The Nigerian Business Association of Qatar

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The Nature of Incompetence

Posted by Femi Awoyinfa on September 22, 2011 at 11:40 AM

“Never ascribe to malice, that which can be adequately explained by Incompetence” – Napoleon Bonarparte (1769 – 1821)

There are many incompetent people in the world. All around us in this oil rich densely populated country of Nigeria in West Africa; in the private sector and in government, we see various levels of incompetence. This is even more glaring in terms of basic service delivery.

Incompetence has been defined as the lack of physical or intellectual ability or qualifications. It can also mean bungling: showing lack of skill or aptitude. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines competence as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently; the scope of a person's or group's knowledge or ability; a skill or ability”.

Research has now shown that most incompetent people do not know they are incompetent. In a study conducted by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University, they noted a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the ability to recognize their mistakes. This leads to inflated self-assessment, a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The psychologists proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will tend to over-estimate their own level of skill; fail to recognize genuine skill in others; and fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy, making it near impossible for them to acknowledge that they require training to substantially improve. Earlier scientists such as Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell have also lent their ideas on the subject of incompetence. "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision" quoted Russell. Charles Darwin noted that “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

Nowhere has incompetence been more glaring in Nigeria over the years than in the management of resources at the national level and in the private sector. The collapse of the banks, stock market crash, perennial inflation, extreme poverty, low life expectancy, insecurity, high cost of governance and poor service delivery are all evidences of incompetence at various levels. Critics will be quick to blame governments for national incompetence but the greatest promoter of incompetence is the society.

Specifically, organizations have the potential to create incompetent leadership and promote incompetent persons to positions of greater power and responsibility. In his book “On the Psychology of Military Intelligence”, Norman Dixon listed several characteristics and values that the military holds in high esteem and strives to achieve, as well as their negative consequences. He mentioned “Uniformity” and “Hierarchy” and the fact that ambitious and achievement-oriented officers are highly esteemed and respected in the military, so much so that self-serving and vainglorious officers are sometimes promoted to high leadership, with disastrous consequences. He argued that Incompetence can be found in any industry, field or discipline. But incompetence in war takes on significance far greater than in any other field.

The propensity to push individuals upward in a hierarchical environment, despite their glaring lack of skills or aptitude due to various reasons such as nepotism, favoritism, national character, quota system, influence, connections, family name and other such motives which are clearly not merit-based adds to the incompetence bank.

Dr. Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull in their book “The Peter Principle” proposed that ‘in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’. This means that individuals tend to be promoted until they reach a position where they can no longer work competently. They theorized that people who show competence are promoted whether or not they are qualified to perform competently at the next level. Eventually they go beyond their limits, become incompetent, and stop getting promoted. This is known as final placement.

We have already seen this phenomenon in Nigeria at several levels with the scenarios of the successful entrepreneur who turns out to be a lousy politician, the competent senator who transforms into an incompetent governor. Will a good husband make a caring father? Or a loving fiancée a dutiful wife? It is important to note that the individual’s incompetence is not necessarily a result of the higher-ranking position being difficult, but simply that the job may be crucially different from the one in which the individual previously excelled, and thus requires different work skills, which the individual may not possess. This should however not be a universal excuse for all manifestations of incompetence.

There are many ways to address incompetence in our systems and processes. One method is to refrain from promoting an individual until they show the skills and work habits needed to succeed at the next higher job. An argument is that employees who are dedicated to their current jobs should not be automatically promoted for their efforts, and instead should be rewarded with, maybe, a pay raise, while remaining in their current position. Employees can be promoted only after being sufficiently trained to the new position. This places the burden of discovering individuals with poor managerial capabilities before, as opposed to after they are promoted, preventing them from reaching their peak levels of competence and thus, incompetence.

How do we then deal with men who have clearly been promoted beyond their level of competence? Promote them to a special duties position, including such as Side-Issue Specialization, a commonplace substitute for competence characterized by the motto: "Look after the molehills and the mountains will look after themselves."

The corollary to the Peter Principle is that “in time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties". In all organizations, work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. The nature of poor organizations is that while it might promote incompetence, it also actively discourages ‘super-competence’. This is more likely to result in dismissal than promotion. Bureaucratic institutions (e.g. the civil service) cannot handle such disruptions. This is because a super-competent employee “…violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: namely that the hierarchy must be preserved…”.

Now that you are aware that there is a disastrous final promotion imminent in your career that might reveal your incompetence, how do you avoid it? Two options present themselves: you can avoid rising to the final placement by turning down lucrative career and political offers. This is known as Peter’s Parry. A more practical technique is Creative Incompetence. – “create the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence’ thereby effectively terminating any further promotional opportunities.

Today, with realistic and effective training and development plans, innovative use of information, technology, and effective feedback, incompetence on a personal and organizational scale can be eliminated.

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