Article originally published on LinkedIn, 17 June 2019
The ikigai meme – an image popularized as a way to show how overlapping of work you Love, are Good at, that the world (or some part of it) Needs, and that you can be Paid for can help you to find purpose (ikigai) – can be scaled as a Venn diagram depicting all of our relationships with all kinds of work. I have been looking just outside of the ideal central overlap – L∩G∩N∩P¹ – at the regions where only three of the four overlap, because each of these seems to say something unique about the world of work.
In my previous two posts, I looked at L∩G∩N (“north”), where work that is motivated, skilled, and needed is not remunerated, and L∩G∩P (“west”), where motivated, skilled, and remunerated work does not serve some greater need.
In this post, I’m considering L∩N∩P (or in more complete notation, (L∩N∩P)\G): What happens when people Love the work they do, the work is Needed, and they’re Paid to do it, but they’re just not very Good at it?² In my initial posting on the world of work seen through the lens of the ikigai meme, I pointed out that the central issue here is one of competency, or lack of it, and suggested that some Peter Principle outcomes (Lawrence Peter’s classic summation of the functioning of hierarchies, wherein people are promoted to the level of their incompetence) might be found here. But there is more to it, and it is not all negative.
All the work we’re not good at (\G)
There is a lot of territory outside of G in the ikigai meme,³ implying that there are many work roles we may get into that are in some way, or many ways, outside our competencies. The L∩N∩P intersection is the most interesting subset of non-G possibilities. How in the world does one end up there?
To begin to answer that, there are two key scenarios that meet in L∩N∩P:⁴
- Under what circumstances would an organization Pay someone for work that a person is not Good at (P\G, i.e., all in set P that is not also in set G)?
- Under what circumstances would a person Love doing work (an in particular a job) that they are not Good at (L\G)?
Paying someone to do something they’re not good at
Why would an organization hire someone for a job they are not really qualified for, or keep someone in a position they aren’t really up to (P\G)? I see four broad possibilities (not counting misjudgements or deception in the hiring process).
First, is when the job involves tasks or roles for which an individual is not (yet) prepared (lack of knowledge, experience) or simply not capable (which may be more absolute). This, in turn, has several potential situations.
An example is people who are already employed and who are either moved to a position that they are not really qualified for (the “final placement,” per the Peter Principle, which actually is not always so final) or have their job description otherwise changed beyond their range of expertise.
Another example is people hired to positions requiring “on the job training.” To a certain degree, most anyone hired into a new position that they really like is at least a little bit in L∩N∩P. However, some jobs are more explicitly outside G (i.e., \G) for anticipated hires, with the expectation that the necessary “goodness” at the tasks involved will be imparted and learned.⁵
Also, in periods of labor shortage, it may just be that employers can’t find the skills they want, but need workers.
The second area relates to a dynamic of organizations called Price’s Law – the observation that half of the work tends to be done by the square-root of the number of employees. An implication here is that some number of those other employees are not good at creating value in the jobs they hold.⁶ Perhaps Price’s Law merely reflects the abovementioned factors – final placement, new employees who never develop the anticipated “goodness,” and people hired to fill a complement without particular expectations concerning their long-term development. Or perhaps this is a property of organizations beyond the skills of the particular employees (in which case it would likely have additional implications for this discussion).
The third area where organizations may hire someone without needed skills, is the less common one of new challenges or crises for which no one is is really prepared, or no defined skill set yet exists. In other words, no one knows what G would be for this work. In this case, one would expect an organization to look for what they judge as transferable skills, or demonstrated aptitude.
And the fourth, which may be more common than we want to acknowledge, is filling the payroll based on other criteria. For example, nepotism or corruption may place unqualified people in essential positions, where the beneficiaries might perch quite happily.
So basically, organizations may sometimes have their reasons for putting people into roles they’re not necessarily so Good at, but it seems some dynamics may arrive at this result without a deliberate decision.
Loving a job you’re not good at
Why would a person Like to do work that they lack the skills for or are not able to do that well? After all, we usually correlate what you Love to do with what you’re Good at doing – and if you’re not there already, you’re probably working towards it. The answer is probably in psychology and money.
For example, there’s plenty of unpaid L∩N work that’s not necessarily skilled (\G). For instance, dedicated volunteers who give time and effort to a cause, but don’t bring any expertise or experience to the particular tasks involved. There are intrinsic rewards to being associated with what one believes is an important effort, as well as social benefits. So from the individual’s point of view, it’s certainly possible that the same relationship could also exist with a paycheck (L∩N∩P).
There are also paid positions that fill a needed role (N∩P) that people do, but without really being Good at them (per the discussion above). So it’s also possible that some people Like doing these jobs (in effect, coming to L∩N∩P from another direction). The paycheck could certainly be a factor in liking a job, but so might embracing the sense of doing something needed (a “love the one you’re with” tendency?).
Then there is the situation of someone accepting an offer for an ideal job that they do not have the skills for, at least yet. This, of course, is the candidate’s or employee’s vantage point on the scenario mentioned above of an organization hiring someone with the expectation they will develop the “Goodness” needed for the position. There is no shortage of advice online telling people to apply for such positions, take the job (or promotion) if offered, and persevere once in it.
Finally there is the possibility that someone believes they are better at their job than they actually are (a cognitive bias called illusory superiority may be involved – sort of the reverse of impostor syndrome).
Dynamic circles: Expanding G, or just churning within L∩N∩P?
In my initial application of set notation to the ikigai meme, I mentioned that if we interpret it as a Venn diagram representing sets of various relationships to work roles, one would have to imagine the four circles as dynamic and changing. In the previous post on ikigai (“west“), I suggested that some work in L∩G∩P seems to be oriented to expanding or shifting N, a process with potentially up and down sides for the socio-economy. On the other hand, to the extent intelligent automation will mean a net decrease in jobs, the P circle representing the set of possible paid work might be drawn progressively smaller. And so on.
So, solutions to L∩N∩P situations might involve training or on-the-job learning, in effect expanding what people are good at, G. That would seem to have only positive outcomes, although depending on how it is handled, the process might put a lot of burden on people.
However it may not always be so simple. Some of the organizational dynamics where people are just outside of G actually involve shifting people or tasks around without necessarily re-intersecting with G. For example, a pseudo-promotion moving someone incompetent “up” and out of the way to a meaningless managerial position (Peter uses the term “percussive sublimation”; this is also similar to Scott Adams’ “Dilbert Principle“). Or perhaps “over” to a different or perhaps new position (Peter calls this “lateral arabesque”; there is a whole vocabulary specific to his work). A related response might be to reassign critical responsibilities under some other people in the same hierarchy in such a way that doesn’t imply a promotion or demotion.
And then there’s the “creative incompetence” scenario identified by Peter, where an employee in effect deliberately persists on the borderline between G and \G – appearing just \G enough to not get promoted out of an ikigai situation. Here there’s not even any pretense to expanding one’s skill set.⁷
So, there appears to be a lot happening on this side of ikigai, whether or not G is expanded.
Another way of illustrating the dynamic nature of the world of work through this Venn system, is to use arrows or “vectors” showing changes in individual or group situations, or perhaps movement of a member of one set within that set, or into or out of one or more others.⁸
It seems useful to introduce this notion of vectors here since the L∩N∩P region (and more broadly the set of Paid work that people aren’t Good at, P\G) seems to be one of movement and even transience. (By contrast, one imagines that L∩G∩P positions to the “west” would be relatively more stable, even if the companies may rise or fail.)
For example the classic Peter Principle promotion to a level of incompetence would involve someone performing well at a pretty ideal position for them in all ways (ikigai), who is then promoted to a role that turns out to be beyond their expertise – the “final placement” (arrow #1).
On the other hand, the person hired to a position they like that involves on-the-job training will almost by definition begin outside the range of what they’re Good at. And if everything else is going swimmingly, their trajectory might look like that illustrated by arrow #2.
For others in L∩N∩P, however, there are other paths. Among those could be lateral moves (arrow #3), movement to a less consequential and/or desirable P role as discussed above, or movement out of the organization and off the chart (firing).
Or one might stay put in one’s “final placement” (basically the premise of the Peter Principle), and then stop liking it (\L) – in effect moving from L∩N∩P to N∩P.
A region of overt transience, covert persistence & … potential?
On the face of it, L∩N∩P appears unstable in that you won’t get Paid for a long time in a Needed role that you’re not Good at. And furthermore, you might not Like to stay there even if you could. The fact a job (Paid work) that addresses some Need may, one imagines, sustain commitment (L) without skill (\G) for a time, but the Need itself will require those skills sooner or later. So ultimately either one develops the skills (G), or otherwise shifts out of the L∩N∩P scenario, by their own or someone else’s decision.
The paradox is that many of those potential shifts where G is not developed are evidently to other Paid positions, perhaps somewhere in P\G and/or P\N, and if the person is lucky, intersecting somehow with L – maybe even back in L∩N∩P.
However, it may make a difference how one gets to L∩N∩P. A “final placement” promotion (to the level of incompetence) may last longer, due to a kind of confirmation bias on the part of both the individual and the organization (Peter makes a similar point, at least regarding the hierarchical organization). So, the transient nature of L∩N∩P is apparent, but maybe not for all situations.
Looking at L∩N∩P another way, could a person on the Payroll who Loves working in a Needed area – but who isn’t really Good at it – actually be an asset to a team or organization under certain circumstances, at least potentially? Here we come back to questions of how to “expand” G or assist employees to move into a zone of competence. Or perhaps to configure responsibilities in order to leverage existing strengths in ways that complement skills of co-workers.
A lot of people aren’t so good at what they do (although that does not automatically impugn their abilities in general or their potential), so to a degree L∩N∩P may be a more normal region than it appears at first (leaving out the obviously dysfunctional scenarios that fall within this region). So, depending on the scenario, the needs, and the people, should L∩N∩P be viewed as a zone of potential for employee development on the strength of “Love” for the work (which I interpret as representing motivation)?
- In the set notation used here, ∩ means intersection. X∩Y is the overlap of X and Y, i.e., whatever they have in common. The \ excludes the term that follows it. So X\Y is all X that is not also Y. I use \Y as shorthand for everything in the diagram that is not Y.
- In various versions of the ikigai meme (which focus on the individual), this region is assigned names like: “Excitement and complacency, but sense of uncertainty” (twice); “useful but unsatisfied“; and more positively, “opportunity for growth.”
- What constitutes “G” and its absence in a particular role or line of work is in reality a question of degree – or degrees, since any undertaking likely has more than one requirement. Here, dealing with sets in a Venn diagram, we assume there is some threshold for each given type of work an individual engages in, which they either meet or do not.
- The perceptive reader will notice that logically there is a third binary opposition intersecting in L∩N∩P: what the world Needs that you’re not Good at, N\G. However that does not seem to be a critical relationship for this discussion. It might be a focus of consideration in the contexts of job training strategies or of the “future of work.”
- Phraseology in a position announcement concerning “progressive” record of experience is a tip-off that the organization is open to a hire who may not already have the full skill set, but who is in effect expanding their personal set of “G” in that direction.
- Price’s Law has implications “south of ikigai” as well. The scary thought is that this is an emergent property of any kind of work enterprise involving many people.
- I have actually seen this in action, although the individual may not have intended to avoid promotion: they were impeccable on the essentials, and timely with suggestions, but would from time to time mess up process items and leave secondary tasks undone.
- One could use this artifice in describing, say, individual career paths, or general trends in the workforce.