The Dangers of Being Too Competent at Your Job

March 20, 2017

The Dangers of Being Too Competent at Your Job

Some people have the charming but erroneous belief that all they need to do to get ahead is show how competent they are  at their jobs. I have discussed this in other posts, but I want to focus on a particular subset—when it can actually be bad for your career to be good.

When being good is bad

A couple of things have to kick in for this to happen but they are not that uncommon.

Your boss sees you as instrumental to his success

First, of course, you have to be good at your job. And often be the only one in your area who can do whatever you do as well as you do it (did that sentence make sense? I think it did—anyhow, you are very, very good).

Because of this, you’re instrumental in your boss reaching his goals, so he needs your work even if he never admits it. But he knows. He may even praise you in team meetings and other internal venues.

Your boss is a jerk

But there is a necessary second condition—your boss is kind of a jerk. Because your boss knows he needs you, he concludes that he can’t let you go. Holding onto you might take various forms.

  • You are too critical to the operation to try other things. So you are never in line for the interesting assignments or the off-the-beaten-path projects which would expand your skills.
  • You are too valuable to promote out of his area. He, of course, won’t tell you that but he might downplay your achievements to outsiders or even hint that your brilliant work comes at a cost. Oh yeah, Sondra’s great. Gotta handle her, of course. She can be quite a challenge to manage. This will happen entirely behind your back so you won’t know that your boss is trying to lessen your value to those possibly interested in promoting you.

I’d like to say that this kind of boss is really unusual but then you’d know I was lying.

How will you know if this is happening?

It might be quite subtle.

YOU: Hey, Boss, I have a great idea. [you explain it]
BOSS: That does sound like a winner. Who do you think should work on it?
YOU: Ah, well, I was thinking me.
BOSS: Oh, no, you are too valuable where you are. The whole operation would fall apart if you weren’t there doing your magic.
YOU: Ah, it’s not that much. I could probably train Jamie…
BOSS: Jamie—now there’s a thought. He might be good to take the idea and run.
YOU: No, I meant…
BOSS: Good work! I like to see my guys being real team players.

And you are left out in the cold. You note the boss did this by both flattering you and subtly implying you’re not a team player if you don’t endorse letting Jamie have the project.

I don’t think that you should necessarily conclude that your boss is impeding your career from this one conversation. In this case, your boss is right to assign your idea to a less valuable employee. Nope, it’s the pattern that matters. So the next post will help you decide if your boss is deliberately preventing you from moving ahead.

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