Entrepreneurs and managers once valued competent people. The logic was simple: competent employees get things done while incompetent employees don't. Therefore, it was in your interest to hire and retain as many competent people as possible.

Today, most companies want either "rock stars" or "team players." Rock stars possess originality, genius and brilliance, usually with an ego to match. Team players are all about winning as a team, rather than achieving their own individual success.

Competent employees aren't rock stars. Rock stars look down their noses at those who merely competent... except when the rock stars want to avoid work, at which point it's "Hey, could you do this boring task that I'm too brilliant to bother with?"

Competent employees are, however, team players. They're the team members who actually get things while the rest of the team disappears into the woodwork... until it's time to take credit for the completed project.

When bosses need something important done quickly and correctly, they give the task to the person they know is competent. Such tasks are added to the workload because (so the saying goes) "if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it."

However, come compensation time, the rock stars get the big bucks while the merely competent are lumped in with their mediocre coworkers. ("Jim, you're level 7, so all we can give you this year is a 4% raise.")

According to recent research from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado and described in the The Atlantic:

  • "People do, in fact, assign more tasks to those they perceive as competent."
  • Those assigning tasks consistently underestimate the amount of effort required.
  • The competent resent that they "do more work for the same reward."
  • The competent feel undervalued and unappreciated (because they are.)
  • Your most competent employees are probably looking for work elsewhere.

That last item is bad news for bosses, because competent employees usually aren't missed, until they leave, at which everything goes to hell in the proverbial hand basket. Your rock stars falter without the support while your teams start missing all their deadlines.

Fortunately, there are five things you can do to keep your competent key players in place:

  1. Identify your competent employees. Imagine you've got a task you can't do yourself but that MUST get done. You need to assign it to somebody. Who's the first person or persons who come to mind?
  2. Pay them significantly more than their peers. Competent employees are seldom competent at salary negotiations, which is why they're constantly underpaid. Don't wait for them to ask (or leave). Give them a big raise immediately; repeat every year.
  3. Resist the temptation to load them down. Even when they're unhappy, the competent seldom complain about their work and often feel as if they can't say "no" to an assignment. Therefore, you must moderate their workload for them.
  4. Praise them lavishly but privately. Competent employees know that if they're singled out it creates resentment, making it even harder for them to get the job done. Express your gratitude frequently but one-on-one.
  5. Winnow out the truly incompetent. Nothing is more demoralizing to the competent than employees who don't pull their weight. So dump the deadwood. Especially if the deadwood is your brother-in-law.
Published on: May 26, 2015
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