Competence is often considered a rare commodity. People are constantly seeking it, surprised when they discover it, and if Facebook is any judge, enjoy watching it. Years ago my wife Diane and I went to a popular restaurant in Florida where you often had to stand in line. The wait, however, always seemed enjoyable because while waiting you could watch a gentleman expertly making cinnamon buns. I was especially impressed by the way he sliced the dough into perfect rolls every time. It was competence of a high order.

In the beginning of the 1990 Christmas comedy “Home Alone,” 8-year-old Kevin McCallister is struggling to pack his suitcase. Unsurprisingly his older siblings are less than supportive. His brother Buzz threatens to feed him to his tarantula, his sister Megan calls him “helpless,” and his other sister Linnie says, “You know, Kevin, you’re what the French call ‘les incompetents.’ Kevin, of course, eventually more than proves his competence by routing a couple of burglars after being left home alone.

If competence is rare, incompetence is unfortunately plentiful. I once worked at a mental health center where some anonymous employees wrote and circulated a parody of the workplace. In it they called the center a place where “evil and incompetence vied for superiority.” Along similar lines, there’s a saying called “Hanlon’s razor” which states, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”

The term “competence” usually refers to the ability to perform some task effectively. For example, professional competence refers to the specialized knowledge, skills and abilities required in order to work in some occupation. Many professions have associations that establish standards relating to competence. Members must remain competent in their field in order to practice ethically. They accomplish this by staying up-to-date on the literature and practices and documenting participation in continuing education activities.

Business guru Warren Buffett says, “Everybody’s got a different circle of competence. The important thing is not how big the circle is. The important thing is staying inside the circle.” There are a number of types of competence. Cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and relate to people from different cultures. Social competence consists of having the social, emotional, cognitive and behavioral skills to successfully perform required social roles, such as employee, spouse, parent, student, etc.

Moral competence is the ability to perform philanthropic behaviors and to rationally evaluate moral issues. According to the Legal Dictionary, competence refers to “the capacity to comprehend the nature of a transaction and to assume legal responsibility for one’s actions.”

People admire, covet and often misjudge competence both in themselves and in others. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a psychological phenomena that occurs when people with very little competence in a given area significantly overestimate their own abilities in that field, while highly competent people do the opposite and underestimate their abilities. People who are especially bad at some task often believe they are much better at it than they really are, while people who are very good often believe that they are worse at it than they really are. According to psychologist David Dunning from the University of Michigan, this occurs because people who overestimate their competence have little awareness of what they don’t know and thus don’t perceived it as deficit.

This phenomena is embedded in common culture in sayings such as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” A number of well-known catastrophes have been associated with an overestimation of competence, such as Chernobyl, the Titanic, the Space Shuttle disasters and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Recent research suggests that most people have a difficult time accurately estimating their abilities, regardless of their level of competence.

Overestimation of competence is also related to the tendency of people to consistently rate themselves as above average. For example, 93% of drivers say their driving skills are above average. Around the same percentage estimate that the number of friends they have, the quality of their relationships, and their academic ability and intelligence all are above average. This is sometimes referred to as the “Lake Woebegone Phenomena” after Garrison Keillor’s description of his hometown as being a place “where all the children are above average.”

In 1969 Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter published a book, “The Peter Principle,” describing how organizations become dysfunctional over time. This is one of the classic works on competence in organizations. Peter’s basic premise (known as the Peter Principle) is that people rise in organizations to their level of incompetence. At that point, when their incompetence is recognized, they stop getting promoted. Eventually all of the positions in the organization are occupied by people who are basically unable to do their jobs. These employees remain indefinitely stuck at this “Final Placement” or “Peter’s Plateau.” Peter wasn’t the first to advance this notion. In 1910 Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset proposed that “All public employees should be demoted to their immediately lower level...” as a way to counteract this propensity.

Peter intended for his book to be a satire of bureaucracies, but over time researchers have taken it seriously. The financial crash of 2008 encouraged additional research and in a 2018 study, researchers examined over 1,553 promotions of sales staff in U.S. companies. Typically the best salespeople were promoted to supervisory positions. Kelly Shue from Yale University said, “…to figure out if someone is a good manager, we basically looked at the extent to which they improve or change the performance of their subordinates.” Shue and her colleagues found that low-performing sales workers who were promoted were actually better at increasing their team’s sales than high-performing sales workers who had been promoted. This is not very surprising, since the skill sets for making sales and those for supervising workers are entirely different.

Peter mentions this phenomena in his book when talking about educational organizations. Shue agrees, saying, “The best researcher or the person who’s best at teaching may not be the best dean of a school.” I’ve noticed this over the time I have worked in the field of mental health. Occasionally an excellent psychotherapist will be promoted and turn into a terrible manager. Sometimes they end up trying to “therapize” their staff instead of supervising them.

Many employees, however, find it comforting to have a supervisor who knows the employee’s job and was good at it. It certainly helps, however, if the newly promoted supervisor is able to effectively coach subordinates. Amanda Goodall from the Cass Business School found that some companies now conduct two kinds of appraisals. One is the typical performance review, while the other is a management potential review, which assesses specific supervisory skills.

I agree with H. L. Mencken, who wrote, “The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field…” — including suitcase packing and cinnamon rolls.

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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