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On the Perils of Competency

We all know one. A person who’s just good at everything. They’re good at math, at sports, at cooking, at making friends, at public speaking, at writing, at making doll houses and travel plans. The list never seems to end. (Not to be confused with the person who will freely tell you how good they are at everything, but are mainly good at telling you how great they are. ) The super competent person is usually humble. They know they can do a lot of things, but they recognize that there are others who are more talented.

Most organizations have individuals who are multi-competent. The person who can build a handy spreadsheet for others to use when performing a routine – but complex – calculation. That person who can step in as support during a sales pitch. (They may not be the flashiest presenter, but they provide an aura of expertise and stability.) That person who knows how to get a dancing balloon man for a party, and submit an RFP, all while handling a delicate personnel matter.

If you are an organizational leader, you will be tempted to engage the multi-competent person in an abundance of situations.

For example

  • The Divisional Director of Information Technology picks up the weekly snacks and decorates the office at the holidays.
  • The Controller who personally corrects discrepancies on every Manager’s timesheet.
  • The ace sales rep who writes the company’s weekly blog.

Let’s just point out why this is a bad idea.

An uber-competent person can provide cover for many incompetent people. You will not be surprised to learn that there are many individuals who do not want to perform routine and complex tasks and have zero interest in either just getting through it or figuring out a more efficient way to accomplish it.

Let’s say a manager asks the multi-competent “Chris” to train a new employee, “Pat”, on the preparation of the Weekly Net Usage Reports. Chris does so, creates some shortcuts, detailed instructions, routinely checks Pat’s work while training, and eventually hands off the task to Pat.

But Pat hates preparing the Weekly Net Usage Reports. They are not only boring, they are also hard. Pat loses focus, makes a lot of mistakes, claims to the manager that the system doesn’t work, and there’s no way the reports can be done in the time allowed. The manager says, “Well, Chris can obviously do them, so it’s not impossible, and we can’t have these mistakes, so the manager gives the task to Chris.

You see what’s happening here. Chris is now spending time doing an entry level task, at a pay rate that is well above the difficulty of the task. And Pat is still on staff, perhaps asked to work on tasks that are less demanding, or, even worse, allowed to surf the internet for half of the day. Organizationally, it is important to make sure that the cost of time matches the complexity of the task performed.

In most cases, a multi-competent person has been multi-competent for quite some time. They didn’t instantly become a jack of all trades when they walked into your office. But many super competent people have difficulty saying “no.” It is satisfying to be needed and feel accomplished. But just because you are good at doing something doesn’t mean that’s what you should be doing.

The risks

An organization runs a risk by requiring a competent employee to do a kitchen-sink list of tasks, just because they’re capable of doing it. Every job involves some disagreeable tasks, but if every task is disagreeable and blocks off channels for advancement, the organization may lose that employee.

Further, by permitting the Pat to escape a challenging task, the organization does Pat no favors either. Pat is bored, underemployed, and setting a bad example for everyone else. Pat’s career is stalled as well, as it’s clear the organization has effectively given up on making Pat a valued employee.

By allowing Chris to do so many things, the organization has rendered Chris both indispensable and stymied. Management definitely doesn’t want to lose Chris, but they are missing the opportunity to allow Chris to do things that could legitimately move the organization forward. There is also the question of how to replace Chris. It’s going to take a lot longer than it should — now that Chris has become a bucket into which a pile of wildly diverse and random tasks are tossed.

If you’re a Chris, it may seem like being a swiss army knife is never dull and provides job security. But long-run it keeps you from developing true expertise. You will have to continually draw boundaries — always focusing on the cost to the organization, not on your own personal goals.

If you’re a manager in an organization that employs several super-competent individuals, recognize it, but don’t let it run amuck. Channel their abilities into something that pays off for the organization, and for them. And when a Pat tells you, “I can’t,” don’t concede. Ask them to try again.