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Should I Even Bring It Up? Competence vs. Performance Errors

Getting my degree in linguistics was extremely fun, if largely impractical since I don’t actually work in linguistics. I did get three great things from it that come up all the time, though. First, a suspicious but grudging respect from people who don’t really understand linguistics; second, the ability to rant at length about Grice’s Maxims of Conversational Implicature; and finally, a solid understanding of the concept of competence vs. performance errors.

An Academic Approach

In linguistics, Competence vs. Performance (a theory famed linguist Noam Chomsky originated and others subsequently built on) points out a difference between a speech error made because someone does not understand the underlying rules of the language and one made due to simple human screw-ups. For example, a very young child may say “I holded the baby rabbits,” – but you, an adult (I assume), probably won’t make that error when you are fluent in a language. This is a competence error – one made because of a lack of understanding of the basic rules and patterns that underlie speech.

I’m not saying that adults fluent in a language don’t make errors – we do! All the time! But our speech errors are often performance errors – errors we make because we’re tired, or distracted, or forget and say the wrong cranberry. Which is to say, we understand what we’re supposed to do, unlike the child, and we just … screw up. It’s not a lack of competence; it’s a performance error.

Real-World Applications

Lots of linguists take issue with Chomsky’s idea, but let’s leave linguistics and head into the workplace. I believe the concept of competence and performance errors are extremely relevant here – specifically, the ability to distinguish between the two types of errors when discussing someone’s work.

During the same semester I learned about Chomsky’s Competence vs. Performance theory, I was in the marching band as a flag. Our flag instructor would scream across the field whenever we made mistakes. I would trip and drop my flag and she would shriek “Mel! You’re not supposed to drop your pole!”

I couldn’t put my finger on why I hated this so much – until I realized that she was treating a performance issue as a competence issue. Obviously, I understood that I was not supposed to drop my flag – that no part of her routine as choreographed involved flinging my flag to the ground – but I screwed up. I had a performance issue.

Here’s the thing: sometimes people screw up. All people make mistakes.

So, a system that fails at a single mistake is a poorly designed system. A workplace should allow people to be human beings, or they will break under the stress of needing to be perfect. This is why we review each other’s work; why editing departments exist; why the Office suite contains spellcheck. People are imperfect. They make performance errors.

Treating Both Types of Errors

If you have found a colleague’s error, ask yourself if it’s a performance error. Do you think they understood their task and maybe just screwed up? If so, consider letting it go uncommented upon. I’m not saying don’t fix it – if you can get to the paper before it goes out and take out the typo, or renumber the slides correctly before they display, or whatever, make the fix. But do you really need to mention it to your coworker or employee? What would it accomplish?

If, on the other hand, you find a competence error – an error where someone actually doesn’t understand what they’re supposed to do or say or what is appropriate – you must address that with your colleague or employee. No one miraculously gets better if they don’t understand they are doing something wrong. (This is also, sadly, why I had to tell my child they’re not actually called “chicken muggets,” cute as it was.) You must address competence errors as they happen as much as possible.

Look to the Root

Finally, if a performance error happens often enough, a competence error might be at the root of it. For example, approaching someone who made a typo (a very typical performance error) as if they didn’t care about delivering a good product would be condescending. But if someone makes uncaught typos on the regular, they may not understand the value of an error-free product. That person needs a check-in to make sure they’re on the same page as the rest of the office.

Please leave all your rants about times people have attributed your performance errors to competence errors in the comments, so that I might rage with you at the injustice.

Melissa “Mel” Kepler is a Training Consultant at LMI and a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach(TM). Prior to LMI, she did marketing and communications at ODNI for Guidehouse. Ms. Kepler also worked in government for over 13 years in a variety of positions, including in the White House Situation Room, as a staff officer, an intelligence analyst, a tradecraft specialist, and an HR professional. Ms. Kepler founded the NGA Parents Network during her time at that agency. In her spare time, Mel enjoys drinking a truly inadvisable amount of coffee, laughing at her children, and plotting with her friends.

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Isaac Constans

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waged this internal debate in my mind! Any time I catch an error editing writing, I have to ask the question: Did they think this was right, or was it a simple mistake? That question is easier to answer some times than it is others. It helps putting a label on that conflict. Very eloquently described – thank you!

Mel Kepler

Having this debate to yourself is a sign you were already practicing this skill before you could name it! Good on you. Thanks for the comment!

Keren Cummins

What a nice clear explanation, good for spouses, coworkers as well as managers and parents. We all understand this distinction when it’s misapplied against us! But it’s empowering to have the words to differentiate.
Liked so much I posted it to LinkedIn.

Mel Kepler

Thanks for the re-post, Keren! I love using this distinction with my clients (and it’s important to apply it to how you treat your OWN mistakes too).