Should you strive for Total Competency? (Why multitasking and the "rennaissance man" are a myth)
Our society imposes a lot of pressure on us to be totally competent people.
Small business owners tell me they are exhausted by their efforts to accomplish the many tasks that their position requires of them. Career clients embarking on a job search experience something similar when trying to revise their résumés to improve their chance of being selected for interviews. The growth in the use of “multitask” or “multitasking” in job descriptions and position announcements also seem to support the notion that we are all capable, and even expected, to be competent in every type of task you encounter in a job.
Multitasking is usually defined as doing several different things at once or a tool that’s useful for several different uses. It historically arose from computer jargon in the heyday of IBM’s big-as-a-room machines in the 1960s but quickly jumped into the realm of employment. And while our era of high power and high speed microprocessors makes multitasking the norm for computers, its increased use in HR and job descriptions best serves employers, not the employed.
The idea of multitask capability is deviously seductive to human beings. Each of us has an innate desire to be omni-capable (and even omni-potent [or omnipotent]). Having total competency ensures that we are capable of overcoming any obstacle life places in front of us and frees us from insecurities about being found lacking in some regard or being overcome by life’s challenges. Total competency also ensures that we get all of the credit for our successes and accomplishments, rather than having been need of assistance due to some personal shortcoming.
We love stories of self-made individuals and the millionaire who made her or his own way because they reinforce the notion that we, too, can accomplish our dreams and aspirations on our own. The growth of certain mental illnesses is due, in some part, to our underlying belief that at least some people (as presented by social media) are capable of living perfect lives and our related dissilusion that we aren’t likewise capable. How ironic that stories of multi-competency rarely, if ever, fit our own experience of life.
The fact of the matter is that no one individual is gifted or competent to take on every task that work (or life) presents. Corporations routinely divide creative inspiration, operational consistency and financial integrity into the roles of CEO, COO and CFO because they understand that these roles require differing competencies; and yet, it’s not uncommon to find a requirement for multitasking capabilities in lower level positions within those same organizations. Small businesses are especially susceptible to the myth of total competency because they have a greater need for their inherently smaller workforce to accomplish diverse (and often opposing) undertakings. The myth of multitasking serves employers by allowing them to expand demands on employees beyond the scope of a specific job description. It can also reflect a lack of thought as to what the organization actually needs, due to mission-diffusion or organizational laziness, or may simply be a covert attempt to leave a job ill-defined.
The issue becomes somewhat confused by the reality that some of us do thrive on variety of tasks in our work and enjoy changing gears or focus in the course of a workday. Ironically, people who enjoy a variety of tasks are seldom, if ever, also people with an ability to consistently and effectively complete those tasks. In my experience, multi-taskers are never multi-finishers. The ability to juggle multiple demands in a job simply doesn’t translate into an ability to competently complete them.
To be direct, every widely used personality tests acknowledges multiple different competency areas. And, while there may be some overlap of competencies between similar types or categories, extreme multi-competency and total competency simply don’t exist. You simply won’t be able to do everything life and work require of you and do them all well.
What’s the alternative to total competency?
I stress Strengths Maximization with all of my business and career clients. In the world of business this requires an employer to develop a high level understanding of the scope and nature of tasks a position will require, so that they can seek individuals with the inherent strengths needed to accomplish those tasks. This also requires an employer to understand the mutually exclusive nature of human gifting; that is, that an individual with the specific strengths they need may also be incapable of completing task in other areas.
For example, individuals who excel at managing operational and administrative tasks are seldom capable of creating new and innovative ways to address presenting problems. At best, they will search and find another, pre-existing way to address the need and simply adapt it to fit the need, regardless of whether it is the best solution to the problem. The same can be true of persons who are gifted to create the novel concepts, ideas, and images that drive marketing in the information age - they may lack ability to establish sequential and systematic ways needed to take their idea from conception to realization.
To borrow an idea from author Jay Niblick , you are best served by staying within (and optimizing the use of) your “genius”, than by trying to be or become totally competent. This doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to new innovation or become lazy about increasing your skill level and improving your competency level. Those things are markers of healthy, growing people (not just productive employees). Rather, it implies that you become an expert on your own abilities and inabilities and then live and work humbly within those boundaries, asking for (or hiring) help for those tasks that lie outside them.