Overcoming Incompetence and Its Miseries

The reward is less suffering

One way to be happy (or happier) is to operate in the workplace at a higher level of competence and effectiveness. Performing at our best is a great source of pleasure. Performing at our worst is, well, just ask Dilbert.

The comic strip featuring that forlorn character and his experiences of workplace incompetence is said to be the most photocopied, downloaded, faxed, and emailed in the world. Obviously, people are well aware of the pervasiveness of the problem. At least the comic strip’s ridicule of such incompetence blunts the misery a bit.

Incompetence involves, as one writer put it, “a positive genius for selecting the wrong approach to a given problem.” Yet being incompetent or acting stupidly are not inborn tendencies or weaknesses. We humans are plenty smart enough. The problem stems from unresolved psychological conflicts that limit and impair our creativity and intelligence.

These conflicts soak up a lot of our mental processing. The processing is used counter-productively to generate rationalizations, denials, and other defenses. It’s ironic, but through unconscious, self-defeating processes we are quite efficient at producing inefficiency. Dilbert would love it!

The worst incompetents typically don’t know how incompetent they are. Often, they don’t even think of themselves as being incompetent. They’re more likely to think of themselves as being bright. However, they usually suffer considerably through the frustration of their ineffectiveness and their lack of success and validation.

Incompetence features a range of issues. For instance, people can have a psychological aversion to thinking through a problem. They are failing to muster some inner power or strength to bring concentration and focus to the problem. At times, all of us can come up against a degree of self-doubt that starts to produce mental inertia and even mental paralysis, at which point we might stop believing in ourselves and our abilities. Here self-doubt is the problem.

The problem of incompetence also includes contempt for facts. People can readily minimize important facts if they are intent on feeling clever or special for their unique—though flawed—way of perceiving problems or challenges. Out of weakness, they chose self-gratification over objectivity. Facts can also undercut one’s own cherished beliefs, threatening an individual at an emotional level. As the philosopher Hegel said ironically, “If the facts are against me, so much the worse for the facts.” When we oppose objectivity at the front door, our folly sneaks in the back door.

Sometimes incompetents are unable to see the essentials of a situation. They focus on the non-essentials, often out of malice. A literary critic, as a random example, might be determined to be critical for unconscious reasons. This individual might find fault for the sake of finding fault. He or she focuses on minor flaws or perceived flaws, overlooking the excellence of the overall work. The excellence of others can be threatening to some of us, especially when we have dodged the challenges that could have raised us to that level. We can be tempted to bring others down a peg (in order to dull our inner critic’s rebuke for our shortcomings). Hence, the writings of such a literary critic are not objective, and this tainted, incompetent writing shortchanges readers.

Other facets of incompetence include fear of making a decision, lack of organization, forgetting steps or obligations, and remaining silent when verbal prowess is called for. These failings are usually produced by self-sabotage rather than an innate deficiency.

Incompetents fear making decisions because, should the decision be flawed or wrong, they fear having to face the disapproval of their superiors (or the wrath of their inner critic). If we are stronger emotionally, our inner critic is not such a dominant force in our psyche. Hence, we’re not limiting ourselves in order to please authority figures. If it happens that our decision is flawed, we learn from the experience in order to do better the next time.

When individuals lack organization to a self-defeating degree, they’re displaying an unconscious affinity for inner passivity, which means they’re comfortable with, or at least familiar with, feelings of being confused and overwhelmed. This is a default position in their psyche.

When people chronically forget steps or obligations, they can be acting out an unconscious emotional attachment to feeling criticized and to experiencing themselves as a disappointment to others. When being inappropriately silent is the problem, the individual can be failing, through inner passivity, to access the thoughts and words that represent his or her position and value.

These examples of incompetence present just the bare bones of the problem. Anyone seeking deeper understanding can find it in my book, Freedom From Self-Sabotage, which is available for sale at this site.