How do we Respond if we are the Incompetent Colleague?

(Note: This is the second of a two-part reflection on this topic.  I invite you to read the first part here. This article was published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.) 

Do you ever feel like you just can’t keep up with all of the expectations and requirements of your job?  Does your boss or your coworkers ever give you the impression that you are the weakest link on the team?  I know I would have to honestly answer “Yes” to both of these questions.  What about you?

I have enjoyed a long season of perceived competence in my current position, only by the grace of God.  However, there have been several times throughout my military career (both as a Soldier for 20 years and as a Department of the Army civilian employee for 13 years) when I did not feel very competent.

I was inspired to consider writing another reflection on this critical topic that I was first exposed to in reading William Morris’ book, Love thy Colleague: Being Authentically Christian at Work.  In my first article, I answered the question, “How are we to love the incompetent colleague?”  In this one, I want to turn the table around and ask, “What if we are the one who is incompetent?  How do we respond?”

In this article, I want to explore several ideas.  When we are perceived as incompetent (or actually are), we may need to graciously receive help that is offered.  Also, it is during these times that we may need to develop humility.  Finally, we may also need to accept that all of us are incompetent at some level.

We may need to receive mercy

Morris refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan throughout his book.  When our coworkers are in need, he focuses on how to show mercy.  When we are lacking, he encourages us to receive mercy.

Morris indicates:

Accepting mercy means taking the training and advice that are offered to make me as good as I can be; using those opportunities to nourish my own skills and aptitudes.  And it can also mean accepting, as we’ve just seen, that we are simply not cut out to be in some jobs; that we will always be a drag on our colleagues and on the business (in addition to tormenting ourselves).  It can mean accepting from others the merciful message that we should be looking (working with the Spirit) for something to which we are better suited.

What Morris stated above, re: receiving training as needed and accepting the fact that there are certain jobs that are not a good fit, I am reminded of my own failures while assigned as an Army recruiter.

If you feel you cannot cut it, or if you get cut from the team, I believe that God will always provide another job in a field where you may naturally be more competent. However, if your life or family depends on you keeping this particular job where you are struggling, I also believe that God will enable you to be competent enough through training over time.  God will bless your sincere efforts.

We may need to develop humility

From a solid understanding of the doctrine of man, we know that each one of us are sinners, by nature.  We also know that when we happen to succeed, it is easy to be prideful about our accomplishments. 

Morris concurs with this tendency towards pride.  He calls attention to a “counter-intuitive aspect” of this challenging situation: “the benefit that lies in realizing that we actually are incompetent.”  He rightly observes, “The downside of ‘competence’ is the illusion of control.  The illusion that we, as individuals, divorced from a community, can shape the world around us.  The illusion that we as human beings, divorced from God, are the source of our own success.  Competence makes us think more highly of ourselves, and makes us forget what we owe to God, and what we owe to others.” 

When our weaknesses or blind spots are pointed out, it provides us a chance to reflect on the fact that we are no better than anyone else and that any successes we do have are only by the grace of God. 

Morris continues:

If we’re staggering about in the mud, completely unable to get our footing, to regain our balance, we quickly realize that we need help.  We realize we need someone to reach out an arm to steady us; to reach out a hand to pull us up.  We remember that we need others, and we need God.  We’re not self-sufficient, not autonomous, and not that clever.  So, recognizing that we are incompetent, and that we do need the help of others, can be mercy indeed.

Humility is a hard character trait to develop.  Even if we do master it, it is not something that we should brag about. 

Proverbs 16:18 is a well-known verse that is appropriate to highlight here: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  What I’ve learned is that if I do not humble myself before the Lord, He may have to do something to humble me in a way that may not be so comfortable.

Morris shares some wise counsel: “The illusion of competence, of being able to do it all, of having almost limitless capability, can lead us into taking on too much and becoming ever busier. . . Acknowledging that I am incompetent can allow me the opportunity to reassess, regain perspective, and perhaps, slow down a little and give more time to what really matters – including other people.”

None of us are totally competent

Let me expand a little bit on what Morris mentioned above about our collective incompetency.

The Apostle Paul writes something relevant to this discussion in 1 Cor. 1:26-29.  He contrasts the average Christ-follower with those who were considered by the world to be successful.  They were not wise “according to worldly standards”.  Not many of them were powerful or of noble birth.  I can extend that a bit to observe that the average Christian may not be rich, popular, or beautiful, either. 

Paul goes on to say that God did not call the individual members of His Church due to their worldly value.  Instead, He “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

Even Paul, as competent as he was in his profession, did not consider himself to be adequate for the task. He recognized that he was weak, “a jar of clay”. It was God’s “all-surpassing power” which enabled him to preach the gospel. (See 2 Cor. 4:7)

All of us, redeemed and lost, are in fact, incompetent.  And yet, God loves us and accepts us in Christ.  He graciously invites us to join Him in His mission to continue to sustain and expand His kingdom.

Morris also reminds us of God’s amazing grace.  He points out that God always welcomes us into His kingdom based on Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross, “not because we are worthy of it, but because He loves us, incompetent as we truly are.”  Amen!

Closing challenge

Here is my final word for those who are struggling with being the incompetent worker.

Whether you find yourself in a steep learning curve, a temporary slump, a season of unproductivity, or determine that you lack the ability to develop the skills to be adequate to perform the basic functions of your job, you need to remember this.  The God who created Adam gave him his first job.  He designed him with the potential to learn and develop the skills needed to do that job. God provided Adam an opportunity to do work that was of value and which served a purpose for His kingdom and for others. 

Will not the same creator do the same for you?  He will make you competent!

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, 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 is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. 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 a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Seventy articles that he wrote have been posted or published 130 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

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