Affirmative Action: Incompetency Doctrine

Affirmative Action: Incompetency Doctrine

Before you continue I would just like to set down the basis for the points I would like to discuss with you today.

Now the piece is built on the following assumptions,

  • Affirmative Action is invoked as the following: “Action favouring those who tend to suffer from discrimination; positive discrimination” – Oxford English Dictionary
  • Affirmative Action is asserted as necessary – in principle – to reduce the amount of structural obstacles that exist for members  of disenfranchised groups
  • Affirmative Action policies in isolation are not drafted as silver bullet strategies as a means to resolving employment equity problems. It is worthwhile noting that this is referring to Race, Gender and other factors that are considered in the iterations of the Affirmative Action policies in question
  • Affirmative Action policies operating in the context of predominately Capitalistic frameworks will still wield similar effects that we have come to expect of economies that are structured in this way. In particular trends with the consolidation of, wealth, resources, access to opportunity that become “classed” over time are not concerns that an Affirmative Action policy, alone, can resolve.

Now, with these points in mind there is something I would like to address. It’s the phenomena I would like to call the “Incompetence Doctrine”. The popularly held view that the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action policies and strategies in the workplace are somehow less capable to perform than their counterparts who are actively hindered by the implementation of Affirmative Action.

This is a position I don’t think anyone would have any difficulty citing from the deep pool of readily available articles, interviews, or from the conversations by water-coolers coffee machines. The typical story.. you know.. The clearly Incompetent Manager, CEO or Director that runs the company or organisation into the ground… Maybe they’ve grossly under-performed.. Failed to meet their targets? Who knows, pick one.. These individuals are often depicted.. as lazy.. undeserving.. and often as complicit in some kind of basic injustice against the hands of the privileged that are simply earnestly waiting to perform… Ah yes that’s the one..

The Incompetency Doctrine.

Tell me friend, have you ever heard of the so called “Peter Principle”?

From my reading, it appears to describe the risk incurred to an organisation as its employees rise through its structures to the point of their incompetence. That is to say that there is a tendency for employees to be promoted or hired on the basis of the current performance rather than their ability to perform at a different or “higher level”.

So,Why is it relevant to introduce this principle?

Well in so far as you think that this is a reasonable concept to work with, I believe that following from this, the risks associated with the manifestation of the Peter Principle are significantly increased by the implementation of structural reforms in accordance with Affirmative Action policies. It intentionally introduces incentives for decision making that do not – at least not directly in most cases – relate to the market or technical performance of the organisations, and the consequences for the “buy in” of this approach will definitely affect the inevitable losses in performance as a result  of the process through which that organisation will need to go through in order to meet it’s employment equity objectives.

Now the Individuals that are hired using these incentives.. the very same individuals who are often “fast tracked” to meet various management throughput objectives, rise faster than perhaps they would otherwise in relation to their level of experience.. and in some cases theoretical or technical know-how.. These individuals are pushed through to the level of their incompetence much faster, and now have a burden to perform at a level that will not only require them to grow professionally and technically in a short space of time, but they will also need to battle against the resentment that greets their appointment. Which could negatively impact the levels of support – or willingness to participate in initiatives that are set up to provide the required to provide support – out of a desire to prove their capabilities.

More often than not. Said individuals are working in team environments. And if this is a workplace in an environment that necessitates the implementation of Affirmative Action policies then the composition of a great number of these key performing organisations are likely to be Male. And in the case of places like South Africa, USA and Brazil, they are likely to be dominated by White Males in particular. It is quite likely – from my experience engaging with this issue – that these privileged groups who dominate the workforce are likely to view the implementation of these policies in their environment as a breach of trust. As a disruption of the “Meritocracy” that they believe they have been working in. They are now restricted to selecting “non-ideal” candidates. And are often skeptical of hiring processes that produce candidates that do not fulfill what they regard to be measures of potential. This, in many respects, is a completely understandable opinion to hold, if you had only ever been exposed to an environment where this is regarded as “truth”, but the negative consequence of this position is that before work has even begun, there is an obstacle to the trust between coworkers who have benefited from these policies, and from those who have not that will act corrosively to the performance of both parties as they begin to work together towards common objectives within the framework of the organisation.

Now this obstacle to trust founded on ideas similar to the “Incompetence Doctrine” now make it increasingly difficult to perform and meet objectives.. with limited “buy in” from his or her team mates.. on top of additional barriers exerted on them and, Over and above the challenges that even the “White Male” would have to face, in the same relative position, also battling against so called “Peter Principle effects”.

In closing, my appeal to members of privileged groups – and their various manifestations – is to actively safe-guard against the “incompetency doctrine” that is constantly being shoved down all of our throats. I appeal to organisations to hire and promote individuals that, if given support, can realistically perform at role they have been appointed to fill.. And to subsequently make provision for the special efforts that Affirmative Action policies implicitly require you to submit to – these extend well beyond the point of employment.

I think we can all acknowledge, the difficulty of a task like this, there are empathy gaps in all directions and it’s difficult to know what changes need to be made and how far each party has to go to reduce the addition burden some coworkers would have to face to allow them to flourish.. but if you are stepping up to the plate as a “leader” in an organisation framework under this climate.. know that you are accepting the burden of responsibility to meet these objectives.. As you would with any other objective for the organisation.. and remember that a failure to do so.. will surely hinder our ability to collectively perform at Higher Levels going forward.. And to deny our fellow [wo]man of a fair space to grow and to flourish is something that I think no one wants to be a part of.

Abandon the “Incompetency Doctrine”.
Make an effort.
Check your Privilege.
Read. Read. Read.
Talk. Talk. Talk.
Check your Privilege again.
And do your best to help everyone put there best foot forward.


– Brian Kamanzi


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