Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

Teach & Serve III, No. 38 – The Competency Trap

May 2, 2018

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

It is my strong belief that the overwhelming majority of people want to do well in their work. Even when people are assigned duties they would rather not have or take on responsibilities that are not their first choice of roles, they have a desire to excel or, at least, to perform competently in those positions. To be clear, I am not writing about the critical, “Other Duties as Assigned” roles that we all must share. These are necessary parts of the work on which we collaborate. No, I am writing about those “other” things, the extra ones. The ones we do for more money (which we need) or to complete contracts.

In the work we do in schools, we are, more often than we in administration might like to admit, are asked by higher-ups to take on work that we would not seek out on our own. Often this occurs when we are new in our positions or new to our schools.

“Hey, do you want to make a little more money? Will you coordinate the magazine sale?”

“We want to fill out your contract and parking lot supervisor is available. Can you do it?”

“Well, even though you don’t know anything about tennis, we need a JV coach. Will that work for you?”

The answer to questions like this is typically, “Of course! Bring it on!”

At a minimum, professionals want to be regarded as at least competent in what they do, right? However, doing well in tasks that we do not desire, especially in roles we do not want to perpetually have, creates the conditions for the Competency Trap.

The Competency Trap is a two-fold problem. First, those people charged with doing what they do not wish more often than not do great at those roles. Because they are valuable employees who care about the work they do, they accomplish what they are assigned. Most positions like this in schools are cyclic; they are needed each year. The person doing the work can become strongly associated with it. He is the Blood Drive person. She is the Bake Sale Coordinator. Look at what a good job she does. Once we are associated with work we do competently and well it can be difficult to change roles or to leave the work behind even if we wish to.

The second problem lies with administration. Again, the positions we are considering here are not the most desirable or prestigious in our schools. When administrators fill them, they are likely check off the box, happily. That is done. Move on to the next issue. When those doing the work do it well, why would an administrator consider a change? When people meet or exceed expectation and, at the end of the day or the term, when they have done a good job in the role, it becomes difficult to reassign the work. And if can feel unnecessary, even when the person doing the work requests a change.

This, then, is the Competency Trap, and the responsibility for getting out of it falls almost entirely on the administrator or supervisor. We want people to complete good work in the roles they take on, certainly. We do not wish to create a disincentive for good work. When we assign roles and lock people into them without periodic review in which they are the most important participants, the Competency Trap can be in play. We must allow people to express how they are connecting with what they are doing and how valuable (and valued) they feel in the work. If we do not, problems and frustrations will, inevitably, arise.

There are jobs in our schools that are not entirely appealing, but the work must be done. Some of it may feel like drudgery. Some of it may not challenge. We may get placed into positions we would not choose for ourselves for all kinds of reasons. That is the nature of our shared enterprise and that is fine. But, when administration does not pay attention to those in less desirable positions and when people feel stuck in these kinds of jobs and these duties become inextricably linked to their professional personas, the Competency Trap has sprung, and leaders must break out of it for the good of those they lead.