Incompetence

The other day was, as one children’s book puts it, “an awful, no-good, horrible, very bad day.”  Well… it wasn’t THAT bad, by any measure, but it was incredibly frustrating.  I discovered that a document required by a government agency, a document that had been sent twice, had apparently been lost or misplaced twice  — which required sending it once again. I also discovered that the manuscript that I’d sent to my editor by UPS two-day air had not arrived, and had been sitting for almost two days in Salt Lake, and when I tried to follow-up, no one knew where it was.  Now, I’d sent the manuscript by two-day air, at his request, so that he could get it and read it during his travels. Another day passed, and UPS finally located it in Des Moines, and I was assured it would be only a day late [which was too late for my editor, meaning a three-week delay before he could read it]… Another day passed, and the manuscript finally reached Philadelphia.  It finally reached New York and the Tor offices five days after being sent as a two-day air shipment.

Both the government and UPS are large institutions, and I think the thing that bothers me about institutional incompetence is that, in essence, no one is accountable.  If I screw up as an author, there’s no doubt that I screwed up.  I can’t blame anything but the price and the package on anyone else, and, in the interests of full disclosure, I will point out that, with the advent of electronic publishing, the vast majority of typos are my fault.  The editors and I both try to catch them, but I made them, not my editors.

The other problem with institutional incompetence is that too many of the “solutions” simply don’t work very well, particularly those which attempt to reward good employees and not less competent ones.  In every institutional, educational, and government or corporate setting in which I’ve worked, and in every one for which I did consulting work, the one thing that was common to all was that the highest rated employees were the ones who knew how to work the system.  Some of them were also quite good at their work as well, but there were many who were far less competent than lower-rated employees who were not as politically skilled, and many incompetent employees managed to keep jobs they screwed up through their political skills.  Yet, as time and experience have shown, reliance on purely “subjective” standards results in massive discrimination and even more corruption, not to mention unbridled nepotism.

Why does this happen even with laws dealing with the matter?  Because the law demands that procedures be “fair,” i.e., not only applied equitably to all employees, but also that employees be judged on objective and measurable standards.  One of the big problems there is that subjective standards are often more accurate.  I’ve watched organizations be torn apart by gossip and back-biting, by underhanded use of accurate information to misinform and to undermine the performance of others, who then appear incompetent, and sometimes do incompetent acts because of such misinformation. Individuals who engage in this kind of manipulative and unscrupulous behavior are usually skilled enough in doing it that they never violate any objective standard.  Thus, the most a supervisor can do is refuse to promote them, and that can be tricky as well, both legally and in practice.  I’ve seen individuals promoted just so that a supervisor could get rid of them.

Do I have any real and workable answers?  Not really, because, like it or not, a certain measure of incompetence is inevitable in any large structure… and that’s why I, and others, have late packages and must sometimes submit forms time and again.

2 thoughts on “Incompetence”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    One of the things I attempt to do is give written feedback when something goes badly wrong or spectacularly well….
    or if I just get the serious run around (for example, a very frustrating three days with the IRS).

    Not only do I state what the issue was, I also supply time/date and name (or employee # in the case of the IRS). THen I also suggest a solution: otherwise, I consider it whining.

    It is rare that I do not get some sort of written reply. The government is almost uniformly a form letter. Private business is often something more ‘free form.’ Does it change anything? I don’t know. Perhaps I am deluding myself when I think that these letters (1-3/year) make a difference.

    The business exception is Wal-Mart. I no longer shop at Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club unless I absolutely cannot get what I am looking for at any other place… even to the point of spending 2-3 times what I might spend at Wal-Mart.

  2. Steve Newton says:

    I have been arguing for a long time that what big corporations and large government entities share in common is that they are “big” organizations, and that such organizations are inherently filled with what you are characterizing as incompetence. Your argument about objectivity vs subjectivity makes a lot of sense to me–my university just spent two years carefully crafting a sexual misconduct policy that does potential sexual predators the favor of eliminating almost all the subjectivity from the subject, and therefore tells them exactly what they have to work around.

    But I think this is but subset of the fact that US Army psychological studies after WW2 suggested that the optimum task-oriented group is much much smaller than we think it is. Few if any larger overriding goals (be they patriotism, or profit, or quality) can bind together too large a group of people, and they will almost inevitably splinter into smaller internal groups with their own self-generated goals that are often at odds with the larger goal to which they pay lip service.

    The most functional organizations appear to recognize this and promote the setting of far more individualize goals among their sub-groups (in reality rather than simply rhetoric) in order to harness this dynamic rather than suffer from it.

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