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How to balance kindness and competence

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See where you fall in the kindness and competency curve. People who are unicorns exist in the upper right quadrant. (Courtesy the Stone Clinic)

Successful surgeries, and probably most complex team interactions, are determined in part by where the collaborators live on the Kindness/Competency Curve. Extremely competent individuals who are also always extremely kind are as rare as unicorns. They are the role models we strive to be, when we think about it. The problem is, we don’t think about it often enough. We perform with dexterity, but not with enough kindness; or with kindness, but without studying or working hard enough to perfect our skills.

Look closely at the diagram. Where do you fit, when you are intensely focused in your job? Not just when you are relaxed, but when the stress is intense, the outcome critical, your teammates relying on you? Unicorns — people at the upper right tip of the graph — are rare not because they are endangered, but because they are seldom receive the right encouragement and training.

Our emphasis in life is often to be kind or to be competent — but how often are we taught how to be both, especially when the stakes are high?

It’s true in sports, as well. Focus, flow, performance and aggression are qualities that define the best athletes of our day. The skill of raising a teammate’s performance through vocal expressions and acts of kindness — while personally stressed to perform ourselves — isn’t given much attention on our playing fields (or in our increasingly competitive workplaces). If it were, team performance would improve, and job satisfaction would soar. Outcomes in every facet of life would be optimized.

The way to get to this place is by publicizing the possibilities of such cooperation, understanding the potential for benefit, and studying the Kindness/Competency Curve itself. Grade yourself and your teams on the chart. Ask yourself why you aren’t at a higher point, and what it will take to get you there. Because who wants to be a super competent jerk? Or to work with one? Who wants to be the patient of an incredibly kind but bumbling surgeon?

It is not okay to be, in the current vernacular, just “a nice person.” Let’s raise the bar of success and cultivate the superstars we wish our children to be: fantastically competent, kind and part of a blessing of unicorns.

Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco. He pioneers advanced orthopedic surgical and rehabilitation techniques to repair, regenerate and replace damaged cartilage and ligaments.

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