Crises of Competence

As I get older, and grumpier, and more and more convinced that the idiots are everywhere, I’ve come to realise that the trait I most appreciate in others - and which I most aspire to myself - is basic competence. And yet competence seems in short supply. Our country lurches from one wildly unrealistic plot device to another with no sign of even the most basic comprehension from our political leaders. Last year’s unprecedented industrial action among University and College Union staff increasingly seems to have been caused in large part by poor decisions and errors of judgement by extremely well paid people. Is there nowhere to turn, no alternative to the idiocracy?

Sometimes this incompetence appears entirely genuine - type ‘john crace failing grayling’ into your search engine of choice for numerous compelling examples, or look at David Davis pontificating on his chess grand master approach to negotiations, the top hit on a google image search for Dunning-Kruger Effect. Some of this can surely be attributed the Peter Principle, as set out last year by the excellent Tim Harford - although it’s hard to imagine at what level Grayling or Davis displayed a level of competence impressive enough to be promoted beyond.

But generally bemoaning incompetence everywhere is to oversimplify for two reasons. First, I’m now at the career stage where, if not exactly fulfilling the ‘senior management’ role myself, I’m close enough to those who do to know that competence is not extinct - I’ve worked for, and with, and sat in meetings chaired by some exceptional managers. And second, I appreciate that the choices and responsibilities that come with the top pay grades make those jobs extremely difficult, and even the most competent will struggle on occasion. Sometimes, what appears to be incompetence is simply a reflection of an extremely complex reality, where every decision is (or perhaps, should be) a compromise between multiple competing world views.

All this would be fine if we nurtured a culture in which all of us - right up to the top of the pay scale - felt comfortable saying things like ‘I don’t know how to do what you asked me to do’, or ‘that problem is very complicated and I can’t think of any workable solution’. Sadly, we do not. In politics, any sign of ‘weakness’ (i.e., caution, nuance, an acknowledgement of the complexity of the world) is instantly pounced upon by the social media; perhaps that’s now inevitable. But increasingly I worry that this is the culture we have created in our working lives too. It’s not about learning to say ‘No’ - though clearly this is important, and difficult (especially saying No to things you really want to do). It’s about having the confidence to admit your limitations.

For instance: in science, failure is part of the process. I don’t just mean having papers rejected, grant proposals unfunded. Rather, I mean: not all of our ideas will be good ones, sometimes we may actually get funding only for the thing we set out to do not to work. Now, taking on something that you’re not sure you can do is not always a bad thing. Some of my proudest achievements have come by pushing myself this way. But also some of my worst cases of anxiety. And especially when all of the pressure to publish, to advance our careers, to submit convincing end-of-grant reports requires us to spin these failures as success. We cannot say: “I wanted to do this, but I was not able to.”

There are things we can do to try to address this, at least partially. As a mentor I try to make it easy for mentees to say when they haven’t understood, or don’t know how to implement what we have discussed in a meeting. Rather than simply asking ‘Does that make sense?’, and taking a nod as assent, I try to ask questions like ‘Are you confident going away and doing that, or shall we try working through it together first?’ Or, ‘Have a go, and if you hit problems let me know tomorrow and we’ll work them out together’. We need to recognise different personality types too - for instance, I’m certainly of the ‘bottle up doubts, work it out later’ type; sometimes this serves me well but I have reinvented a lot of wheels over the years as a result. Others prefer to talk everything through before even attempting to find solutions. So finding strategies to enable different personality types to feel comfortable admitting when they are feeling lost is important. And as investigators, I think we need to be more honest with each other (and with funders), and tell them sometimes: I have tried, but I can’t do what you are asking.

The alternative is that bullshit and bluster, stubbornness and inflexibility rise to the top. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?