Why do we persist in trying to turn ourselves (and other people) into what we and they plainly are not?

Expectations are major sources of stress, especially those that are more or less doomed from the start. Instead of trying to turn yourself into someone else, with totally different abilities, why not focus on becoming better at being who you are?

It isn’t just crazy expectations about results, workloads, time-scales, or cost reductions that cause so much stress today. Almost worse are the expectations that organizations set for people’s abilities—and people set themselves for their own career paths.

Why do we do it? Aren’t there enough strains and problems to be faced, without adding new ones based on expectations that never had a rational basis?

The curse of competency lists

Many organizations have been tempted into trying to define exactly what skills and abilities are needed to make you “competent” in a specific job—then use those lists as the basis for that other grand form of pointless cruelty: the annual performance appraisal.

As so often, it’s an approach based on ideas that seem plausible in theory: those of making performance and hiring decisions more objective. Sadly, ask two people to describe the ideal set of abilities for a job and you’ll get at least three answers—all of them conflicting. Worse, the responses will be expressed in such vague terminology that they can mean almost anything you want them to.

Now bring together a slew of committees to review and reach consensus on the final list and you have the perfect recipe for creating an artificial set of requirements that doesn’t apply to any recognizable job, let alone the one being “defined.”

The resulting demands on actual human beings are enough to create stress in a Zen master. Real, individual skills are ignored in favor of totally artificial patterns.

Running eagles

The next step in the farce is taken by those in charge of training. Armed with the competency lists, plus the fantasies peddled by gurus and consultants, they proceed to attempt to “teach” people how to fit the required patterns.

Eagles are given running lessons and told flying is “not what is required” and “not the mark of a good team-player.” Fish are exhorted to grow legs and take up mountaineering. Lions are told to eat grass and mice are exhorted to become “lean, mean flying machines.”

It would all be funny, if people’s jobs and livelihoods weren’t dependent on appearing to go along with this nonsense.

Self-inflicted misery

Over time, people even come to treat such idiocy as real. They have little choice, since those who rule their working destinies demand it.

Take the example of “leadership skills.” In any logical world, it would be clear that you only need one or two leaders to work with a very large number of people. That’s especially true today, since modern technology makes it easy for a single leader to communicate instantly with scores—even hundreds—of followers. There’s certainly no logical reason for all the layers upon layers of “leaders” present in nearly all organizations.

Why are they there? Because of two myths:

  • The myth that everyone needs to be closely supervised or they’ll slack off and do nothing.
  • The myth that pay should be linked to “added responsibilities” to create a career path.

Neither of these myths is—or ever was—true, but tens of thousands of people’s jobs now depend on them. Indeed, often the only way today to gain consistently higher rewards is by promotion into a “leadership position.”

It is any wonder, therefore, that huge numbers of people—many with no true interest in, or aptitude for, leadership— try to force themselves into displaying some of the fashionable traits of leadership?

The plain truth

We can sum up reality in a few, commonsense statements:

  • Most people have neither the inherent skills nor the real wish to be “leaders” in the true sense. They have many, many other natural strengths, most of which get neglected in the rush to become a leader.
  • The true demand for leaders is a tiny fraction of the number of people and jobs carrying that title. It would be much more rational to find a better way of linking rewards to contribution than inventing spurious management layers.
  • The precise skills and know-how required by any specific job constantly change and are often unpredictable. No list created by a committee is going to cover them. People need to know what they are expected to do, what scope they have to do it without asking permission, and very little else.
  • Jobs are dynamic. They change the person who holds them as those people gain experience. The person doing the job changes it to make it better fit who they are and what they’re good at. Fixing a description at a single time (and often without input from a current job holder) is the proverbial task of nailing jelly to a wall.

A massive amount of needless stress, frustration, and unhappiness—to say nothing of a vast waste of genuine talent—would be saved if we stopped forcing eagles to run and let them do what they’re best at— flying.

So, if you’re an eagle, stick with eagle strengths. If you’re a badger, make digging your career. And don’t let any idiot try to force you into some other path, just because that’s the fashion or the dictat of some committee.

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