Thin veneer vs. solid foundation

A couple of days ago I wrote about some of the challenges that training and working with people starting out in tree work can pose – ok, it was a little bit tongue in cheek – but still, it got me thinking.

In many ways, the situation in that instance is very clear, making it easier to work with: you are dealing with beginners, a cliental with little or no experience in work at height, striving towards increasing their competence. So in many ways you know where you are at.

A rather more challenging situation in my experience is when dealing with people who already possess a certain degree of competence, but you are not sure of the extent and depth of this. In a work situation this might manifest itself in a person who gives off all the external signals of being a competent person, they have all the right gear and use the right terminology. Obviously he or she is up to speed on all current developments, keeps an eye on the relevant forums and sites and can hold his or her own ground in any discussion.

Yet when it comes to solving real world problems, improvising on site when things are not going exactly according to plan, consequently forcing us to move from plan A to plan B, C or D, demands are placed on people in the team to dig deeper into their mental toolbox in order to find appropriate tools and solutions – and this is when you realize that the person is really struggling to fulfill their designated role and is obviously not understanding what is going on.

Which can be puzzling, because as I wrote before, it is diametrically opposed to the signals that the person is emitting – that is, until I realize that the aura of competence is in actual fact quite a thin veneer, a thin coating, so whilst I may indeed not be dealing with a beginner, the actual depth of their knowledge is a lot less profound and well-founded than I had initially been led to believe. Led to believe not in the sense of deliberate deceit, but rather as consequence of a misunderstanding.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but can actually lead to quite disconcerting situations leaving both sides with a sense of frustration and feeling misunderstood. I have no easy quick-fix recipe on how to counter this phenomenon (sorry), but maybe something as simple as being aware of the mechanism is a first step on the way to countering it: I cannot assume that what is blindingly obvious for me is equally so for the person opposite me – and vice versa. As so often a degree of empathy, putting yourself in the other persons place, can be very helpful.

Lastly, base you expectations regarding a person’s competence on actual, shared experience rather than on assumptions. I suppose that ultimately this is about being aware of each others strengths and weaknesses, which in turn helps you to respect the other person’s comfort zone, while at the same time allowing them to contribute their abilities.