The Presumption of Competence

Once upon a time, when students or employees performed competently, they got a grade or their paycheck. If the work happened to be competent, in the case of the student the grade, depending on how many years ago this took place, was either a “C” or a “B.” For the employee, the paycheck didn’t change with competent work. That was what was expected for competent performance.

In recent years, however, students and younger employees alike seem to want more than mere acceptance of competence. College students’ evaluations of teachers are filled with comments with phrases like “didn’t make me feel special” or “expected too much” or “failed to encourage student self-esteem.” In addition, most students seem to think that showing up and presenting merely competent work merits an “A.” An ever-increasing number often fail even to buy and read the required textbooks for their classes. And yet there is still a continuing grade inflation in both high school and in college. In many areas of study, such as in English literature and writing, in general, students know less and write far less capably than did their predecessors. Fewer and fewer business students have any innate sense of estimation, and more and more seem lost without computers and calculators. Part of this is the result of a greater percentage of the student population going on to college, many of them falsely encouraged by too much cheerleading, too little emphasis on competence, and a society that tends to punish teachers who insist on excellence and the mastery of basic skills.

We’ve seen the same thing in the financial community, where so-called excellent performance — that later turned out to be even less than competent — was rewarded with bonuses ranging from the hundreds of thousands of dollars into the millions. The last time I checked, the minimum salary for a professional NFL player was something like $400,000. A recent study just cited in the Wall Street Journal made the observation that, given the structure and requirements of most large public corporations: (1) few CEOs were truly excellent; (2) excellent CEOs could make a slight positive difference greater than merely competent CEOs in a comparative handful of instances; (3) merely competent CEOs were adequate for the job in the majority of cases; and (4) even terrible CEOs took a while to destroy a company, except in a few exceptional cases. Yet corporate boards all presume that their CEO is excellent, and that is seldom the case.

From what I can see, fewer and fewer Americans, especially the younger ones, seem to understand the concept that every job requires basic competence and the fact that doing a job competently shouldn’t have to result in cheerleading, bonuses, and constant positive feedback — and continual promotions. Then again, if that’s what it takes to motivate someone to do a job, maybe that’s not what he or she should be doing. Rather than trying to bribe people like that, maybe their superiors should just fire them. As for the students, a lot more Bs, Cs, or even Fs wouldn’t hurt either.