What if Most of Us Aren’t Good at Our Jobs?

One of the most diligent high performers I know has a suspicion about workers and their competence. He mentioned it in passing recently; I’ve since heard many stories that it could possibly explain.

The idea? Eighty percent of people aren’t good at their jobs.

My friend, the theorist here, is a perfectionist, so he doesn’t consider himself a high performer. He explained his suspicion after hearing about how smoothly my recent home renovation went. We met the deadlines. Our costs matched our quotes. Those involved did what they were paid to do, they did it on time, and they did it well. Granted, the renovation was nowhere near the scale of anything I’ve seen on Grand Designs — there was no infinity pool that uses native flora to maintain healthy pH levels without the use of store-bought chemicals, no structure built into a cliff face — but that didn’t stop me bracing for disaster.

What were the chances of things going so well? My friend countered our story of disconcertingly smooth sailing with a tale of a seemingly straightforward task — getting a concrete slab poured for a garden shed — becoming a nightmare due to corner-cutting contractors who took a near-enough approach. No one was happy with the result, but at the same time the results did not surprise him.

It reinforced his theory that 80 percent of people — white collar or blue, low paid or high, employed or self-employed — aren’t actually very good at what they do. They might do it well enough to keep the job; that doesn’t mean they do it well. It might be because they don’t really care or because they don’t really try, because they haven’t been properly trained or resourced or because they’re not suited to it. It might be because they have turmoil in their personal lives or are just easily distracted. But the result is the same: Others pay a price.

Though this 80 percent hypothesis might be 100 percent untested, I found the idea a compelling one. And as I was later reminded, echoes the corporate world’s 80/20 principle, which suggests 20 percent of the workforce does 80 percent of the work.

Stories about nightmarish customer service, counterproductive bureaucracy, doctors who don’t listen to their patients, people managers who disdain people, and so on: They’re shocking if you expect every tradesman, educator, shop assistant, politician, public servant, healthcare provider, and manager to be suited to their job and do it well.

But if 80 percent of people aren’t very good at their jobs, dismal outcomes suddenly make sense. I’m not saying the statement is true — it’s only a hypothesis — just that it could explain a lot.

Of course, positive experiences might not be as rare as they sometimes seem. Researchers writing in The Harvard Review have noted that online reviews tend to “over-represent the most extreme views” as opposed to the “silent” middle-of-the-road majority. A person who experiences good customer service might not even notice it, let alone turn it into a story for a dinner party. There’s no shock value, no bad-to-worse progression, to keep appalled listeners enthralled.  

We might also be reluctant to share positive experiences with people we know have had negative ones. In the same way we might not tell a parent whose baby cries all night that ours always sleeps through, we might resist raving about our supportive manager when someone at the table is being bullied by theirs.

Whatever the case, there’s a place for understanding that just because someone has a particular job or title, doesn’t mean he or she is particularly competent. In lowering our expectations, bad service and botched projects become less shocking, and even less upsetting; while good service and outcomes become more remarkable. We become less rattled when things don’t go to plan, because we don’t always expect them to, and more appreciative when they do.

None of this should surprise people of the book. Our toil, whether under the sun or under fluorescent lights, takes place on cursed ground. Even when our intentions are good, our bodies are prone to weariness, our minds to self-interest and distraction.

When perplexed by the state of the nation and the world, by the fact humanity is so capable in some respects, and so incompetent in others, we can note that not every employee or executive, politician or president, does their job well — whether they realize it or not, whether they care or not. Remembering this won’t fix anything or explain everything, but it can help us make some sense of the mishaps we see out there and experience first-hand.

We can also note that if the majority of workers aren’t great at their jobs, there’s a good chance (perhaps an 80 percent chance?) that “they” are “us.”

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