The Watch Out For Being Highly Competent

I feel fortunate that I genuinely love learning. In my work consulting with organizations and coaching leaders, there is an expectation from clients that I can bring fresh ideas and insights to our work together. Naturally, I strive to build my knowledge base continuously. I am paid for my competence, so I want to ensure my clients feel they are getting a great value.

So what’s the downside?

Where there is high competence, there is a risk of thinking WE KNOW best. We may fast-track the work at the expense of BEING CURIOUS.

If you consider yourself highly competent, it’s time for a gut check.

  • Do you quickly make recommendations without asking many questions?
  • Do you do more talking than listening?
  • When you do ask questions, do any of them sound like this?
    • What do you think?”;
    • “What if…?”;
    • “What does success look like for you?”;
    • “What am I missing?”;
    • “What obstacles are you facing?”

One area where being “too competent” can get in the way relates to problem-solving.

Starting with how a problem is defined. Clients often come to us thinking they have identified the problem to solve. However, the identified problem may be a symptom of the real issue.

An assessment phase is an excellent approach for discovering the root issue and prioritizing the work that delivers what the business needs. When assessing the situation, involve people with unique experiences and perspectives and spend time asking questions and listening.

  1. Ask each participant to describe the problem in two to three sentences. It’s a great way to see how people frame up the issue and can expand the conversation to consider options that would otherwise never be discussed.
    • For example, let’s take a generic problem like, “Our current market share is decreasing, and we need to boost innovation.” If you ask the team to define what is contributing to this problem, the possible responses could be:
        • “The team isn’t motivated to spend time innovating due to our existing compensation structure.”
        • “We have never recognized or rewarded people for challenging the status quo. It’s not part of our culture.”
        • “We don’t have talent capable of true innovation work. We lack experience and skills focused on innovation.”
        • “Our sales and market share is dwindling because our sales team is inexperienced and lacks training and leadership.”

Once the group can agree on the contributing factors, then the right course of action can be identified. Otherwise, you may waste time working on a solution that misses the mark.

2. Ask what’s missing from the descriptions. Are people making assumptions? Playing old tapes in how they are viewing the issue? If so, maybe it’s time to involve those whose work is most directly linked to this problem. Leaders don’t know it all, so getting out to observe customer behavior and talk to customers or employees who are closest to customers (or whatever group is impacted by the issue). Those facing the problem in their daily work can validate or challenge assumptions and offer the facts about what they are experiencing.

3. Actively solicit feedback and be open to new ideas. Hold back from sharing your perspective. It’s safer for others to align with the leader, not challenge and conform. Check out this experiment to see how easily we fall in line with the group. This experiment is with a group of strangers, and no one is verbally communicating. Just imagine the increased pressure to conform when your boss makes “suggestions.” If you ask for input and listen first, you will have more options to consider.

Keep learning and expand your competence…just don’t let it get in your way. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. Focus on bringing out the brilliance of the group!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or share your expertise via email at