How to Deal with Incompetence


incompetentRecently I had the opportunity to work with a large client and was talking to one of the folks in charge of the R & D group. He mentioned that his folks were a little upset because some of their “Skunkworks” time was being curtailed.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. The term originated during World War II when the P-80 Shooting Star was designed by Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects Division in Burbank, California, under similar circumstances. A closely guarded incubator was set up in a circus tent next to a plastics factory in Burbank. The strong smells that wafted into the tent made the Lockheed R&D workers think of the foul-smelling “Skunk Works” factory in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner the job no one wanted: to be the inside man at the Skonk Works (as called in the comic).

The folks who typically work in R & D are what I refer to in my personality workshops as Temperament NT. NTs have an insatiable thirst for new knowledge. They pride themselves on their competence, are very visionary, (think Steve Jobs and Walt Disney) and can’t stand it when they feel incompetent or are surrounded by incompetent people. They also need that extra time to practice their craft. They’re not too unlike a cat that scratches up your furniture as they attempt to file their nails. Some folks need that creative outlet.

As we continue our journey on what motivates people, it’s important to consider the important driver that competence is. All of us want to avoid looking like we’re stupid. If there is a project that we’re not trained for, not experienced in, or simply a bad fit for, it’s really hard to stay motivated as we try to do it. Keep a person here long enough and they’ll develop a mental “block” and will simply shut down.

So what should you do if you feel incompetent?

  1. Stop what you’re doing immediately. Continuing on if you don’t know what you’re doing is stupid and unproductive. Don’t do any more damage.
  2. Document your process. Write down what you’ve done so far so your process can be checked. It might be the solution is an easy fix.
  3. Write down what you know and don’t know. You need to find the knowledge gap.
  4. Reach out for help! Find the most competent person you know and ask for help. You wouldn’t believe how many crappy resumes I have to review from people who got help from a “expert.”

What if you’re managing a person who feels incompetent?

  1. Be calm. They’re already feeling bad. Don’t yell at them and make it worse.
  2. Ask them what their process is. What have they done so far?
  3. Find out what they know and don’t know. Identify their knowledge gap.
  4. Give them the help they need. Do it yourself or get someone who actually knows the answer.

Oh yes, and make sure if you’re helping them out, use your brain and decide if it’s urgent enough to step in right away or if you should guide them to the solution through some open-ended questions. Back in 1989, I was scrubbing into a complicated oral surgery case in the operating room at Naval Hospital Long Beach. It was my first time and I was feeling very incompetent. The surgeons entered the O.R. (both of them were old school, screaming, instrument-throwers) so that made me even more nervous. The patient was being draped and Melba, our civilian O.R. tech looks at me and says:

Malcolm, you’re missing something very important. Do you know what it is?

I glanced down at the sterile table that had probably 100 instruments on it, half of which I had no idea what to do with.

If I weren’t scrubbed in, I would have strangled her. Finally she gave me what I needed but I let her have it after the 5-hour case was over.

None of us wants to feel incompetent. If you’re someone who’s wrestling with this right now, follow the steps above and dig out of the hole you’re in. If you manage people, be understanding and teach them.

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