well using a finely tuned system for the last few decades. But when the market changes, she can’t see a path to growth beyond how the company has always done things.

In both cases, these leaders’ abilities became a disability. Think of Blockbuster Video not converting to digital and Nokia failing to shift to a market that needed more from their phones—the impact can be dire.

How companies create problems with productivity

Trained incapacity can also result from doing things the same way for a long time. When we have limited autonomy at work or are encouraged through social norms or explicit direction to excel in highly specialized roles, we get rewarded for our narrow expertise. Our brain’s reward networks make it more likely that we’ll continue to build these specialized skills because it feels good when we do. That works until we’re presented with a problem, and our solutions are limited. Unfortunately, this fixed mindset is rampant in many companies and inhibits our ability to think creatively when the problem no longer fits the solution we know.

Sometimes, even a siloed work process can isolate you so much that you develop tunnel vision, with no need or ability to see what’s happening in your periphery. This phenomenon is notorious in bureaucratic organizations and quite common in academia, where specialized researchers may not know of work in adjacent fields. This may work in some fields and roles, but when the task or environment looks different, or innovation and change are critical, experts can be hindered by their expertise.

At an organizational level, trained incapacity may emerge from a lack of psychological safety—the shared belief that people will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. If psychological safety is low, people can be unintentionally rewarded for staying in their lane. This can lead to burnout, toxic cultures, and avoidable accidents.

How to diversify your talents and avoid tunnel vision

If stay in your lane sounds familiar, it may be time to increase the psychological safety of your organization. One way to do that is through situational humility—a relentless self-reflection about what you don’t know, which can lead to feeling good about being a do-not-knower. This reappraisal tool is part of a growth mindset. It allows your brain to see a challenge as an opportunity to learn –creating a positive alignment between confidence in what you know and humility in knowing there’s more to learn. It puts your brain in a toward state, eager to share what you don’t know more often.

When we create that mental shift from holding on to only what we know well to wanting to learn what others know well, we demonstrate the skill of curiosity. Although a loss of certainty about our environment can trigger a sense of threat, curiosity motivates us to explore novel environments and engage brain areas of reward, learning, and goal valuation. The more we’re enabled to be curious, the less of an impact uncertainty has. This action brings learning opportunities into focus, priming us to see them.

Moreover, when you use curiosity to increase agility, you’re more likely to engage the “why” network in your brain, which drives the motivation needed for a new behavior to become a habit. Activating this part of your brain will increase the rewards you feel for finding new learning opportunities outside your skill set and make this behavior something you actively want to do—which, in turn, will make you better at it.

Consider how much more agile that COO or CEO would be if, when faced with a new problem, they consulted a person that recently came from a different industry or another organization. The pool of information available would become much larger.

So the next time someone tells you to stay in your lane, help them shed trained incapacity and see the pool a little differently. Remove those swim lanes in favor of a psychologically safe pool of ideas. And when someone inevitably enters your lane, be curious about what led them there and what they brought with them. It’s time for psychological safety, the ultimate open swim.

Joy VerPlanck leads New IP Development at the NeuroLeadership Institute, a consultancy that uses neuroscience to help make organizations more human.