How are we to Love the Incompetent Colleague?

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(Note: This article was published in the Made to Flourish and Coram Deo blogs.)

William Morris, in his delightful book, Love thy Colleague observes, “There is nothing quite like incompetence at work.”

Throughout this book, Morris explores the topic (quite competently, I might add) of “what it means to be a Christian colleague in the workplace.”  In each chapter, he focuses on a different neighbor who may be hard for us to love.  He exhorts us to be like the Good Samaritan to each of them.  In chapter three, he provides a biblical perspective on how to deal with the incompetent worker.

Incompetence at work is a relevant topic that somehow I have overlooked in my blog and my book, so I am excited to explore it further.  I think it is especially important during these trying times.  There are a vast number of workers who were unexpectedly thrust into a technically challenging telework environment or even worse, unemployment, which may have added to perceptions of incompetence from others or themselves.

In what follows, I will share some of Morris’ thoughts then add a few of my own.  I will share biblical principles to help Christian workers show sacrificial love to their incompetent neighbors in biblical and practical ways that will glorify God.

What does it look like?

Morris paints a bleak picture of what incompetence eventually produces. He states,

Like ripple in a pond – or, perhaps, a bad odour – the effects of incompetence seem to spread out in every direction.  Fellow workers have to do the work not done, or clear up the mess by redoing the work done badly the first time.  The client or customer often suffers through shoddy goods or services – and a reduced trust and confidence in that business.

We have all seen it from every angle.  As a customer, we’ve seen it in those who are supposed to take care of us, but are not.  We have seen it in our bosses, in our co-workers, and in our employees.  If we are totally honest, we have seen it in ourselves.  How is a Christian supposed to respond?

How do workers become incompetent?

Before we get to the answer, Morris helps us to understand the causes of incompetence.  He deftly explains that not all incompetence is the same.  He lists three major causes, and I quote:

  • Incompetence can be caused by simple inexperience.
  • Incompetence can also arise in situations where those skills or rules have been incorrectly or imperfectly learned.
  • Finally, incompetence can sometimes arise because of circumstances unrelated to our level of knowledge, skill and application (or lack thereof).  It can arise, for example, from simple overload.

In my three decades of serving in and with the Army, I have seen each of these causes illustrated.

A newly commissioned second lieutenant or a private that has just graduated from basic training will certainly start out as incompetent, due to their lack of experience.  I have also seen many Soldiers who for whatever reason were never trained properly.  They may have several years of experience, but they are rough around the edges, unjustifiably overconfident in their abilities because previous leaders did not mentor them well.  Lastly, there have been many positions where I have been barely keeping my head above water.  I may have appeared to be failing due to too many unrealistic expectations.  I knew what I was doing; I just could not do it all fast enough.

Responding to incompetence with mercy and grace

The best response to how we are to deal with others is that we need to extend the same mercy and grace God extended to us.  Paul exhorts the church, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13).

Jesus demonstrated this in His response to an incompetent employee he had.  How did Jesus deal with Peter’s one-time, yet incredible moment of incompetence after he denied Jesus three times?

In John 21:15-19, we read of Jesus’ private conversation with Peter on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus asks Peter three times if he truly loved him.  Each time, Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”  In so doing, Jesus reinstated Peter.  This was confirmed on the Day of Pentecost where Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, preached a sermon where 3,000 people came to Christ.  (See Acts 2:14-41.)

Loving our incompetent neighbors by giving them tools

Certainly, whether we are supervisors or peers, we can make every effort to provide tools to help our weak and inexperienced neighbors at work by methodically coaching, teaching, and mentoring them.  We can share with them some of the valuable lessons we have learned along the way.  Personal mentoring is more difficult while teleworking, but it can happen if done with intentionality.

If they continue to struggle with developing critical skills to be successful on the job, we need to commit to speaking the truth in love.  (See Eph. 4:15.)  Worst case, if you assess that the job just is not a good fit for them (i.e., they are a square peg in a round hole or it goes against their design), this may involve making the hard decision to give them a chance to succeed somewhere else.

Hear these compassionate words of Morris: “Doing a job where you always seem to be messing up is incredibly stressful. You feel you are hanging on by your fingertips. . . The mercy in this case would be to get the colleague out of that job and into one which they can handle, or even excel at.”

I trust this reflection will cause you to see your incompetent colleagues in a new light.

(Note: Click here to read my follow-up article on how to respond if we are the incompetent colleague.)

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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