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.