Wanting to appear competent vs. being competent

A while ago, I gave a colleague of mine feedback regarding a presentation she held in front of a scientific audience. Besides mentioning some issues with the argumentation, I also mentioned that one could see that she was nervous — not in her face or by her gestures, but in the fact that her decolletage was turning red during the presentation.

In retrospect, this was an obvious mistake.

There is an old Sicilian Proverb:Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty.” and I was neither a friend of her, nor did I want to become one. It was simply something that I noticed while I was watching her present for over an hour (and it was quite obvious even from across the room where I sat). And I thought she should know that — encouraged, perhaps, by thinking that she seemed to be concerned with her nervousness. After all, I had the impression that two people in the audience were either ordered or thought it necessary by themselves to encourage her during the presentation by over-acted nodding. I thought that she might not like hearing it, but would be thankful in the long run, especially since this can easily be remedied by wearing something that shows less decolletage.

Not surprisingly (in retrospect), she was pissed at the remark and vehemently forbade me to make any further remarks regarding her nervousness in the future — or “scan” her body for signs of nervousness (which made me feel like a Peeping Tom).

After apologizing for my faux-pas and resorting my emotions, which were hurt by the misunderstanding, I thought about my comment and her reactions. I think the problem lies a deeper than the flushed skin. I think this misunderstanding is based on her wish to appear competent — at the  expense of being competent.

Don’t get me wrong — I think her work is good, has potential. But it is not perfect. She is not perfect. Nobody of us is. Especially not at the beginning of a scientific career. (And it’s a good thing — imagine being perfect — it would be boring, there would be no room for improvement, no reason to strive for anything!)

But some people want to appear competent — or ‘be perfect’. Instead of treating mistakes and room for improvement as natural opportunities for learning and improving their work, they see them as signs for personal failure and lack of imagination. In the extreme form, any suggestion to do something different is an assault of their perceived competence. They reject suggestions and feedback as good they can: Consciously by given ‘reasons’ why they are right without really analyzing the feedback, and unconsciously by reacting in such a way that the person giving feedback is not encouraged to do so again.

Unfortunately, it does not work.

Wanting to appear competent and rejecting feedback has two important destructive consequences: First, it prevents the improvement of one’s own work, the only true aim of feedback. Second, feedback cannot be prevented forever. In science, in art, in engineering, all works get feedback at one point or the other. Unless the reviewer is satisfied (ideally, that the work is good, unfortunately sometimes, that this-or-that would-be-bigshot-with-personal-influence is cited) a scientific paper is not published. Unless a curator sees the value of an artwork, it is not exhibited. Unless some rules of reality are adhered to, a machine will not work. Preventing feedback will leave one’s current and future work mediocre, and in the long run prevent one from having a successful career. It will distance oneself from reality, leads one to work in a vacuum, until one fails completely.

No, I don’t like suggestions for improvement either, nor do I like negative critique, but “not liking it” is no excuse for “not using it”. Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture: “… when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.” and I wholly agree with him.

Unfortunately, some people rather want to appear competent. They even “hire” supporters in the audience who nod. While it might get them through the presentation, they completely destroy their value as feedback givers. If you have told a person to support you, to nod, to encourage you, what can you learn from their feedback? They will not say something “negative” that might show you room for improvement, nor will they point out obvious mistakes. They know how easily you can be hurt and they will try to avoid that. And if they say something positive, do they say so because it really was positive or because they feel obliged to do so? Having “bought” supporters, they go for short time boosts of confidence, while screwing themselves in the long term. This is similar with insecure partners in an intimate relationship. They ask their partner whether they are beautiful, thin, skilled, etc. and the results are the same. No partner would ever deny it (twice, some have to learn from their first-and-only mistake of answering the question negatively), and if they try to “ensure” her, how could they? The is always the lingering doubt: Does he say this because I really am beautiful/thin/skilled or because he does not want to hurt my feelings (or the relationship)?

Roseanne Barr once said that “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you power. You just take it.” — it’s the same with competence. Nobody can give you competence, nobody can remove your doubts you have about it. Unless you rest in yourself, try to do your work as good as you can — while still accepting that it can always be improved and there is always a random influence — you will never feel competent. Only then can you listen — really listen — to suggestions, to critique, and analyze it for its merit, include what you can use in your work. Only then will suggestions improve your work and not undermine your ego.

And only then can you show your competence be accepting feedback, even regarding a physiological reaction you cannot consciously control, and deal with it professionally.

After all, negative feedback is an opportunity to show one’s competence in the way one deals with it.