(In)competence Matters

There are two (well, at least) very different philosophies for how to make hiring decisions in staffing an organization. One approach is to hire based on competence: whoever is the best-qualified to do the actual work gets the job. It’s pretty simple. The other approach is to hire based on some other criteria, and this approach can get pretty complicated, because there are a lot of potential things to look at: who the candidate knows, how much the candidate needs the job, whether the candidate is willing to have sex with the person doing the hiring, and so on.

Organizations that take the first approach tend to be led by people who are themselves competent. Such leaders are confident in their own abilities, and aren’t threatened by having others challenge their ideas. Indeed, they want others to challenge their ideas, because they recognize that that’s a good way to improve those ideas, and come up with the best possible solutions.

Organizations that take the second approach, on the other hand, tend to be led by people who are themselves not terribly competent. These often are people who arrived in their position not on the basis of their own merits, but on the basis of who they knew or who they slept with and so on. They tend to be insecure and defensive about underlings’ abilities, to avoid hiring people who will challenge them, and to prefer hiring people who will offer dishonest feedback about how marvelous the leaders’ ideas are.

So, guess which approach characterizes the Bush administration?

I’ve talked about this issue before (see Hiring practices), but I saw a stray factoid today that reminded me of it. From today’s LA Times story by Connie Mabin on the recent document release by Lousiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (Gov. Blanco releases Katrina memos):

Three days after the storm, Blanco wrote Bush asking that the 256th Louisiana National Guard Brigade be sent home from Iraq to help. She also asked for more generators, medicine, health workers and mortuaries.

Five days later, Bush assistant Maggie Grant e-mailed Blanco aide Paine Gowen to say that the White House did not receive the letter.

“We found it on the governor’s website but we need ‘an original,’ for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making,” Grant wrote. “We are on the job but appreciate your help with a technical request. Tnx!”

I’ve written, and read, a lot of email. I’ve been participating obsessively in online communities for 20 years, and have become pretty good, I think, at reading between the lines of electronic communications, building up a picture of the person at the other end.

In 38 words, Maggie Grant (more-specifically identified with a little googling as Margaret M. Grant, special assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs (governors), a position she’s held since 2003 and for which she’s pulling down $90,000/year) , uses both a set of superfluous ‘scare quotes’ and an AOL/SMS-ism (‘Tnx!’), either of which, by itself, would raise a red flag in my mind about the competence of the user in question. Finding both together in such close proximity makes those suspicions stronger.

I don’t think the incompetence that characterized the White House’s response to Katrina was all the result of a single former manager of horse-show judges. I think that sort of incompetence is pervasive in the White House these days. And I don’t think it’s an accident. I think it is, rather, the direct result of the Bush team valuing loyalty and ideological purity over competence when making hiring decisions.


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