Monday, 19 May 2014

The Avoidance and Illusion of Competence

Every once in a while I help a friend out by providing an extra pair of hands for his company at major events. As you can imagine everything happens pretty quickly with moving big props, positioning fireworks and streamers etc. It’s good fun once you know what you’re doing but before that point it can be quite daunting. All I basically have to do is turn up on the day and do exactly what I’m told and stick to all the safety procedures that I’ve been briefed on. But how can you really tell someone fully grasps what it is that you’re telling them? It was during one of these recent events that something got me thinking about competency or at least the illusion of it…

As I stood there at the briefing I noticed that this other guy who I’d not seen before was going to be working on some of the same tasks as me during the event. We both received the same initial brief and I couldn’t help but notice how this guy was comfortably nodding at every instruction…he looked cool as a cucumber and had clearly done this before. “He totally knows what he’s doing” I thought to myself. At the same time, wanting to be sure of my role, I sacrificed looking foolish in front of the group just to reconfirm some of the detail. Now at this point in time who do you think looks more competent?

“Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt”

I’m not sure I agree with the famous quote above. As it turns out this particular chap had an outstanding poker face because during this short intense blast of activity he proceeded to get the three specific tasks allocated to him totally wrong. In fact so wrong he did the complete opposite of what was asked of him on all three occasions. But everything happened so fast and the group absorbed his mistakes, no safety rules were breached and no one mentioned a thing afterwards. So his approach worked I guess…


In the world of business I believe the exact same thing happens and during a major incident or crisis these people are brought to light but only for a moment. You might get some murmurings of complaints from colleagues (like me) but the stigma of their incompetence is quickly overlooked providing there is a positive outcome. I wonder how many near-miss major business disruptions have gone by when something like this has happened? Perhaps one of the Executive Management makes a number of bad decisions or mistakes during a potential crisis yet the organisation still manages to survive regardless so no one really mentions it again. My guess is quite a few.

In my experience of trying to develop incident response competencies I’ve spotted a few characteristics out there that have sometimes challenged my ability to make much progress and it’s only right that I share these findings with my fellow junior professions. Forewarned is forearmed.

Comfort Zone Competency


It would be fair to say that virtually everyone at some point in their career can fall victim to the Comfort Zone Incompetency. You get given a job and you become an expert in the day to day running of it when all of a sudden someone is asking you to take on a new role or make a decision that you’ve never made before. In one of my initial posts I recalled witnessing a Senior Executive of one organisation nervously shaking and me being confused as to how someone with 30 years’ experience of signing off multi million pound expenditure could be that fazed by a pretend crisis management exercise. Looking back of course it wasn’t their fault and the entire purpose of that exercise was to increase confidence and exposure. Ultimately everyone has to start somewhere when breaking out of that comfort zone cage.

The challenge involved with this kind of competency is in my opinion two-fold. First of all, by definition, a comfort zone is like a warm blanket on a cold winter morning…people do not want to move. We are faced with an ingrained reluctance to change through fear of looking foolish or losing credibility in front of peers and colleagues. It’s just like the individual I referred to earlier and much easier how it was for them to pretend to understand than it was to come forward and re-clarify.
The second challenge relates to crisis management and here we ask employees to take on additional roles that they might not have any previous experience of, may be required under intense pressure and at short notice and in a variety of different circumstances. Oh and there’s always a chance of getting it wrong but don’t worry kids…you get to practice for 3 hours once a year – very helpful.

Arrogant Complacency

This is an old school tactic that still operates in many organisations where the most intimidating individual with the loudest voice and self-assurance drives the decision making process. This often results in people having a negative view of taking on additional roles that require new levels of competency. In my experience it can be quite difficult to persuade these employees who have adopted this approach to accept any other responsibilities whatsoever. I’m sure colleagues in my industry will attest to being interrupted at training events by dismissive statements such as “this is how we’ve always done it” and “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it”. There are books out there on change management and organisational culture but realistically there are people in business who simply won’t accept the change. How you manage this is another article entirely I suspect!

Accountability Dodger

I have found this characteristic extremely prevalent in organisations where political manoeuvrability and avoidance of accountability are key survival tactics in management. Decisions made as a group to remove individual expectation or at the very least distance one’s self from the final outcome. These individuals would rather devote their time to compiling a list of reasons or excuses as to why they are not to blame than developing the required competency to effectively manage the issue itself. In my view this is a particularly dangerous characteristic in crisis management because during an incident the last thing you would want from a senior manager is for them to base decisions on how they can avoid accountability. Perhaps the suggestion here is to find a way to develop the required competency so they don’t have to avoid blame in the first place!

Summary

I’m pleased to say that the above characteristics are found in the minority and most people want to develop their skills but from my experience the few can sometimes make the process more difficult than the many so it’s worthwhile being aware of these types if you haven’t already experienced them (I’m sure you have).

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