The Curse of Competence – Observations From The Military and The Office

Everyone should strive to excel at their jobs and surpass their goals. However, this excellence becomes a problem when you become the reliable workhorse that gets the job done no matter what because you might be afflicted with the Curse of Competence.

Sir, Yes Sir!

I first noticed this “Curse of Competence” while serving my National Service in the Singapore Armed Forces. I was from the mono-intake group where the Singapore Armed Forces saw it fit to gather all the uneducated folks together for basic military training.

We were a bunch of guys whose highest qualifications were a mix of ‘N’ Levels, ‘O’ Levels, NITEC and polytechnic dropouts whom we called PHDs (Poly Halfway Dropout). Though lacking in academic qualifications, some were full of street smarts.

My fellow men eventually noticed that those who responded immediately to the orders and requests would be asked to do work more often.

Those compliant guys in my platoon had the Curse of Competence.

The path of least resistance

The sergeants and officers were conscripts themselves, so why would they waste their time going through the hassle of trying to convince a soldier who would put up some resistance to do the work when they know that the workhorse soldier would just get to work immediately?

These street smart men had stumbled on a tactic of never agreeing to do anything when asked the first time or putting in the bare minimum. Plus points for wasting the superior’s time by starting a back and forth on how someone else might be better suited for the job.

There was much to gain from this tactic. It would let them have more admin time in the bunk and avoid the shitty jobs which did not need the entire section or platoon to chip in.

Being indispensable is not always a good thing

My army story focused on employees and how mediocrity can spread. But I now move on to managers and how they exploit those afflicted with the Curse of Competence. Workhorses eventually become indispensable to a selfish manager who is only concerned with their own key performance indicators (KPIs) and not your personal development.

You risk getting passed over for promotions or internal transfers out of the department because who else can do a better job than you? You may even be saving the department money because you’re being paid to do more than your fair share of work. The word “productivity” might get thrown around a lot.

The irony here is that your ability to do the job well has hindered your ability to progress.

Maximizing potential? Or moving goal posts?

If you constantly hit your targets or do work beyond your scope, you might see the bar being raised constantly. However, that alone is not enough to know if you have been cursed.

The surefire way to figure out if you have the Curse of Competence is when you notice that your ability to achieve or surpass the targets are seen as a sign that the targets were set too low by management.

Another major indicator is having your targets adjusted multiple times throughout the year to “match your ability level”.

No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim for competence

That being said, I’m not suggesting that we all shouldn’t get the job done. The aim here is to be aware of the types of bosses and colleagues you have and only accept the jobs on your terms.

It’s great to help each other out, but you want to ensure that the colleagues responsible for the job, instead of you doing the job for them.

You also need to identify the situations where its just a matter of your boss trying to showcase your abilities to the organisation and helping you establish yourself, and when they’re grinding you down to the ground and squeezing every last bit of productivity out of you for the organisation’s gain before they toss you aside.

There’s no need to be a martyr in situations like these. Don’t be the self-sacrificing fool.