27 July 2008

The Danger of Excessive Competence

I am not generally opposed to competence. In fact, I am all for it -- I like competent people since they can get things done well without an undue amount of trouble for all concerned parties. The problem comes, then, when a competent person oversteps her bounds and begins to become supercompetent.

It happens slowly, of course. At first, it is just a too-eager response to a manager or supervisor when they are assigning her to a task. She comes dangerously close to being enthusiastic about work, which is a trait that the system should have been beaten out of her between the 6th and 8th grades. By the time she was in high school, she should have developed a well-pointed disdain for any sort of assignment given her by anyone in authority. Something along the lines of "Ohmygosh, I can't believe you're giving me WORK to do" or "Oh, how sweet, you still think you are in charge of me."

And yet, somehow, she has slipped through the system with a modicum of her work ethic intact. Who knows how or why -- perhaps she was homeschooled, or maybe she just spent too much time with the wrong crowd. There is no point in flinging accusations and recriminations at this point; the barn door was open, she got out, and nothing we can say now can backdate the shutting of said door.

The important part is that she has begun to ruin her own life and the lives of her co-workers. Again, this occurs gradually. Her bosses, gratified by her willingness (and capability) to actually do good work without being coerced or threatened, do not immediately take advantage of her. They praise her, promote her, coddle her for a little while.

Initially, her co-workers are cautiously approving. They rightly figure that if she is willing to work harder, be more conscientious, and do her tasks more thoroughly, the team will perform better without them having to actually change anything. This may mean more prestige or better bonuses, and they don't have to do a thing to gain it.

But they, like our hapless hypercompetent heroine, don't see the long-term dangers of the situation. First and foremost, management will soon build up an immunity to her current level of supercompetence. This, in turn, will necessitate increasingly higher levels of competence if she wishes to attain the same performance level.

Worse still, managerial expectations for other team members will also increase. Managers will realize, "Hey! Our employees may potentially have the ability to do things correctly the first time, thereby increasing productivity, efficiency, and overall performance! Perhaps we should expect everyone to be competent!" Which, of course, is a death knell for the rest of the team.

Not even the excessively competent one is immune from the negative effects of her actions. She is constantly asked to do more and more things as she demonstrates that she is capable of getting tasks done. Eventually, her Outlook inbox fills up, never to be emptied again. She may block off an entire afternoon, resolved that she is going to be caught up TODAY... but she can't stop the e-mails from coming, and she sure can't stop people from marking them "urgent."

Her fate, then, is somewhere between drowning and suffocation, as she slowly runs out of time and enthusiasm. And about the time that she loses the will to live, she is promoted to middle management, where the circle of life can be completed. It is a tragic fate, but also somehow appropriate, as are so many of the most heartrending sights in this world.


LQ said...

Heh... so, ah, how's working with your spouse going? ;)

luaphacim said...

Tee hee. This hypothetical person is, of course, fictional, silly LQ! :-) And I think I am liking it more than she is.