The Curse of Competence affects us all.
Each of us, I’m sure, can think of at least one person–yourself, someone you live with, work with, or know who is the “go-to” for problems major and minor.
- When a great idea comes up and everyone instinctively turns to you, expecting you to volunteer. And then you do.
- When you see someone or some group struggling and you help, which means you end up doing most, if not all, of their work.
- When you are part of a group and slowly realize that you’ve taken on all of the major tasks and milestones, because otherwise they might not get done.
- When your boss gives you project after report after presentation without seeming to realize that none of them are actually your job or even your department, but you do them because you want to be a team player.
- When you are the Dear Abby of the library and everyone asks you for your advice and guidance.
- When your boss puts you on long-established teams with the directive to get it done; to clean it up; to light a fire under them; or otherwise produce the deliverable that the team hasn’t produced.
- When you find yourself taking back work you’ve assigned to a person or a group because “It’s just easier for me to do it” rather than explain, train, or go through multiple back-and-forth drafts.
While it’s awesome to be needed and reliable and depended upon, the curse of being competent is the toll that it can take on you. Being responsible without having any authority is exhausting. Batting clean-up is a heavy burden. Operating in crisis mode all the time is stressful. And in those times when you have a moment to actually lift your head up and take breath, you’ll find yourself wondering what your job actually is–because it’s not all of these other jobs, that’s for sure.
Mitigating the curse of competence can be done; it takes time and persistence in the short-term, but it has a long-term payoff.
First, really think about whether your help is what’s being asked for. Are you jumping in to save people and projects because you want the glory? Are you sure they want you to take over? Check yourself; ask a trusted colleague for feedback. Look at the faces that other people are making while you’re doling out advice and taking on their work and make sure that’s what they really want. Are you unintentionally bulldozing or overwhelming people? Think about whether others are really “doing it wrong” or if they’re just “doing it differently.” One of my most difficult management transitions was accepting that there are billions of ways to accomplish something, and to allow my staff to use their own methods as long as they operate within our policies and parameters.
If you determine that you do have the curse of competence, talk to your boss about priorities. Take your long list and ask for a meeting where you go through and determine which priorities are essential to your job and performance. Talk about what can be reassigned to others–priorities that rightly belong to another person or another department. Talk, too, about what’s not a priority and can fall off the list all together. Note: This is not about you, the competent person, saying that you are incompetent. This is about you as a fully-formed adult acknowledging that there are only so many hours in a day and asking your boss to help you and the library by focusing on mutually agreed-upon priorities. And then when your boss comes to you with the next big project or idea, say, “That sounds great. I will have to stop doing this project or that project in order to accomplish this new project. Which priority should we bump?”
Next, talk to your colleagues about your priorities. Make sure your fellow managers understand that you and your boss agree that you must focus on these priorities, and ask them to help you by not referring their people or projects to you or your department unless it’s one of the identified priorities. And then when your colleague asks you to lend a hand with their project or department, have the conversation with them about how that fits in with your established priorities. If it doesn’t, that’s that. If it does, you can then talk about whether you are the person who should take this on or if someone else needs the opportunity or has the skills.
Third, talk to your staff. Make sure that they understand and are comfortable with their own autonomy. Train them to work through problems on their own before coming to you–in many cases, they are perfectly capable of working out a solution or resolving a situation within established guidelines without you. Demonstrate and reinforce your confidence in them, and their confidence will grow, too. When I was a frontline manager, one thing I always tried to do in one-on-one meetings was ask my employees what they’d like to be involved in at the library. Sometimes I could make it happen, sometimes I couldn’t, but asking the question led to good conversations about their job and career growth, and where their personal interests intersect with that. Even if I didn’t have anything for them to work on right then, I’d tuck their interests in the back of my mind and be on the lookout for ways to engage them with a project (which I then didn’t have to do myself!).
The hardest part is to learn to let go. Take baby steps. Start by giving a small project to someone with a deadline and the desired outcome (“Take this data, review it, and present me with two to four recommendations for how we can do better by the end of the month”) and encourage them to come to you with questions. And then let them do it their way. Make the time to train and cross-train your staff. When one of them comes to you with a problem, talk them through it–what does our policy say? Has a similar situation come up with you before and how did you handle it then? What does your gut tell you is the right answer?–and guide them through the process of getting to the answer themselves. This takes time and effort in the moment, but in the long run they’ll be empowered and confident, and you will be less stressed.
Lastly, recognize that the curse of competence is always there. It ebbs and flows but never really goes away. I continue to struggle with it every day, and so will you. But we can learn to manage it better.