Veneer of competence

I thought it might be of interest to share this article I wrote for the January edition of TICA’s TCI Magazine on the veneer of competence…

Recognising and Cutting Through a Veneer of Competence

Never judge a book by its cover, the old proverb reminds us. Yet, is that not exactly what is happening when an employer is considering hiring a person, or a crew leader is presented with a new member on the crew? What are the mental pitfalls that can result from this mindset, and how can they be circumnavigated?

Of course, there is concrete information that plays a significant role in the decision of whether to hire a prospective employee, such as his or her resume or CV, letters of recommendation or a list of qualifications. But there are also touchy-feely elements in play, such as the impression someone makes during that first meeting, that can sway the decision whether to hire or not. Yet, are these elements sufficient to base a decision upon, bearing in mind that during tree care operations, when working at height or running machinery, flawed decisions can have serious or fatal repercussions?

In this age of an overabundance of information, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern a true level of competence. Is the person being considered someone whose competence is founded upon training and theoretical knowledge as well as experience? Or is it someone who likes the idea of being an arborist, of working at height with all the attention that it attracts? Someone may have all the trap- pings of a competent person – the equipment, the terminology, the look – yet this apparent competence may not be founded on sound training, theoretical knowledge or experience. Rather, it may come from spending time in the relevant forums and social-media chatrooms, from browsing through catalogs or from spending time at trade shows.

Of course, the above have value when combined with other means of gaining competence. But in isolation, they are hollow and can be misleading. They may mask the fact that the person’s competence is not a solid foundation on which to base their decisions, but is merely a thin veneer. Often, this may only become apparent under pressure – leading to complications or dangerous situations.

In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias that leads people of low competencies and abilities to mistakenly over-estimate their abilities and level of competence. Add to this the fact that, in a group setting, the most vocal person frequently will steer decisions. At the same time, the more competent operator, who has the experience and the mental tools to estimate his or her level of competence more accurately, may chose to remain in the background. This person may take the assured posturing of his or her less competent teammate as an indicator of skills or abilities that in truth the teammate does not possess. The result, as described by Dunning-Kruger, may well lead to the loudest voice during the decision-making process being the person with a low, or the lowest, level of competence.

In the best-case scenario, this effect may lead to the level of competence in the team being watered down to the lowest common denominator – and in the worst cases, to confusion, near misses and accidents.

So what means are there to recognize such veneers of competence before they become an issue?

It can be tempting to take the new hot-shot climber at face value and use him or her according to his or her apparent level of abilities. But it may be preferable to not simply build upon assumptions, and instead to develop a company policy on acceptable techniques and procedures for doing so. This policy would be based on industry best practices and manufacturer guidelines. The policy would be required to ensure it is discussed, understood and implemented at all levels of the organization.

A crew that is empowered and has an understanding of, and is in compliance with, policies as to how work is to be performed is far better equipped to not react in a star-struck fashion to a new team member who is vocal and socially competent, appears to have done it all and seems not to need anything explained to him or her.

It can make sense to define such procedures and operating policies, not only for complex tools and techniques, but also for apparently simple matters such as the use of ladders or lowering devices. It is only when one starts discussing such tools that it may become apparent that every member of the crew is using them in subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different fashions, based on suppositions and assumptions.

A further protection against the competence-veneer pitfall is not to give in to every trend simply because apparently everyone else is doing so. As an employer or responsible person, it is not unreasonable to demand a solid foundation on which to base the decision whether to allow certain techniques or not. These might include manufacturer information, certification or industry best practices. Again, asking questions of the new person on the crew may provide an indication of the depth of understanding the person possesses – is it simply something he or she picked up at a recent trade show, or is it a matter the person has given due consideration? Does he or she have an understanding of the parameters for correct use, and is this person able to use the tool or technique in a correct fashion?

The condition of a person’s equipment can offer further insight into the depth of the new team member’s abilities. New gear is not necessarily indicative of true competence – it may simply speak of the person’s willingness to invest in gear. Conversely, worn equipment may not necessarily be a bad sign, depending on the wear. Is the gear worn as a result of regular, extended use, yet well maintained and looked after? Or does it show signs of modification, in- correct use or damage? It is wise not to ignore such indicators. Taken on their own, they may not be a big deal (though in some cases they may!). But when viewed in a wider context, they may indicate a lack of understanding and ability.

All of the above is not intended to be mean-spirited or negative. On the contrary, a company culture based on open, transparent communication, high-quality interaction between management and operators in the field and a focus on training and development of competencies is truly something to aspire to. It is something that benefits all persons involved in the company, making for a better, safer and more structured work environment.

It is important not to ignore instances in which decisions are being based on a thin veneer of competence. This is by no means a private matter and ought to concern all. It is too late after the accident has occurred and a person has been hospitalised – or worse, when, during the debriefing, you can only be sorry and everybody is left shaking their heads, saying “If only we had realised! How on earth could he have made that call? We all thought he knew better! We should have known better.”  This issue should have and could have been caught much earlier.

The good news is that doing so is not rocket science. It involves good, quality communication, being diligent and attentive to details and looking out for each other. These form the foundation and the first steps toward avoiding the pitfall created by the veneer of competence, offering greater safety and an opportunity to increase competencies and skills – for all involved. 



On the first day in Green-Wood I was up a tree, about to switch my pulley saver from one anchor point to another… when I realised that I did not have one of the yellow retrieval cones with me. Arghh! Let me explain…

My approach to retrieval cones, both small and large used to be very much belt and braces for a long time, the thinking being you can never have too many. So I would hang retrieval cones wherever there was space to do so, with multiple ones hanging off my harness, my gear bag, as well as climbing and access line bags. In fact at one point, I even had one on my key ring!

So it felt like more than just a touch of irony to be stranded in Brooklyn, up a tree, with ZERO retrieval cones to hand.

I ended up having to manually de-install my saver. Once on the ground I started wondering about how I was going to manage this situation for the coming days, in view of the fact that there was not a single cone to be found anywhere. Randomly, I had a 5 Norwegian Kroner coin handing off my gear bag. And a roll of duct tape in it. As so often before in my life, duct tape saved the day! (I always wondered why I had that coin hanging on my bag and how it got there – now I know! It was meant to be there for that moment of need in Brooklyn)

A length of throw line through the hole in the coin, build up some width with duct tape… et voilà: a more or less functional retrieval cone! More countries should make coins with holes in them, they can come pretty handy.

I got home an ordered ten retrieval cones


Climbers Forum 2019

If you are wondering what events to attend next year, let me suggest that you make the trip to the German Tree Care Days and the Climbers Forum in Augsburg, Germany.

This unique event never stops surprising me with its many facets and its engaged, savvy audience… most certainly worth the effort of getting there.

You can thank me later.

The dates for next year are 7 to 9 May 2019.

For more info:

Lucky to be here

Well, there, strictly speaking, as I am back home now.

I had a further opportunity to work in the trees in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn, NY with Phil Kelley.

What can I say? It is a true privilege to be able to work on such a unique collection of trees in a very special setting, starting a climb in a bucolic setting, surrounded by headstones, bird song and trees, to be surprised by the view from the top of the canopy, offering stunning vistas over Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Upper New York Bay.

Impressions I took home with me this time were for instance of a silver maple that retrenched itself, beautiful, impressive and brimming with vitality. I was considering one stem with a large cavity at its base, wondering whether to take some weight off the top, so I gave it good old kick to see how it moved – upon which I heard a strange wheezing sound and a plop, and saw a racoon streaking away below me. Poor thing had obviously been snoozing in the cavity, to be unceremoniously dumped onto the ground. This was another distinctive theme of this visit: racoons galore, they seemed to be everywhere and racoon poop., with trees with literally every limb covered in the stuff. Ho-hum. Then again, who are we humans to complain about other creatures making a mess: we are, after all, hard to top! Masters of disaster.

We also did some work and installation bracing systems on a large beech tree. Due to the number of stems and position of the weak unions we ended up having to place an absolute spider’s web-worth of braces up there!

The main thing I take away every time from these visits is a lesson in being humble.

We may like to think that we are like the Lorax in Dr. Seuss’ books and that we speak for the trees – yet in truth we do not. We do not know better than the trees. These beings have millions years of experience when it comes to survival strategies and how to manage their shape and form. We are but a blink of an eyelid in this story. Time and again I come across trees that every one of us would probably condemn without a moment’s hesitation – yet there they are, still standing, braving wind and weather. It just goes to show how often trees have a much higher degree of resilience than we credit them with and that we tend to remove them much earlier than is strictly speaking necessary. Partly this is understandable if you are operating in a risk-adverse environment, which is probably true of many of us.

All the more I commend Joe Charap and the rest of the team at Green-Wood for going out on a limb for these beautiful, veteran trees – beautiful, damaged and dignified, despite or maybe because of all their faults and defects.

Memes are weird

The Falling Stars challenge started off in Russia in August and has since gone viral. It involved wealthy kids staging images of themselves falling out of their cars, jets, boats, whatever… with their luxury goods – designer handbags, jewellery, champagne glasses – casually strewn around them.


However, I was thinking that as arborists we drag plenty of stuff around with us on a daily basis – and are up for a challenge, so here is our iteration of the #fallingstarschallenge2018…

Memes are weird indeed…

An unexpected encounter

Many, many years ago, probably in the late nineties, we were doing some work in the zoo here in Basel. Opposite the catering and restaurant area there is a very striking group of large Pinus nigra. The spec here was to remove dead wood and the crows’ nests. The trees consisted of very long, straight trunks without any limbs and a narrow canopy, so getting ourselves up there was a bit of a fiddle, especially due to the fact that this was in the days before we were using throw-lines.

Still, I got myself to the top of the tree, poked my head through the canopy to a rather fine view, wind-swept view over town. There was also quite a lot of guano in evidence, lots of bird action going on up there. While I was looking around, something caught my eye on one of the limbs sticking out of the canopy… upon closer inspection it turned out to be a rather nice golden watch, strapped to the limb – 25 meters up, in a black Pine.

I have heard of magpies being attracted to shiny things, but this really took the biscuit, especially as the clasp was done up and all. Warily I looked around at the birds in the vicinity, making sure none of them was giving me the eye! Talk about a Hitchcock moment!

I decided to leave the watch where I found it up there, just seemed to weird to tamper with it. Just as well, it turned out, as it turned out that it had belonged to one of the gardeners in the zoo who had received it as a present from his fiancée – and when that went sour, he nipped up the tree to leave it up there. Umm, yes, that’ll teach her!

You could not make this stuff up.

A matter of perspective

The other day I was visiting a site which we did some work on some years ago, when I was struck by a couple of large Populus logs laying off to one side. They had obviously been there for quite some time, the bark had largely flaked off and the wood is colonised by a wide range of fungi…

I was struck by the beauty of the fruiting bodies of the fungi, but what I found even more striking the condition of the wood in view of the fact that apparently these trunks have been lying there for 18 years! That is a long time for a wood which I would have assumed would have decomposed to a fairly high degree over such an extended period. Not so. The wood is still firm with little sign of decomposition.

This got me thinking how we often have the tendency to try to fit complex issues into handy boxes, creating a model of the world surrounding us that is easier to handle and more palatable. Fungi, for instance, from an arborist perspective spell trouble. They are often an indicator of stress, decay or mechanical damage. Certainly, when performing a visual tree assessment this is the kind of thing we will pick up on: Wearing my VTA goggles, fruiting bodies are not good news.

Yet this is only one way of viewing fungi and it falls short of a more complex reality. Neville Fay of Treework Environmental Practice, who has done lots of work on veteran tree preservation speaks eloquently to the beauty of fungi, of how they are an integral part of life cycles of trees, performing an essential task in a process of decay and renewal. And indeed, autumn is that time of year when I cannot help but marvel at the diversity of fungi, the myriad shapes, sizes and colours they come in, some big, some small, some toxic, some edible, some beautiful, some less sightly… sometimes it seems to me as though nature let its creativity off the leash when it came to thinking up fungi – yet of course, much more than merely being pretty, each of them performs a specific task in a specific niche – in a highly efficient manner.

Indeed, the way in which we behold something is all a matter of perspective and context. Obviously if we are trying to preserve a tree which is valuable to its owner, extensive colonisation of the base of the tree by fruiting bodies (depending on the species) it is probably not good news, yet in all honesty this does not make the fungi bad guy, as often as not the root of the problem lies somewhere else, such as damage to the roots during construction work, compacted soil, drought stress, large pruning cuts, superficial damage to roots by lawnmowers etc.

It will be interesting to see where this goes in the coming years as our knowledge of how exactly fungi decompose wood improves. Amongst others, Francis Schwarze has been doing interesting work in this area, researching natural antagonists, such as Trichoderma harzianum which he has used to counteract fungal infection in trees. I believe we stand to gain through an improved knowledge of the complex interactions between trees and fungi, as they have co-existed since the very beginning and viewing fungi as inherently bad falls short of a much more complex reality.

Seasons are so yesterday

Intermediate seasons seem to be passé. Here at least we seem to be heading towards going from summer seamlessly into winter. Having said that, the colors are fantastic none the less…

What? You think the colors might have something to do with licking the fly agaric? 🤪

That aside, the conditions are an absolute cracker to be climbing in, I absolutely love how the new gear integrates seamlessly into my climbing and work processes.

I was thinking back to ETCC in Valencia in 2000 today, the first ETCC I took part in as a competitor, in fact. Somehow I managed to forget my protective glasses, so I asked some random person whether he had a pair to spare. That person turned out to be Chris, we got chatting, which later led to working together, to a friendship and to treemagineers – which of course also included Beddes. Sooooo I was thinking thank goodness I was fuzzy whilst packing for Valencia and forgot my glasses, or else I might not have met Chris, treemagineers might never have happened and I would not have all this great gear for climbing in trees today.

Alternate realities are weird.

P.S. Kids, don’t lick fly agaric. It is not a good idea.


What is this?!

Something that tumbled out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where famously the main protagonist, Winston Smith is mindwashed in an attempt to make him accept that two plus two equals five?

Or PPE from a parallel dimension, where the Einsteinian space-time continuum is weirdly not applicable and the laws of thermodynamics unheard of?

Ooooooor simply a mistake? 😉

I rather fancy option two. Could be interesting…