Thursday, August 11, 2011

Malice and/or incompetence

I'm under some pressure from my brother and cousin to restart blogging, after a gap of around a month. Actually both of them have their own blogs, on which they've never posted anything -- which is a pity because both are eloquent and thoughtful people who love a good debate. So, with a faint hope that they will reciprocate, I'm now back to blogging and hope to be more regular.

Of late I've been fascinated by incompetence. It's hard to get away from this subject, obviously, but -- as a result of some trains of thought sparked off during conversations -- I've had the occasion to think a little about it.

When the 2G spectrum scam started to break, accompanied by the publication of the fascinating Niira Radia tapes, I found myself explaining the situation to non-resident Indian friends/relatives on two separate occasions. When I mentioned that A. Raja was accused of having defrauded the nation of 10 to the power 12 rupees through corruption, each of them independently asked whether it was clear that he was corrupt -- could he not have been just incompetent? They pointed out that when a new technology was involved, as well as a novel procedure such as auctioning spectrum, it was quite possible the the politician in charge simply didn't understand the issues well enough.

Probably without knowing it, these people were following the suggestion of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is supposed to have said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". It's remarkable though that I've never ever heard a resident Indian suggest incompetence may have been involved in the 2G case, or any other. On the contrary, most people I talk to in India (and everyone I don't talk to) is certain that malice aforethought must be at the root of India's corruption scandals. As for the more complex possibility that some money is lost through corruption but a possibly larger amount through incompetence, this level of complexity seems too baffling for people to deal with.

Which is sad, because I think the complex answer is closest to the truth. Incompetence could be a far larger problem in India than corruption. Even if my estimates are false (for example suppose incompetence and corruption cause equal losses to the exchequer) it's critically important to examine the role of incompetence in a developing country like ours, as well as its possible remedies (for that matter, it's important to critically examine the role of corruption and its possible remedies, instead of getting hysterical about it one moment and participating in it the next moment as most middle-class Indians are apt to do).

There are many fascinating points to ponder, but on a working day I don't have time to start pondering them. Let me close this short posting with an observation that obsesses me these days. Incompetence is not a static property of a person. In fact everyone can better their competence level by simply making a conscious decision to do so, and following up on it. Whatever administrative incompetence I see around me (and sadly I see a whole lot) seems to persist for one or more of the following reasons:

(i) competence is not rewarded and incompetence is not objected to,
(ii) labelling someone as incompetent is used as a self-fulfilling prophecy,
(iii) people are neither advised nor helped to improve their competence through training,
(iv) for ego reasons, incompetent people in powerful positions will not accept their limitations or seek help from others.

In this, I believe India differs in a major way from the USA or Japan. Our people are surely just as smart, but theirs are encouraged and even helped to become more competent to the extent possible. In these countries incompetence is not confused for malice, which it isn't. And when an incompetent person becomes more competent by whatever means, the system happily adjusts to the new reality instead of insisting that the old labels remain on the person. In India, by contrast, we look the other way at the incompetence of powerful people (sadly this is often due to the Peter Principle and may not be completely remediable by training, even assuming powerful people would consent to be trained) but the incompetence of the lowly is assumed to be a permanent feature.

I wonder how much these differing world-views originate in religious differences that permeate culture. Interestingly the Wikipedia page on redemption in theology identifies the concept only within Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. How does redemption play out in Hinduism and Islam, and does this affect our attitude towards incompetence in the workplace? That's your homework question.


Sumathi Rao said...

I would like to make a much stronger statement. I would say that administrative competence ( if by that one means a creative and thoughtful solution to an administrative problem instead of a blind application of rules) is positively discouraged! A thoughtful administrator is much more in danger of being accused of malpractice or corruption than a completely incompetent or lazy person who delays things or takes no decisions. As long as when the person takes any action, it is by the book, the administrator is safe, and the fact that the desired goals have not been met is of no consequence.
Unfortunately, within our system, there is no punishment for delays and acts of omission. With the current uproar about scams and corruption, I fear that even the few sensitive and thoughtful administrators who are around are more likely to want to play it safe.

Bottomline; My point is that it is safer to be incompetent than competent, This, I think is the basic reason for the prevalence of administrative incompetence.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Sumathi: I heartily agree!

aativas said...

There was a time when I used to think that incompetence is without intention and so should be accepted (without malice. However, as competence entails more responsibility, people at important positions too deliberately choose incompetence as way of life. That is really sad, given that with competence we can resolve many issues.

Dark Legend said...

The philosophy in India -- to do nothing, or even worse to block something -- approximates to that of the guy who is confident his car will never have an accident if it is not taken out of the garage...

WebMiner said...

Incompetence is really hip in India. You try to teach anyone how to sweep better, crimp cables better, write code better, tighten screws better, whatever, and he looks at you like exactitude is so totally gay and there's something wrong in your head to want to do things better. Slop is cool. It's hard to describe to someone who has not experienced it first hand how despised finesse and sticking to specifications have become.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Webminer: In my experience most Indians - particularly at lower levels of hierarchy - are happy to know how to do things better. Given a chance to talk about it, they will reveal that no one has bothered to teach them, or that they were subjected to a heavy-handed attitude and lack of understanding (and your comment suggests that your training style falls in the latter category).