Sociologists classify the population in a society in various ways, including by income level, class, or education level. But I’d like to suggest another system of classification, by competence. Over the years, I’ve observed that only a small percentage of individuals are highly competent in their field, followed by a larger percentage that are moderately competent, with the next grouping being marginally competent, followed by those who are incompetent, and, finally, those who are actively and dangerously incompetent.

While such a classification might be idealistically pleasing, in practice, it’s impossible to implement. Where does one place the brilliant surgeon who is incompetent in human relations? Or the politician who is extraordinary in gathering votes, and a total disaster in governing? And why is it that so many people are a mixture of various levels of competences in different areas?

One of the problems that humans have is that all too many people who are very successful, and competent, in one area think they’re equally competent in everything, that they are, quoting someone known to all, “stable geniuses” in everything. There are people like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin who excel in more than one field, but even Jefferson was totally incompetent in managing his money.

Add to that the fact that studies have shown, time after time, that people overestimate their own competence, and what’s worse is that, in general, the less competent people are, the more likely they are to overestimate their competence.

I think I’m pretty well-rounded, but no one should ever let me mess with the inside of any engine, or any form of plumbing besides, possibly, the inside of a toilet tank. Nor do I know squat about computer coding, but at least time has made it clear to me that I have definite limitations. Yet we’ve all seen doctors and scientists who are competent, if not excellent, in their fields, carry that assumption of excellence to fields where they know far less, usually with poor results.

Then, there are the people who are incompetent because they really don’t care, like the medical technicians who lose messages or scramble records, the bank employees who take forever to process simple deposits, the education administrators who are more interested in test results and appearances than actual student accomplishment, the tree surgeons who never show up for appointments, the supervisors who change long-scheduled assignments or meetings for their convenience, thereby disrupting dozens of other professionals’ schedules and work… (and that list is far too long for a blog).

There are also those who suffer spells of drastic incompetence because they don’t pay attention to what they’re supposed to be doing, like the driver who was texting and drove into a transformer box and knocked out power for a third of the university, or the hundreds of driving texters who have killed or injured others, the train engineer who lost track of where his train was and entered a curve at too high a speed,

The other problem with competence, or lack thereof, is that we live in a fairly high-tech society, and technology magnifies everything, including incompetence. That’s one of the reasons why automobiles have ever more sophisticated safety-features. You can mess up enough to kill yourself in mishandling a horse, but it takes great effort to do more than that. On the other hand, a single small mistake at high-speed in a modern SUV can wipe out all your passengers, several other vehicles and block an interstate for hours, causing all sorts of subsidiary accidents and additional injuries.

All of which suggests that we’re doomed to endure incompetence in various forms, including our own

10 thoughts on “Incompetence”

  1. Postagoras says:

    I think that American Capitalism, while very efficient, has a problem- it can’t account for maturity, which is essential for an over-all competent person.

    Capitalism often values people for one narrow kind of intelligence they have. It’s easy to measure the “worth” of a computer programmer or mechanic or doctor.

    It’s much harder to measure the capitalist “worth” of wisdom and maturity. These qualities can help a business, but they can also cause people to question the single-minded focus on the bottom line.

  2. Tim says:

    As someone who is actually in the computer field, you should know that one of the emerging trends in the field is that we are actively and deliberately building in failure now, with the idea that our systems have now grown too complex to actually “run” and so we build “anti-fragility” as opposed to durability. We want our systems to fail (and recover) early and often. Because that’s what is going to happen.

    A good example is the technical concept Netflix’s “simian army.” It is effectively a system that deliberately causes failures specifically so that the recovery mechanisms can be tested. And in the real world, there have been many instances where netflix was the only service to survive a major outage where all other cloud based services were crippled.

    I guess all this by way of saying that while I agree with most of your post, I see a lot of hope and a system that is actively trying to incorporate and address your concerns.

    1. Tom says:

      ” … our systems have now grown too complex to actually “run” and so we build “anti-fragility” as opposed to durability.”

      The competence post addresses why we need to “improve” humans so that competence/quality is considered a desirable goal. We should continue to develop machines to do the drudgery work and complex calculations that only a few humans can achieve via serendipity.

      Government is a real world example of a system grown too complex to actually “run”. The sooner we have the machine capacity and the necessary programs to identify the “fragilities” of policies and bills before they are passed the better. This then may give us a chance at professional politicians (those who mediate the differences and resolve problems for a given period of time) taking the helm of society.

      Keep up the good work, but make it so before releasing the “update”.

  3. Tim says:

    This is an example of what I am talking about, and you might be entertained by the chosen name. I’m only half kidding when I say I use your work professionally every day.

  4. Dave says:

    Ever hear of the Peter Principle, that a person rises to the level of their incompetence?

    1. I’m quite familiar with it, in business, in politics, and in the military.

      1. Tim (UK version) says:

        The worrying thing is that I may have thought this about those above me, I wonder what those below me thought 🙂

  5. Kevin says:

    To achieve competence in a given field seems to require motivation + skills + experience + knowledge. Anyone has to have “enough” of all of those attributes in a given field to be competent.

    Motivation is perhaps the most transferable between fields. Someone driven to be the “best” in one thing, likely is equally driven for something else. However, knowledge seems to be least transferable – someone can know all there is to know about calculating the load on a bridge truss (Mechanical Engineering) but know nothing about calculating the output of a bridge rectifier (Electrical Engineering).

    One thing I have always found interesting is that often it is assumed that with competence in a field, leadership automatically comes with it. To me, both leadership and followership are separate and distinct fields that people become competent in, requiring motivation, skills, experience and knowledge.

    The more capable a person is, the more fields they may be competent in. There is a limit – a person can only know so much, so no one can be competent in everything. Perhaps the dangerous levels of incompetence you refer to are when someone assumes competence (rather than specific attributes) is transferable between fields – it isn’t.

    1. Tim (UK) says:

      You raise a very good point. My first employer was a computer manufacturer. We joined as programmers but after 2 or so years we were pushed in one of three directions: consultancy, project management or line management.

      This approach acknowledged that consultants rarely make project or programme managers and project managers rarely have time to sit and think long and hard about something. And so on.

      Later in my career the companies I worked in always assumed that once you had risen in the ranks you had to become a line manager. And that is where I have witnessed incompetence.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Competence shouldn’t be measured by how people do the routine things well – it should be measured by how they manage things when things go sideways. Most anyone can plug and chug numbers/widgets/etc when things are fine, but it is those who can either wrench it back into working order or (better) see where there are going to be problems and have a plan ready to go. I’d rather have 3 RNs with ‘We’ll handle it’ attitudes than 10 RNs with ‘What just happened?” attitudes when the mass casualty event occurs in my ED. And if you’re not paying attention, it’s happening every day in most every ED because people still can’t seem to keep a safe distance or mask up. (/rant)

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