Michael Bergdahl is a professional international business speaker, author and turnaround specialist. Michael worked in Bentonville, Arkansas for Walmart, as the Director of “People” for the headquarters office, where he worked directly with Walmart’s founder Sam Walton. It was Sam Walton who gave Bergdahl the nickname, “Bird Dawg!” Previous to Walmart he worked in the FMCG Industry for PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay Division in the sales organization and headquarters staff assignments. He is a turnaround specialist who participated in two successful business turnarounds as VP of HR at both American Eagle Outfitters and Waste Management. Bergdahl has more than 25 years of HR experience, and he has received the Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) lifetime certification from SHRM. I’ve enjoyed sharing the platform with him, and was honored to write the forward to his book, High Expectations are the Key to Everything. I asked him to share his insights on avoiding incompetency.
Interestingly, the biggest obstacle each of us faces to actually becoming the best we can be is our inflated self-image. In our society, everyone thinks they are better than they actually are, and more often than not, our self-image does not always portray reality. What we think is outstanding is really quite average. What we think is average may be borderline acceptable. This deluded way of thinking creates a leveling effect, and if you are not careful, you will become part of a large herd of quite average people, who share the same inflated views of their average abilities. This isn’t just an opinion. There are studies that have verified this phenomenon.
In a psychological study conducted by the College Board, a random group of people was asked to rank themselves on their ability to get along with others. All of the participants viewed themselves in the top half of the population. Incredibly, sixty percent rated themselves in the top ten percent of the population, and a full twenty five percent thought they were in the top one percent of the population. In a parallel finding, seventy percent rated themselves in the top quartile in leadership.
In a similar study, nearly a million high school seniors were asked to indicate “how you feel you compare with other people your own age in several areas of ability”. Sixty percent reported themselves as better than average in athletic ability. In leadership ability, seventy percent rated themselves as above average. In ability to get along with others, zero percent of the respondents rated themselves below average, sixty percent rated themselves in the top ten percentile, and twenty five percent saw themselves among the top one percentile.
So why is it that we all think we are the best? Why is it that we are so wildly irrational about ourselves when it comes to objectively evaluating our own strengths and weaknesses? Our inaccurate self-perceptions may have something to do with that expression “fake it until you make it.” It seems to work in real life, just take a look at some of the successful people around you like your co-workers and even your current supervisor! You’ll find examples of people who have achieved a degree of success, but with that success, they may now be stretched beyond their capabilities. What causes this to happen and why is it allowed to go on? The answer may surprise you.
Decades ago, Dr. Laurence J. Peter first published The Peter Principle. This theory is based on the notion that employees will continue to get promoted as long as they are competent, but at some point they will fail to get promoted beyond a certain level, because it has become too challenging for them. At that point, “they have reached their level of incompetence”. Unfortunately, once employees in organizations rise to their level of incompetence, they end up settling in right where they are. I experienced this with several incompetent superiors above me when I worked for some of the largest, most respected companies in the world. I’m sure you’ve experienced this too. This reality is particularly frustrating for those who aspire to climb the corporate career ladder, which is blocked by an incompetent supervisor above them. Incompetent superiors can’t do their own job properly let alone help you advance your career. To be honest, they wouldn’t help you if they could, because they rely on the good work of capable people like you to make them at least appear to be competent.
You can avoid reaching your level of incompetence, and you can navigate around blocked career paths by adopting a couple of specific strategies.
- Thought Leadership: seize the opportunity to create visibility by volunteering to make presentations to the top executives, who are in charge of decisions about your career.
- Continuous Learning: find out what prerequisite skills, knowledge and training are required to reach the next level. Prepare yourself in advance and you’ll become the natural choice.
- Subject Matter Expert: develop your expertise so you become known throughout your organization as the “go to” person for solving problems and strategy development.
- Promote Yourself: By proactively taking control of your own destiny you’ll set yourself apart and you’ll become the natural choice for the most desirable future promotional opportunities.