Making the Most of Incompetence in the Workplace

Interview With Business Professor Gabriel Ginebra

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By Miriam Díez i Bosch

BARCELONA, Spain, MAY 9, 2011 ( The workplace is full of incompetent people, observes Gabriel Ginebra, but these can be assets to managers who know how to understand their place in business.

ZENIT interviewed Ginebra, author of the Spanish-language book «Gestión de Incompetents: Un enfoque innovador de la gestión de personas» [Management of Incompetents: An Innovative Focus on the Management of Persons], about his perspective on business organization.

In this interview with ZENIT, Ginebra, a professor of executive abilities at the University Abat Oliba-CEU in Barcelona, also shared his experience on «family management» as the father of seven children balancing resources in an economic recession.

ZENIT: Why do you say that the recognition of one’s own and others’ incompetence is the principle of learning?

Ginebra: It is the Socratic principle of wisdom of «I only know that I don’t know anything,» which we verify every day with an inverse sign in entrepreneurs, intellectuals and politicians, who, blinded by their successes, refuse to recognize their errors and to learn.

I don’t want to give examples. The present environment of crisis has left much uncovered, although many have yet to fall off their horse.

Moreover, we will only cooperate deep down and create a team if we are convinced — and it’s very difficult — that our colleagues are superior in many aspects. This is the ontological foundation of every organization, as Chester Barnard said almost a century ago.

In a world of hyper-competent individuals, all know everything and no one needs anyone; it is a world of gods, but solitary gods. And I’m not referring to Greek legends, but to kingdoms and legends that populate our political, media and business centers.

In our rich Western societies — including in the more Catholic environments — we have forgotten that the Son of God was born poor, and how Mary became the Queen of the Universe by recognizing her nothingness.

The greatest competence and the greatest incompetence join hands in a paradoxical, dialectical and spectacular way.

God is very amusing. The speech on excellence leads to comical extremes. I like to see a director general weep!

ZENIT: Then I am incompetent, you are incompetent, where does this lead to?

Ginebra: It would be all right to have businesses populated by ordinary people, where talents are discovered among people of a lifetime, where one can be a prophet in one’s own land. Where to be called Pérez or Díez gives prestige: We must plough with these oxen.

We must think of changing persons before we think of changing the persons.

It would be all right to come to a professional environment where we don’t expect exceptional things, where employees — as good wine — are valued more with the passing of time. Where we recognize envies and ego problems, but we are also able to forgive and be reconciled more than seventy times.

As I say in the book, we are more incompetent than we think, but we have more potential than we know.

The speech on excellence leads instead to exclusion of the employee who is mistaken, condemning us to a continuous starting again with the inexperienced; to a culture of fear, in which a simple call of a boss puts us on guard, and elicits a snowball of made-up truths, which end up by becoming deceitful business processes.

In the security supervisions of the Fukushima nuclear plant, 200 reports were falsified. They considered themselves invulnerable.

ZENIT: You suggest putting a child in your office. In what way would we improve if we followed your suggestion?

Ginebra: Children are completely enchanting — I have at home a one-and-a-half-year-old blond — but they are also perfectly incompetent. Their presence alone imposes the absolute value of a person, and stresses the relative function of all economic activity.

Patience, illusion, expressiveness, originality, learning, good humor are so many other values that a small child radiates.

Work and family are the pivots of life. And although there is talk of conciliation, we should speak rather of contamination, because the same back is burdened with both weights. A boss makes us arrive home cursing, as our personal frustrations also stain with melancholy the Tuesday morning task.

Every director should know — if only to avoid surprises — that a job that does not satisfy the profound personal and family needs of the employee is not sustainable in the short term. No matter how powerful, remunerated and brilliant it might seem, it is a job of low quality, as «Caritas in Veritate» denounced.

We should rip off the mask of the global myth of the young executive, to discover him as he is: someone older (Aristotle says that young people can be good mathematicians but not good politicians), someone who comes from a concrete city and family, someone in need above all of recognition and affection.

Children should be more present in offices, but also older persons, and those who don’t have studies and those with average talents; and the timid and those who don’t know languages, and mothers of families who have stopped working for some years. If we don’t do so we will lose much talent: memories, experiences, contacts, etc.

In this sense, I applaud the present Law of Social Integration of the Disabled, which obliges businesses to incorporate 2% of the disabled in the personnel. I direct studies on the cultural transformation that the presence of these people produces in offices.

These proposals are in line with understanding a business as a community of persons, exactly as the last encyclical suggests to us, and the project of the Economy of Communion that the Focolare Movement has been working on for years.

If we look carefully, the family is a model, where an effort is made to find the talent of each one and to understand it.

ZENIT: There is much bad humor, weariness and exhaustion in businesses. What is lacking?

Ginebra: Peace is lacking.

Raymond Panikker said that happiness is inversely proportional to acceleration.

Bosses live with stress without being responsible for its consequence, losing perspective. There is no time to think, to look at employees in their eyes, though the corporate web declares that persons are the main asset. Tell me what you presume and I will tell you what you lack.

We want to do too many things too quickly, and so we are always late. I don’t hesitate to refer to Juan Ramón Jiménez: «If you go in haste, time will fly before you, as a butterfly eludes. If you go slowly, time will follow you as a gentle ox.»

In our opulent societies chronic stress is pathological. In an early writing Joseph Ratzinger interpreted this contemporary asphyxiation as a Sisyphus-type punishment, for forgetting the sabbatical orientation of all work and of creation.

I develop the concept of the «peaceful leader» — I hope it will be my next work. A manager who pays attention to the rhythm, who practices the wisdom of time for each thing, who «does what he must do and is in what he does» — as St. Josemaría Escrivá summarized holiness.

A prudent leader, who pursues the forgotten virtues of silence, smiling, generosity, order, perseverance, sincerity, humility. Who recognizes his errors and tolerates his neighbor’s defects. Who knows his job and loves his work.

ZENIT: You are the father of a large family. In what aspects does your family capacity and logistics apply to business?

Ginebra: The relation you pose is amusing. In the film «The Negotiator,» Kevin Spacey successfully manages the rescue of 50 hostages, but is unable to get his 8-year-old son to come out of the locked bathroom at home.

My friends ask me how I manage to have seven children and write books. I like to answer that the maximum number of children that one can cope with is one less than one has.

Although people on the streets of Barcelona point one out and a
dmire one secretly, for a long time I have had the sensation of exceeding myself, living with attempts, of not doing it well.

The fact of writing a book on the management of incompetents does not exclude my considering myself one of them. My wife says that the Gabriel she sees in the book is much better than the Gabriel she lives with. I agree with her.

ZENIT: And how do you make it to the end of the month?

Ginebra: With the crisis, in truth, if I think about it we don’t get there.

Someone has said that the new definition of proletariat should be: autonomous father of a numerous family.

But we also have the magnificent experience of seeing that the Our Father works. Our daily bread does arrive, although God, as manager of a thriller, does it so that things are not fixed until the last minute.

I am inspired by Charles Peguy’s way of living who, in the face of family difficulties, the call of war, went to a shrine of the Virgin and abandoned his children there.

My father often says — and we are twelve siblings — that each child has been an act of confidence in God. There is no other logical option. After a certain number, you must not be worried about many things, and you have no other option but to trust in Someone who knows more.

The challenge of raising just one child surpasses by a long way the capacity of any married couple. It seems to me that this is the profound lesson of the tough times we are having to live.

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