Lazy Luddite Log

27.4.13

Incompetence In Context

It is many months since I discussed work here. Last time was a personal sharing of anecdotes. This time however I am discussing a theme that may well apply to many or even most workplaces. I draw on my own observations and conversations with friends over time. The issue I consider is incompetence within workplaces.

Words are descriptive but they also take on connotations, whether positive or negative. My impression from media and mass culture is that "incompetence" is almost as negative a term as "corruption". This has always struck me as odd. Is lack-of-skill almost as worthy of derision as is deliberate deception and manipulation for the sake of nepotism and personal aggrandisement? In the meritocracy that our political economy aspires to be possibly the answer is yes. However I now suspect that the former can produce the latter.

I meet some old Korner friends weekly to practice skills-of-craft and chat. One of our recurring topics of discussion is workplace interactions and we sometimes lament having to work with incompetent colleagues. It is very frustrating and makes work for the competent that bit more difficult. However I sometimes wonder how difficult it must be for those who are deemed incompetent. I have also come to the conclusion that most competence or incompetence is contextual.

Take someone who has the skills and experience for a particular job and insert them into a wholly new workplace. They will still need to become familiar with that exact job and how it fits into the wider human environment of that company. All the processes and procedures. All the exceptions to those processes and procedures. All the internal politics. All the history. Suddenly spending much of your week in a new setting with strangers who share with you nothing but the need for an income will only come naturally to some.

Orientation and training becomes vital for the new employee but frequently such a service will be limited. The existing employee charged with training the new one will usually still have work to do. Just how much will they effectively impart of what the newcomer needs? How many times will they answer questions or help with mistakes? And now I turn to the newcomer themselves - how many times will they ask questions or admit to mistakes?

I think it is a good practice to admit mistakes and ask for advice on how to rectify them. It helps a new worker to improve what they do. It also can prevent small mistakes from turning into bigger mistakes that resurface in a week. This is how I do things and such transparency is serving me well in my current role. However I get the impression that some behave differently.

Some feel that to keep a job and win the respect of others they must pretend they are better than they are. Or possibly they sense the frustration occasionally felt by those who supervise them and shrink from making the difficult admission now even if frustration will turn to anger later. So they let things pass. They hide things. If they are discovered they may try to transfer blame to others (preferably in a different department). Suddenly incompetence turns into corruption.

I would be in error if I suggested that the sole origin of corruption is incompetence. There are also greedy and self-serving desires. This is hardly surprising in a work context given that the primary motive for everyone to be there is economic. Add to this a competitive ethos that exists in much of our professional lives. Want to do well for yourself? Act bigger than you are. Blow your own trumpet. Scratch the backs of your back-slapping mates. Celebrate the go-getting self-starting 'guns'. This is a kind of meritocracy but only selects for particular skills of self-advancement.

This ethos I describe only possesses so many workers. There are still plenty who are focused simply on getting the job done. But they can only do so much. Can you get your job done and then help a newer worker get to the same level of workplace-specific competence as you? Or will that just detract from your own ability to do your job? A super-competent person may well manage both. A merely competent person will be inclined to take care of themselves. For many workers it becomes a case of sink or swim. And pretending to swim can postpone the sinking.

If we conceived of lack of competence as something that arises by inserting someone into a particular setting rather than as something intrinsic to a person then we may do better at addressing the problem. If we turned a negative into a merely descriptive term then we may draw it into the cold light of day rather than have it hide in the shadows. Allow incompetence to expose itself and as a bonus we may well eliminate a lot of petty corruption. But to do that we need to say mistakes are okay and that shortcomings are only human.

How can this happen? The 'guns' need to get over themselves and pay more attention to the nuts-and-bolts of work. The workers focused on getting the job done need to be more accepting of the sometimes frustrating newcomers. And the newcomers need to make a commitment to themselves to ask questions and admit mistakes.

It can be difficult to be so honest. It starts at the interview - if you present as a wonderful abstraction of yourself to Human Resources and this gets you the job then you may well feel locked into that same masquerade for the duration of the job. Whether the effort is worth it is something everyone has to decide for themselves. I prefer transparency.

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