Sunday, October 5, 2014

Not Zen 130: Incompetence

"This is where I am promoted beyond my competence," she said as she packed up her office. That day, she had been elevated to division chief in her state's transportation department.

Her former assistant said, "You'll be fine."

From the glances he gave her as he helped pack, she could tell he was worried.

She had never wanted a career. She had never wanted anything worldly. At the age of seventeen, she had joined her local nunnery as a novitiate. She'd lived with other nuns under an novitiate's vow. She'd traveled through her community with the sisters to do good works. In doing so, she met a man she liked. Although she had thought her infatuation with him was secret, he surprised her by proposing.

At the advice of the nuns and other novitiates, she left the professional ministry. She had intended to marry, raise good children, and work as needed. It was to be an ordinary life for her although, secretly, she hoped to return to her religious life.

In the eyes of her youthful self, the act of raising a family seemed simple. Soon she discovered that her work in the home was never done and that as he children grew she wanted to work out of the home to support them better. When she got a promotion, she still put in overtime so she could give to charity. She supported her extended family. She lent her money to friends to help them through crises. All of these choices led her to tie herself to her ordinary life more than she'd thought possible.

Three promotions later, here she was, packing her office.

She arrived to her new desk during lunch. That afternoon, she started in her role as the division chief with a series of interviews. She pulled her staff aside, one by one, to find out how things had gone wrong before. She accompanied them to their stations. She evaluated their work and learned who among them was capable of more.

"We've had three bosses here in six years," said a woman who worked at the front counter. Her movements seemed tired. "All of them failed. Two of them just gave up."

"I will not give up," she promised.

The next morning, she found orders on her desk from her supervisors. She let them wait.

Within a few weeks, she confirmed for herself that she'd been promoted beyond what she could manage. She'd seen that her staff had more than they could handle. With that in mind, she moved people into the roles that best fit them. She taught everyone to apologize.

Three years later, her old assistant visited.

"Everyone complains about your department," he said. "But everyone also says that performance has never been better. And you're still here. So I suppose this was not beyond your competence."

"I could tell you had doubts." She laughed. "In fact, it's beyond everyone's competence."

"No. You're doing it."

"I'm not, really." She folded her arms. "And no, I'm not managing with better staff or giving the old ones more responsibilities. They already had more than they can handle. All I did was teach them to drop their lowest priorities and to apologize for doing that."

"But everyone says service improved."

"I suppose it has. Once I told the staff they could do their most important tasks well and leave the rest undone, the only thing to teach was the apologizing. The staff are constantly saying that they're sorry they can't take on more tasks. But what they do, they do as well as they can."

"Your supervisors want to give your department more funds for the first time in twenty years. They wouldn't want to hear that you feel incompetent."

"Some jobs are beyond everyone's competence." She shrugged. "But still they need to be done."


  1. Great piece! Wouldn't it be great if one could actually do this? The best that I can come up with is treat my workload like a triage operation and put out the biggest fires first while still treating the people on the bottom end of the list the same as the people on the top. I also smile when I talk so I always seem happy and ready to help, regardless of how I actually feel.

  2. Sounds like you're well on top of things, then. Triage to give priority to the top, real need is sometimes all that can be done.