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Madness As Usual

Being Competent at Demonstrating Competence

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 11. April 2024

How to Avoid the Problem of Self-Praise

Many of us are told early on by parents and teachers that ‘modesty is a virtue’, and we all are familiar with the adage ‘self-praise is no recommendation’. The self-appointed womanizer who brags about his sexual prowess will likely only succeed in making his female audience suspicious about the reality behind the boast. A university that tries too hard to present itself as excellent may put off potential students. 

Whether the one offering the service is ‘in fact’ competent is immaterial: blowing one’s own trumpet is enough to arouse suspicion regarding one’s ‘claimed competency’. The womanizer might leave nothing to be desired in bed, but public declarations to this effect will make it less likely that he ends up there. The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore may be an ‘excellent university’ in a considerable number of disciplines, but if it were to describe itself in this way, rather than leaving it to chance and trust that one of various research councils will award such accolades, this self-presentation would actually harm the university. 

Even more or less disguised competency demonstration can lead to similar effects. If a professor never fails to mention – on his website, in the blurbs for his books, and in announcements for his talks – that a business journal once called him ‘the God of time management’, he indeed points to the competence attributed to him by others (or maybe rather to his celebrity status), but he causes irritation by repeating this praise himself. 

The problem with the alleged God of time management, and with others who make similar gestures, even if small, is that their instrumental purpose – demonstrating their competence – is all too obvious. Something is said or shown, but the ultimate intention is to express or show something altogether different. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – always useful to quote him when trying to appear competent – concisely summed up the problem two hundred years ago: ‘We feel the purpose and become untun’d’. 

Observations of this kind always threaten to end up in psychologizing. Competency demonstration becomes a matter peculiar to adolescent males, self-absorbed professors, or narcissistic consultants. This kind of analysis ignores sociological insights and focuses instead on ascribing narcissism or socially inept behaviour to individuals. In some cases this may be justified, including in the case of some sociologists. When they chatter away (as they frequently do), we can observe how the debate is unfolding, and how our colleague Peterson is (again) explaining the world to everyone else; or we can see how in the course of casual gossip someone (and unfortunately sometimes that someone is us) again fails miserably in observing the crucial ‘self-praise is no recommendation’ rule. But focussing on the individual is a matter for psychology. From the perspective of sociology, another point is of interest: that in many social situations there is a need to project an image of competence while avoiding the crime of self-praise. 

In professional contexts – especially in areas involving contact with clients – you are forced not only to act competently but also to make others assume that you are competent. A hairdresser must signal his competence to his customers so that they interfere as little as possible in his cutting of their hair – and also so that he gets their business in the first place. A lawyer must communicate to her client that she has mastered the legal problem in question – notwithstanding the fact that no lawyers are able to deal with complicated legal cases without first studying the relevant legal commentaries in depth. A consulting team has to assure the client that they can solve the problem – even if it is the first time that they have encountered a problem of this kind and they do not have any tried-and-tested methods at their disposal. 

We see this phenomenon when children visit the doctor or – often a much more serious case – the hairdresser. Children have not yet formed any assumptions about the competence of doctors or hairdressers, and for this reason children are, as a rule, far more difficult to deal with than grown-ups for these professionals. Those offering their services therefore have to try hard to win the trust of their young customers. Before the medical examination or haircut begins, the calming presence of the parents is verbally appealed to in order to compensate for the child’s lack of familiarity with the service provider. In the course of getting older, children – at least, most of them – develop into clients with more or less justified expectations regarding the competence of service providers. 

Especially in the case of professions that involve a procedure being performed on the client, or even in cooperation with the client, service providers face a paradox: they must first convey to the client that they are competent to help the client, because in the absence of the client’s belief in their competence it will be almost impossible to help. It is an old pedagogical truism that a teacher can only make the pupils learn when they cooperate on the basis of a trust in his competence. Psychoanalytic treatment requires a series of successful interactions between analyst and client. For such successful interactions to take place it is necessary that the client does not take the series of ‘hmm’ sounds uttered by the analyst as a speech defect but interprets them as a competent and professional way of leading a conversation. But how does this work? How does one produce an expectation of competence? Certainly not by endlessly repeating claims about one’s competence. What might be a better method? 

The necessity to demonstrate competence differs depending on the profession: a policeman usually does not have to prove his competence in using his gun. Because of his membership of a certain profession, signalled by his uniform, he is assumed to be competent in handling a gun, at least by most people. A pilot is assumed to be competent by her passengers; as a rule – unless someone suffers from a pathological fear of flying – there is no need for further demonstrations of her competence. To coin a phrase: a real pro does not need to be competent at demonstrating competence. 

Research into professions and professional prestige has frequently dealt with the question of which professional groups are considered the most competent by the public. For a long time and around the world, the traditional professions have done best in measurements of reputation. If people are asked which professional group they hold in the highest regard and of which they expect the most competence, doctors, judges, and also lawyers and members of the clergy are always among the top answers. At the bottom of the scale, we almost always find professions such as journalists, politicians, prostitutes, or managers, professions, that is, in which services are also provided in interaction with clients, but which have no established standardized training or other conditions that anyone taking up the profession must fulfil. 

Not all of these assumptions regarding the competence of various professions are based on actual experience of interactions between professionals and clients. Rather, they are supported by numerous ‘institutions’ which are located outside of the actual conversation between service provider and client. Clients rely on the fact that the activity of the professional is based on a standardized code of conduct which makes it possible to identify malpractice. There is a scientific basis for these standardized codes of conduct, and one can be certain that the professional has internalized this code through many years of training. And there is the security provided by some form of professional self-regulation that makes it possible to identify and sanction malpractice. 

These assumptions regarding professional competence have taken on a life of their own, and this gives the professional classes an advantage when it comes to self-presentation. A family lawyer does not need to recite the most important principles of family law before the wife applying for a divorce agrees to make use of her services. A priest can, at least to begin with, rely on his reputation, and the client initially assumes that he is halfway able to give a sermon, hear somebody’s confession, and quote relevant passages from the Bible in times of crisis. The trust people have in medical doctors means that – at least in the case of standard treatments – most people are prepared to pick a practitioner from the telephone book. Only in cases involving more serious interventions do they seek recommendations from acquaintances or information from the internet. 

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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