The presumption of competence

Surprisingly often we expect our colleagues to be useless.

Lots of our working life is spent disagreeing.

Designers disagree with developers, finance people disagree with procurement people, marketing disagrees with customer care and everybody disagrees with HR.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

As a manager I have often felt that my primary job was to manage disagreements. Done correctly disagreements quality assure decisions and create dynamic environments. Done badly they foster poisonous relationships and bog down delivery.

Whenever disagreement arises, the suggestion of incompetence tends to follow.

The marketing team just isn’t very capable and that’s why they don’t agree with our point of view.

The designer just doesn’t understand the technical perspective.

The finance team is divorced from reality and just care about the numbers.

In my personal work and in my management practices I have always tried to push back hard on this. Instead of immediately invalidating the opposing point of view through perceived incompetence, I have aspired to approach disagreements seriously by presuming competence.

When I presume competence, I assume that our colleagues are capable (why else would they work here?), that the decisions they make are thought through (they take pride in their work) and that they have context that I am missing (their are experts in their field).

Before questioning their line of thinking and promoting my own, I will always try to understand their perspective. That may lead me to re-examine my own position, amend it to account for their perspectives or stay firm on my view, but with a more nuanced understanding of the issue.

This line of thinking doesn’t come naturally. We consider ourselves to be brilliant and have more insight than the rest of the organisation. Our self confidence can get the better of us and we explain divergent opinions away through assumptions of incompetence. That’s why it’s often an entirely decision and deliberate thought process to presume competence. It is important to challenge the knee jerk reaction by reminding yourself of the competence, engagement and expertise of your colleagues.

The role of the manager in this should not be underestimated. I have had countless managers who denigrated or outright mocked other teams, signalling to employees that they were incompetent or should be bypassed whenever possible.

Employees take cues from this, cross functional communication suffers and informal silos are created. Oftentimes the very same managers would later lament the disjointed organisation and our inability to march in step, despite having been actively creating a culture breeding it.

The presumption of competence obviously shouldn’t become rose tinted glasses. There are employees and (particularly) managers out there who aren’t up to snuff and they shouldn’t be given a free pass.

But a team will rarely be all low performers, a low performer will rarely be weak across the board and ascertaining performance shouldn’t be done lightly. In fact, throwing accusations of incompetence around freely will obfuscate and hide the real defficiencies in the organisation.

We owe our co-workers, employees and ourselves to take things seriously and approach disagreements with an presumption of competence.

Hopefully you have enjoyed my take on team work and collaboration above.

Please check out my other pieces (mostly about corporate venturing and startups). Reach out if you have comments or questions.

Chief Digital Officer & Head of Strategy, Boxer A/S

Chief Digital Officer & Head of Strategy, Boxer A/S