Why High Performers “Hug Up” Their Incompetence


We Jamaicans think it’s rude to call someone “incompetent.” In my latest column, I show that this “politeness” is a big mistake on our part as mediocrity is allowed to fester, grow and bear a bitter fruit.

We need a kind of personal courage that is hard to find, but would let us get past knee-jerk defensiveness.

The article was inspired by the high level of incompetence that surrounds us each day. For example, the recent drought, which apparently caught the National Water Commission by surprise, could have been mitigated by competence. When we don’t strive to deal with our incompetence, bad things happen… leaving us to wonder how and why. The answer is far simpler to implement than it seems, especially for those who already deem themselves to be “smart.”


Why High Performers “Hug Up” Their Incompetence

We all know that it’s rude to call someone “incompetent.” Unfortunately, this polite norm blocks Jamaican employees from outstanding accomplishment. The solution is to embrace rather than eschew individual incompetence. Here’s why.

People who are experts in a field by virtue of their experience or knowledge have something in common with those who are highly accomplished. They all have an acute sense of what’s missing… the gap between who they are and who they could be. Operating on a knife’s edge, they are forever trying  to expand themselves in areas where they feel an acute lack of competence.

This thirst for results drives them to search and eke out the smallest gains, even if it’s just a fraction of a second in a sprint, a few runs in an innings or a tiny bump in sales revenue. They believe that closing these infinitesimal gaps  is all-important; that accurate self-knowledge is the key.

Over time, they also develop an eye for competence in fields which are unfamiliar and unrelated to their own. High performers can recognize each other, but not because they understand the technical details. Instead, they pick up on the blood, sweat and tears invested in closing competency gaps, whether the hours are spent in surgery, sculpture or in the gym.

By contrast, the average person looking at these same people may not see any connection. Too many believe that  becoming great is just a matter of tapping into God-given talents. In other words, for them, it doesn’t take much for Usain to be Usain. All he had to do was wake up and discover his birthright.

This misconception isn’t shared by high performers, who aren’t misled. One indicator they use to separate high performers from the fakes is  a measure of how someone relates to their innate incompetence.

The fear of incompetence

High performers embrace their incompetence, “hugging it up” from sunup to sundown. The rest of us live in a different world. For us, the worst thing that can happen is to be openly labelled as incompetent, or seen by others as stuck in this condition. Therefore, we resist the label and pretend to have what we don’t, acting as if we can do what we can’t.

Smart people, in particular, have this problem in spades.

Oftentimes, they realize they are well above average at a young age, able to process thoughts faster than their peers.  Many use this ability unwisely: instead of pursuing a life balanced on the edge, they seek comfort. A place to relax and enjoy their advantage in peace.

They learn to use their smarts to bamboozle others, showing off their talents as they protect their comfortable place in life.

Some know better. Ask those who have migrated and you may uncover their true experience. Thinking they were highly accomplished, they discovered far away from home that they were nowhere near the edge. For me, that moment came when after, a few days as a Cornell freshman, I discovered that several of my new friends had perfect SAT scores.

I instantly felt very, very small.

To make things worse, a few weeks later, in casual conversation with a graduate student, I reported my 85% mark on my first computer science test. He asked a single question: “What was the mean?” (i.e. the average score.)

“86%,” I answered.

“You only got a C+!… that’s all!”

In response to my shocked expression, he explained that grades in the engineering school did not correspond to a particular, set range. Instead, they were based on a Bell Curve in which half the class received a B- or better, and the other half received a C+ or worse.

His subsequent advice on how to improve my grades were well-intended, but I processed little of it at the moment. I had graduated at the top of my class at Wolmers, but that meant little in this new, demanding environment. Here was stark evidence of my incompetence.

While migrating to experience higher workplace standards may not be a realistic option for most employees, we can all start by owning our incompetence. For example, many workers shine when they are reassigned to a new boss with better interpersonal skills. Too few managers take this fact as evidence of their incompetence. Instead, they deflect responsibility and continue on, business as usual.

It’s understandable. Looking for examples of high performance and measuring ourselves accordingly takes a lot of hard work. The journey isn’t for everyone.

However, there is no escaping the accumulated consequences of this cowardice. When the number of people in your company seeking out new areas of personal incompetence can be counted on one hand, you have a problem. When 3 million people hide from their incompetence, the result is also predictable… decades of anemic economic growth and a worldwide reputation for low productivity. We can do better.

Francis Wade is a management consultant, keynote speaker and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com

Gleaner Sep 13 High performers hug up incompetence