The ability to complete a task despite tremendous shortcomings in the efficiency and productivity inherent in the procedure, policies, or organization.

We usually consider the ability to do work along just one scale. Someone who is not able to complete a task at all is incompetent; but someone who is able to do so effectively is competent. This statement combines everything about the nature of work into one measurement. You either fail because you don’t know what you are doing, or succeed because you do.

The notion of countercompetency suggests that efficiency is an important and separate variable from success. Just because you can get something done does not mean you’re doing it in a particularly effective way. Furthermore, work that is left undone might simply be avoided because the only available techniques are too time and resource intensive to be pursued.

A New Model for Work

The diagram below describes the relationship between success and efficiency. We need to not only get things done; we want to do so in the least amount of time possible without sacrificing the quality of our results.


It’s easy to identify the difference between competency and incompetence because it is exactly the same as the difference between success and failure. Yet, to know whether an individual is actually countercompetent, we must measure how quickly they complete an assigned task. If the work requires too much time, the employee is probably doing something wrong without realizing their error.

Examples of Countercompetence

Consider the following true stories from the workplace:

Kelsey, a junior attorney at the law firm, was on a nearly impossible deadline due to circumstances beyond her control. A dozen reports needed to be prepared for a meeting that very afternoon. The production department could certainly complete printing a job of this magnitude by the following day, but the clients were only hours away from arriving. Kelsey decided to show her commitment by heading down to the copy shop herself.

Within a few minutes, Kelsey realized just how little she knew about the complex array of machinery and systems in this room. No one had time to teach her how to use the equipment, so she puzzled over screens, menus and manuals to figure out how to make double-sided, bound folders. She ended up stapling parts of the document by hand, caused several paper jams and wasted hundreds of sheets of paper. Kelsey spent her entire morning in that room, skipped lunch and made it to the presentation with only a few minutes to spare. With the lost time and her overall exhaustion, the rest of Kelsey’s work slipped and negatively impacted other deadlines. Although an expert in the client’s case and the legal system, her countercompetence with print services severely threatened several projects and ruined her day.

In this tale, the young lawyer did achieve her goal. She wanted to prepare the reports on-time and impress her boss. The cost, however, was tremendous. Disrupting the workflow of the office had far-reaching repercussions. Kelsey may have silently wondered how such a project could happen given the well-publicized turnaround times of the print shop. Her countercompetency translated into both inefficiency and aggravation for herself and the stakeholders around her.

Another example comes from Sam:

As part of an ongoing marketing campaign, Sam had been assigned to prepare a list of all of the contacts of nearly a thousand student organizations within the state university system. These were early days of the web and Sam had come from a traditional media world without much experience with technology. He set to work with the online directories, spending all day each day clicking, searching and re-typing results into a spreadsheet. Someone eventually showed him how to use the mouse to cut and paste, which increased his speed considerably. Another co-worker helpfully explained a few keyboard shortcuts, which resulted in a similar improvement.

One day over lunch, one of the company programmers began talking to Sam about his project. She realized that his tasks were so repetitive that she could easily create a small program to complete much of the work for him. At first Sam resisted, but eventually she decided to stay late one evening to try her idea. The next day, she showed Sam the results. Her invention completed his entire, two-month project in a matter of hours.

Unlike Kelsey the lawyer, Sam did not have even a hint of his countercompetence for several days. Each successive suggestion made him more effective but also made him realize how much time he had wasted. When the programmer threw together a script that could do all of his work, imagine what Sam must have been thinking. While excited that his project was complete, he must have also looked back over the previous weeks of effort and felt foolish. The danger of incompetence may be failure, but the risk of countercompetence is losing a sense of self-worth.

For a complete story of the ramifications of countercompetence over an entire career with one company, see the featured article The Erstwhile System Administrator.

Detection and Resolution

Identifying countercompetencies requires either a competent expert or direct exposure to a better way. Most day-to-day inefficiencies in organizations come from someone who achieves success despite tremendous limitations in their productivity. Slaughter Development conducts Workplace Diagnostics to help companies and non-profits discover countercompentencies. We perform Service Integration to assist in retraining individuals to help them become more competent and therefore achieve their goals with greater conscious efficiency. Slaughter Development also offers Business Process Modeling, so that countercompentencies in larger procedures and practices can be found and eliminated. Contact us today for more information.

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