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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The Mostly Incompetent Employee

But does it have to be like that?

Frank G. Sterle, Jr.

Reprinted from "Workplaces" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(3), pp. 19-20

stock photoA Catch-22

“You f@!$% clown—can’t you get anything right!” my boss bellowed at me.

Actually, my “boss” was more like my ‘host.’ It was mid 1986, and I was an 18-year-old trainee, basically working for peanuts under a federal employment program.

I’d been told—mumbled to, is more like it—to drive the aircraft forklift from our hangar (I worked for a small-plane charter outfit) to the YVR (Vancouver) South Terminal fuel station. I thought I was to pick up a barrel of some sort of propellant that my boss typically got for free. I asked the fuel station attendant for the barrel of propellant, relaying to him my boss’s name, his airline and his instructions to me. The attendant pleaded ignorance of any such arrangement.

Rather than phoning my boss to tell him about this obstacle, I purchased—on my boss’s account—a barrel full of regular fuel for about $130. I’d called before in similar situations, only to find my stomach churning because of the abrasive frustration in his voice. So, I took a chance that my efforts would suffice.

As I drove back, however, I couldn’t help feeling that I had screwed up. I dreaded facing my boss when things went wrong—and I did get his instructions wrong. I was supposed to bring back a low-grade jet fuel that was used as a solvent for cleaning equipment and for welding use, and it was supposed to be for free. But I did face him. And, man, did I get an earful!

No boss tolerates incompetence lightly, but when this guy mumbled orders to me, he expected me to get it right, “like a white man [should].” (Now that think of it, perhaps matters would have been worse for me if I hadn’t been white . . .) And, yes, I should have told him diplomatically that I was having a bit of trouble understanding him; however, hindsight is just that—hindsight.

I was, and likely still am, the mostly incompetent type. This is probably due to my low self-confidence, low self-esteem and mental illness—though I wasn’t diagnosed and ‘certified’ until the next calendar year, 1987. (My main challenges are depression and obsessive-compulsive thinking; treatment with antipsychotics has been the most helpful.)

Also, I was prone to self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, when my boss told me to do something, I was convinced I’d get it wrong. Thinking this, it was hard not to screw up. Then, when I did, it only heightened the probability that I’d screw up again the next time he gave me an order. It was a vicious Catch-22.

Because of my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), I’d try my hardest to perform perfectly the rare, more-challenging tasks. Inevitably, my efforts were futile. This tendency, along with my boss’s abuse, resulted in me getting more depressed and anxiety-ridden as the days went by. And if I’d had the nerve to reveal to him my neurosis and psychosis, he’d either have let me go or abused me even more.

Things got so bad between my boss and me that he told his chief (well-paid mechanic that I wasn’t worth the “space” I took up in this world. He even told me once that he believed I’d take my own life one day, because I was such a “motivational mess.”

One day, I couldn’t bear any longer being verbally abused by the senior mechanic, who had taken up my boss’s comment and dubbed me “Space.” I quit.

In the ‘doghouse’ again

I’ve since held various jobs, for different employers. One work-training job was at an auto scrap yard in North Surrey. I wouldn’t even have gotten the job if not for the assistance of a government agency with formidable influence. The yard was littered with used car parts—mostly retrieved from written-off vehicles that had been in violent accidents. This, along with the minimum wage and my lack of interest in cars or their components job, made my already acute depression worse.

During training, we were told to keep our hands out of our pockets and not to ask questions. The day that I was fired was inevitable, because I didn’t know what to do or how to at least appear busy. My boss expected me to figure this out on my own.

I recall him telling me: “You said on your resumé that you play chess.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I do.”

“Well,” he said, “if you’re as good at chess as you are around here, you’d lose every game.”

Another nice guy, eh?

Compassion just might yield competence

When employees or trainees show signs of low self-esteem or little self-confidence, the boss, rather than abusing the workers, has an opportunity to provide compassionate support. The boss—and co-workers for that matter—should acknowledge that these employees have special needs. And they should recognize the aspects of their workplace that can contribute to employee “incompetence.”

I realize that most bosses are very busy, and some may not feel they have what it takes to tolerate “incompetence” and whatever is causing it. However, if, for example, that airline boss of mine had shown me some respect, I would have enjoyed giving 110% effort in my job performance. And I just may have been able, as a result of his compassion, to do a “competent” job of it as well.

Stable employment is a very important aspect of daily life, whether you’re a mental health consumer or a non-consumer. However, employment status may be much more important to consumers, because they often have a greater need for self-validation. Stable employment can give the consumer a sense that life is not so dreadful after all. It can provide much-needed encouragement. It can also keep him or her mentally occupied in a positive way, add a sense of accomplishment and, yes, validate the consumer’s self-worth.

About the author
Frank lives in White Rock, BC. He edits and/or regularly contributes to three mental health publications


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