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The Curse of the Competent

2005-01-17 7 min read Essays marco

Cursing the Competent

As long as the Internet economy was happily bubbling ahead, the Peter Principle reigned supreme: Peter joined a startup and got promoted quickly. Invariably, he would land in a position where he not only started failing, but dragged the entire startup down with his incompetence. Which of course didn’t quite matter, since the Peter Principle was (and is) democratic and made everybody else look just as stupid as Peter himself.

The economy turned sour, Peter’s startup died as everybody else’s, and he scrambles to find a new job. Of course, he will want a stable company, with lots of cash reserves, good management and excellent products. Since he is good, he lands The Job, invariably at three hierarchy levels below where he was, with maybe half the salary. But who complains?

Around Peter all the people that have been there before him. They are a little afraid, since they know they kept their position because their company did well, not because they were better than poor Peter. Russian roulette of startups. The manager might not even have been able to get hired in Peter’s old company. But that really doesn’t matter.

Peter works hard, as he’s used. He solves any problem in half the time that anyone else takes. Which doesn’t make him a popular guy on the block. In particular, his manager knows how she will be followed in her every action with the critical eye of someone that used to supervise her likes. And that’s when Peter is hit by the Curse of the Competent.

Peter the Competent

To a certain extent, the Curse of the Competent is the mirror image of the Peter Principle. While the latter states that “Everybody gets promoted to their level of incompetence”, the former simply states that “The competent gets to do everything” You think that’s a good thing? Well, think again.

Where the Peter Principle holds (almost everywhere), there are loads of incompetent people. That’s wonderful, bright, industrious, diligent people that are perfect at everything, except what they are doing right now. That’s what the Peter Principle is all about, isn’t it?

There is a conspiracy around these incompetents: they can’t be blamed for their failure, and their superiors surely do not want to be blamed for it, either. Their reports either move on to another job or hope the incompetence will be filtered out at some point, which is when they get their chance (and will invariably be moved to their own Peter Equilibrium Point).

Someone has to do the Work! Which is where Peter the Competent comes in. Peter’s manager (who can’t really stand him) sees how her report can handle about anything that comes across him. And lo and behold, anything quickly morphs into everything. At every critical juncture, the manager has to assign tasks. Peter can handle it, so he gets to do it. The incompetents cannot handle it, so they don’t have to.

Still, What’s Bad About It?

High-technology is an interesting world: a skilled worker will have a productivity factors higher than a less skilled one – but the compensation for both does not differ by factors. In a separate essay, you’ll read how this is an anomaly in history, instead of the norm.

In an environment with built-in upside, as was the case during the end of the past millennium, competence was rewarded by growth. In that ancient world, the upside was distributed unequally, generating a differentiation engine for the competent.

In this new environment, there is no growth that compares with what we had. The Peter Principle finally holds us hostage, in that while some cannot move away from their Peter Equilibrium Point, others (the Competents) will not be able to even reach it.

Work has to be done. Good people do a lot of good work. Hence good people get to do all the work BUT… But they don’t get any upside, because there is no upside to distribute. The Competents are in the firm claws of their Curse, subject to envy, jealousy, distrust, and reverse favoritism. They will be left out of decision making (because they know better), left out of perk distribution (just because they are unwelcome hostages), left out of career opportunities (because someone else is less dangerous).

Avoiding the Curse

One harsh word first: you cannot avoid the Curse of the Competent and gain the upside. The only way you can beat your fate is by skillfully avoiding to be recognized as a Competent.

First, you have to completely avoid the perception you might be better at anything than your colleagues. Do not speak in meetings unless you are asked something, always look bored. Come in at irregular hours, don’t try to impress anyone. Once in a while, come up with a positive surprise, but keep your profile low.

Second, keep your mouth shut. I’ve seen examples where a poor decision maker forced a particular choice that ended up costing the company millions of dollars in revenue. The Competent in this case warned ahead of time: whisper, dialog, argument and shout didn’t do anything but firm up the resolve of the manager and mark the Competent as such. A dreadful fate.

Third, limit your competence to a supporting role for the Peter Principled. They will appreciate your help more than your Competence, and you will be allowed to avoid the Curse of the Competent by being a Nice Guy. Nice Guys are those people we pass up for a promotion but that we don’t punish for deserving one.

How Do You Change the Environment?

If you are caught in the Curse of the Competent, there is nothing you can do. People percieve you as threatening (their position, mostly) and will avoid a strengthening of your influence at all cost. So, try to never enter an environment in which you are doomed by the Curse.

If you are high up in the corporate food chain, you can apply modern means of management and start insinuating that the upside belongs to the Competent. You’ll need to have tangible criteria for competence, and you have to apply them consistently. Make it clear that you will not tolerate incompetence. Fire people for incompetence, without ever saying so, but with consistency.

Soon, the demographics around you will change. People will leave saying you are a tyrant and your demands impossible. But when you check back, you’ll see that those that left were not your Competents. Competents generally don’t mind harshness. They read Ayn Rand and think everyone should deserve what he or she earns.

The tenor in your team will be less jovial, most likely. People know they are there for a reason, and that that reason is not called ‘human warmth’, but making money. It is incredible how many people never really stop to think that the purpose of work for the corporation is solely money. Not recognition, not personal growth, not satisfaction. Just money.

At some point, the team will be mostly made of Competents. People that admit they are wrong, even though grudgingly. And then you’ll have to fight the Primadonna Paradox and the Food Chain Poisoning. But compared to the Curse of the Competent, that’s cheap.

The Short Version, Please!

In most companies you’ll find some people caught in their Peter Equilibrium Point; unable to move up or down and incapable of performing their function, they will hit everyone around them that even remotely looks like a potential threat.

In the high-tech field, we see the Peter Principle applied to entire companies. Initial sudden growth stops equally suddenly, and the whole enterprise is frozen in an odd Peter State, in which most people shouldn’t do what they are doing, but since the position that would suit their competence is neither available nor compensated enough, they prefer stayind put.

Once you join such an environment from the outside, you are typically going to be hired into a position in which you are competent. Which means you will be an anomaly, a threat. When the perception is born that you are good at what you are doing, people will start being jealous and frightful, and you are subjected to the Curse of the Competent. And that is when you are to do everything (especially what other people don’t want to do), but are not proportionately compensated with the upside that the company has to offer.

If you want to avoid this horrible fate, do not show Competence. Make Peter Equilibrium People feel at ease by allowing them to make stupid decisions. If you are in a position to influence the direction of the company, get rid of the Peter Equilibrium People. If you aren’t, run away as soon as you can.