What is the Curse of Competence?

Do you feel as if you’re always the one doing your work properly, accurately, and efficiently?

Are you constantly bugged by the people around you weighing you down with their laziness, apathy, deceit, or ignorance?

You may be suffering from the workplace ailment known as the curse of competence.

It’s like the smart kid in high school who is always getting amazing grades on papers and tests. Once your peers are aware of your skillset, the favors come piling in.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt you personally if they copy your homework or cheat off of your test as you dangle the scantron over the side of your desk as nonchalantly as you can muster, but it feels dirty.

When you’re good at what you do, there is always someone itching to glean from your successes and pass them off as their own.

In the workplace, this is even more apparent. If, during your first three months (the requisite probation period for any job), you’re someone who keeps their head down, keeps quiet, and gets all of your work done to some level of excellence, you will be noticed.

The greedy, managerial overlords will take notice of your achievements and the fact that you never have to be told what to do next. Instead of asking your superiors for direction, you dig in with a shovel and get to figuring out the issues, causes, and solutions all on your own. You are the model employee.

The problem with this recognition is now you’re seen as the workhorse. Whatever job you do and do well is the job that you’ll always be expected to complete with increasing speed and decreasing errors. If an opportunity arises for a new role in your current department or a change of scenery in another department, you’ll be told that you need to stay put.

How could anyone else do your job as well as you’re doing it? What would they do without you?

The unfairness of the situation makes you seethe. You’re angry, and rightfully so, and if you’re anything like me you adopt a teenage sense of pride that turns up the volume on the little voice in your head telling you “they can go fuck themselves, so let’s just phone it in and see how they deal with it.” You start pushing limits. You get resentful.

The curse of competence has taken hold of you fully now and your work and attitude will suffer because of it.

If you’re a person who completes tasks and doesn’t shy away from them and you get them done in a reasonable amount of time with some degree of quality, then you will become that go-to person.

If someone else fucks something up, they know you’ll be there to fix it. If another department can’t learn anything new, you’ll be expected to spoon feed the information around every turn.

You can handle 4 accounts while your other teammates can only handle 1 or 2? How about 5? 6? The sky’s the limit when you’re seen as someone who can get shit done and not complain about it. They know they have a mighty strong cog in the wheel and no amount of pressure is going to make you crack.

Work continuously lands at your feet not because it challenges you, interests you, or helps you grow as a person or within your career, but because you’re trusted to handle everything without fucking it up.

There’s no reason for managers, directors, and higher ups to trust anyone else and risk disaster when they know that throwing more on your plate doesn’t decrease their output.

While you may be drowning, working long hours, and planning an escape route, your bosses are thrilled that they can pay a single salary to get the work of 3 or more people.

The first thing to note, however, is that competence is definitely not a bad thing, especially at the surface. It means you’re intelligent and adept and people can rely on you without questioning their decisions. This is invaluable as an employee.

However, do not let this situation get the best of you. Tactfully find a way to escape your situation in the most professional way possible. As clichéd as this idiom has become, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The best way to find solutions in the workplace is to communicate with your manager instead of boiling in silent rage.

Explain how unfair it is that, although you have no problem helping out as much as humanly possible, you’d like to grow as an employee and utilize some of your other skills outside the confines of the ones you’ve mastered. If you’re a great worker, they’ll want to keep you and make you happy with growth and knowledge opportunities.

The trust your manager puts in you should go both ways and they should be happy to enact changes that make you feel better about your role and your acknowledgement. They will fear losing you. You’re not easily replaced.

Speak up, be flattered, and find a way to make your competence work for you without letting it dominate you.