Article: How the stress-incompetence conundrum plays out


How the stress-incompetence conundrum plays out

Learn to say no, Acknowledge, Change and Team up: the recipe for managing stress when growth in career is faster than growth in competencies
How the stress-incompetence conundrum plays out

Most often it is our inability to cope or manage something or someone in one word "our incompetence"


The most important destressor of all, which is why I took it out of the bullet list-learning to say no!


Learn to say no, Acknowledge, Change and Team up: the recipe for managing stress when growth in career is faster than growth in competencies

The challenge with stress is recognizing it before it is too late! Recently we rushed a young colleague to the hospital only to realize he was in the throes of a heart attack and had to be operated on immediately! Having worked with him – there was no way any of us would have said that he was under pressure. He was always calm and composed… but looks like behind the calm exterior the stress metre was ticking away!
Stress in our working lives is inevitable. Actually stress in the right doses is good… the challenge is when we start overdosing. It starts simply – a new job, new manager, extra project… oh! It is a passing phase… 80 hour working weeks, no time with family… and finally bad health, bad performance, strained relationships and burn out!
What do most of us do? We try and take a break, change jobs, change managers… read books on stress management, take up yoga and meditation! All of this is like taking paracetamol for fever without understanding the underlying reasons; we are dealing with the symptoms and ignoring the root cause!
What is the root cause? Most often (I may even be ambitious and say always) it is our inability to cope or manage something or someone in one word “our incompetence”. Oops! I know you want to stop reading…that is a natural reaction to the word incompetence… humor me, read a few more paras and you won’t regret it.
Take our young heart attack colleague; eighteen months ago he was the epitome of success. He was a top performer, not only within his team but across the organization. This meant larger projects and more calls – meetings – project reviews - travel schedules, the works. Sure, he put in all his efforts into making the most of this success but he wanted to move at 6th gear, in a car that had only 5 gears! He still didn’t have the skills needed to operate at this new level even though his role demanded it.
The truth is that we are always operating at our highest level of incompetence (Peter’s principle- to read further log onto The question is- are we in the conscious incompetence or the unconscious incompetence state? Most of us are in the unconscious incompetence state. Classic symptoms of this are when you catch yourself holding everything and every one around you accountable for your failure.
I was operating in that stage many years ago I moved jobs, changed managers all the while complaining… until one day realization dawned upon me when my spouse very nicely pointed out that one thing common in all these changes was “me”! I am still smarting at the comment but haven’t forgotten the lesson!
Now that we know unconscious incompetence is probably at the root of our stress incompetence cycle – what do we do? Here are a few ideas that work for me and for folks that I have coached...
I call it ACT
Acknowledge, change and team up.
De-stressor 1 – Acknowledge and own your capability gap and seek councel from a trusted colleague or friend.
De-stressor 2 – Change your approach. Stop doing what you have been doing or start doing something (I have a boss who is so fast with numbers that it stresses me. I brushed up on my tables and now, carry a calculator)
De-stressor 3 – Team up with those who complement your skills (I am terrible with documentation; I hired an assistant who is an ace at it)
The most important De-stressor of all, which is why I took it out of the bullet list – learning to say no!
In our eagerness to advance, we blithely take on more and more! We all get into the trap of bigger, better, more. Recently a newly promoted manager met me upset that her manager gave a portfolio that she believed fitted in well with him to another colleague. Size of portfolio, number of people reporting to them – scale has an allure for many ambitious professionals. I had to coach her that she was better off creating a dramatic win in her current portfolio rather than expanding. Quality mattered more than quantity.
This leads me to the last piece of the puzzle: the aspiration – capability mismatch. Our aspirations are huge, most of us want to advance through the corporate ladder rapidly, however, not all of us have the capability or the chance to do so. Some of us reconcile and find interesting options but many of us are never able to reconcile and this becomes the beginning of bitterness, negativity and ultimately stress, all of which ZAP the mind and body off its energy!
Hopefully, you now have the answer to the conundrum. And if you don’t yet, once you are out of the denial phase, you will.


1. Be aware that you always operate at your highest level of incompetence
2. Focus on the root cause - don’t blame and treat the symptoms
3. Learn to say no – remember quality not quantity matters
4. Focus on skill not scale
5. Understand your capability and match your aspiration

Elango R is Chief Human Resources Officer at MphasiS. You can read the authors blogs at and follow him on twitter @agastyasays




Read full story

Topics: Watercooler, Life @ Work, Learning & Development

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?

Be Heard: Share Your Feedback and Recommend Our Content!

Selected Score :