Competence at Work: Blessing or a Curse?

Are you trotting along or just grazing by?


The riddle of performance management is trying to distinguish individual performance from team performance. Over time, on any team, the stronger people will tend to draw the tougher assignments, the more productive people draw the bigger projects, and the smarter people draw the more complex problems. Managers might view that as delegation, but team members often view it as the “curse of competence.”


peanut butter managementTo lead effectively, be aware of the potential for your least competent team members to coast along, borrowing from the competence of their team (and feeling chock-full of unwarranted confidence). Distinguishing who is driving and who is coasting will help you guard against "peanut butter management"—spreading the credit around evenly, like peanut butter on a sandwich. And doing so without recognizing the key individuals can negatively impact morale.


A leader must understand that surrounding every top performer is a "zone of competence" bigger than themselves. Inside that magical zone, other team members can relax a bit, focus on other work, and even make small mistakes. That top performer will pick up the slack, do more than their share, and correct small mistakes without a fuss. Everyone on the team ends up looking competent, but some of them are coasting.


Working with great people is enjoyable. It frees us to focus on those tasks at which we are most competent ourselves, because we know someone else will certainly take care of what we overlook. Collaboration works best when we recognize where individual performance stops and where the team environment deserves some of the credit.


Here's how to do that: 

When you are a part of a great team, don't let it go to your head. Don‘t assume you can be equally successful in another environment. Appreciate and enjoy the career boost and/or resume addition you’re getting from your association with the team.


On the other side of the coin, if you are an employee on a bad team, consider joining another team where your odds of success are far higher. See this test for what you should ask yourself when considering quitting your job.


If you manage a team, be sure to recognize individual achievement. This can be as simple as saying, "Karen, it's great that you took on XYZ so that everyone else could focus on their other goals!" One lovely side-effect from giving credit where it's due: this curtails the opportunity for one person to take credit for another team member’s work.


When hiring people, don't overlook the context of someone's achievement. If someone is highly successful, we unwittingly attribute much of his personal success to his or her innate ability. But we usually fail to recognize that less-obviously-successful people might possess even better skills. They were simply saddled with a less effective team.


Last Updated: June 14, 2017
About the author

    Alexandra Hoeflicker

    Alex is a Tucson-raised, Austin-based brunch aficionado. She enjoys a solid cup of coffee and browsing used record stores.