The Curse of Competence

You have a subordinate who you call your go-to person. Whether it’s a spreadsheet, a schedule, or a side project you need help with, this person is on your speed dial and always gets it done on time. No job is too big or small. When someone leaves and tasks need to be redistributed, this is the first name for the most involved, and likely career enhancing, opportunity. There’s nothing this person can’t do, and you recognize it.

How good of you, and how fortunate for that person, right?

Maybe not.

Sometimes, it’s a curse. I call it the Curse of Competence.

The Curse defined: When a person is talented, recognized as a great performer, and rewarded with… more work.

If you see that subordinate’s performance and potential, then so does everyone else. You’ve probably already told your peers that you have a real talent in your office, and sooner or later, you’ll probably even tell them that they should bring their needs towards your superstar. You think you’re helping a young career by establishing your subordinate and making sure everyone who will have say in the future rankings see the same talent you do.

More often than not, you are helping. You’re handing tasks down to someone who needs opportunity, and you’re positively reinforcing performance with what you see as reward. Sometimes, though, what you’re doing is grinding your best and brightest into the ground for the organization’s and your gain. I know that statement is a bit harsh, but I can assure you that, at some point, that’s what the curse feels like.

This shining light you have who magically gets it all done right the first time with little or no supervision didn’t become that way by accident. 
He or she said yes more often than not, put in the hard work and likely more hours than you know about, and delivered. Then, as a reward, you came with more. Again, he or she said yes and did it. And now the answer yes, which I’m a huge fan of, has become this person’s habit every time you come knocking.

Your junior person won’t break that habit of saying yes. Believe me, something catastrophic would have to happen, some physical or mental breaking point either at work or at home, before the person who always says yes to you finally says no. When that happens, you’ll probably have lost that performer for good.

If you’re in charge and one person seems to be the answer to every question, all the time and for darn good reason, please pause and find out what other talent you have in your organization. If you don’t have anyone else, you probably need to start developing more of your people, or none of them will advance.  Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself without the talent you want, and then you won’t advance either.

How do you know if your person is getting to that point? Ask, but in the right way.

“Am I over-taxing you?” is not the right way. Your best person will say no to this yes-or-no question. It’s part of why that’s your best person.

Instead, I’ve said something like this in the past:

“I have a project that needs to be done, but I’m worried that I’ve asked enough of you, and I know you have a day job on top of everything else I keep bringing. I think I should give it to someone else. Who do you think I should give this to?”

This statement allows your person to do two things:

  1. Not exactly admit that you’re working him or her like a mule.
  2. Share the load with someone who has probably been a quiet part of the behind-the-scenes success. Just like you have your superstar, that person probably has peers and subordinates who have been helping.

I say this because I’ve been on both sides of this cursed equation. I think we’ll all find ourselves in this position once we realize what we’re good at and get some momentum. It’s common in almost any organization. And, when you find yourself cursed, what do you do? I can tell you from experience that it’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

If you’re the one they keep coming to and are overburdened, then say so. I know, it goes against everything you know and are trained to do, especially in the military, but if you don’t, something will break under the building strain. Say no, explain why, and identify someone under you who has the potential to do more. If you’re at that point, you’ve likely received all the credit you need. Instead, make the people you rely on just as successful.

There’s plenty of opportunity for everyone, but that’s just the half of it. There are plenty of people to share that opportunity with. Yes, the superstar can do it fast and quiet and right, and that’s important, but could you share that opportunity with someone else, invest some time and energy into that person, and create another superstar?

– Have you ever felt the curse of competence?

– How did you get out from under it?

– Who is your top performer, and are you funneling too much work in just one direction?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

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James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.