What a ‘Competency Trap’ Is and How to Avoid It
A ‘competency trap’ is when the professional level a person reaches turns into a monument to the person themselves that actively sabotages them from developing further. Continue reading to find out how to detect when a person falls into the trap and what to do next.
The competence of everybody who learns something develops according to an established cycle made up of four stages:
‘Unconscious incompetence’ is the first stage. At this level, a person doesn’t know or understand where they should move in order to grow professionally.
As soon as an individual comes across new challenges and tasks, they transition to the second state, ‘conscious incompetence’ after understanding how much more they still need to learn. This is where an employee actively acquires experience and, after 10,000 of professional development, becomes a qualified specialist, according to Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian sociologist.
After that, they move to the third stage, ‘conscious competence’. At this stage, the professional is confident in themselves, their knowledge, and their skills. This assuredness is reinforced by the experience gained and the speed at which they can solve tasks put before them. Such employees are autonomous and decisive. They know their worth and are loved and respected by others. “What’s so wrong about that?”, one might wonder. Every employer would be happy to have such a highly competent, independent, and confident employee on their team.
This is where the so-called ‘competency trap’ comes into play. It comes in several varieties:
1. The professional prefers to rely on their own knowledge and experience because, after all, those things never failed them before. It can also mean that they refuse to experiment with new approaches, take risks, or think outside the box. They also lose the ability to adapt over time.
2. The employee stops learning because they struggle to find something truly new and exciting in their field of expertise. The need to learn also decreases over time because the employee is typically assigned similar tasks.
3. An employee who is competent in a certain topic or specific field avoids taking tasks in which they have less experience and that are harder to do because they aren’t sure of themselves when working on those tasks. These tasks seem like a waste of time to the employee, so they take these tasks on extremely reluctantly.
4. Inspired by their own success, the professional gradually develop the illusion that the tasks entrusted to them are the most valuable and important tasks out of all the team’s work. As such, they may neglect co-workers’ priorities.
5. Highly talented employees get bored. Although anybody would derive pleasure from successfully completed tasks, there’s still a need to challenge our knowledge and experience with every new assignment. This is the only way to enter a state of ‘flow’, an ‘optimal experience’, as the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described it.
6. The aforementioned challenges don’t just face Individuals; they can affect an entire company, too, if it doesn’t take the necessary steps in a timely manner. For example, if you give professional tasks from their area of competence, they will successfully manage them. But this employee risks turning into a “tower of knowledge” (as described in the book “Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Loved” by Sheridan Richard). A tower of knowledge refers to an enormously experienced employee whose loss will cause colossal harm to the company. It gets harder over time to replace such a person, which means the employee will find themselves struggling to go on a vacation or take sick leave.
How can a person avoid the competency trap when they already feel confident in their skills and in the company that helped them grow?
I don’t want to seem cliché by recommending that they leave their comfort zone, but that seems to be the only way. When you reach a high level of professionalism in a specific field, look for a way to develop further:
- Challenge yourself with new tasks.
- Develop in related areas.
- Change the specific nature of the project or even the company.
At first glance, this advice may seem like nonsense (why change something good?), but solving diverse, more complex tasks provide more pleasure to a person and promotes mental health and life satisfaction.
A company that’s raised a high-end talent can establish a mentorship program to transfer knowledge to newcomers. It will help avoid the so-called ‘bus factor’ when important knowledge is concentrated among a few members of a project.
Beyond that, It’s important to provide a professional with growth opportunities followed by challenging and more complicated tasks. Growth can be horizontal (inside the profession, by studying new areas, domains, projects, technologies) and vertical (through promotion and moving to management positions).
In horizontal development, the person gradually moves to the fourth stage, unconscious competence, which can be characterized by Socrates’ words: “I know that I know nothing, but others don’t know even this much.” At this stage, long-forgotten feelings of novelty from getting the job done, acquiring new knowledge, and being able to take a look at your profession and role in the company from a different perspective await a person. On the company’s end, it acquires a loyal, invested, and productive employee.
Original in Russian — https://hr-tv.ru/articles/chto-takoe-lovushka-kompetentnosti-i-kak-ee-obojti.html
*Translation provided by