How sales performance and compensation management helps organizations avoid the 'curse of competence'

By Brian Thompson,

Sales performance and compensation management are key tools in a company's effort to reward its true difference-makers. With sales performance management that targets employees on an individual level, organizations can gain better insight into the dynamics that shape teams or departments. It can help them identify and weed out chronic underperformers on otherwise stalwart teams, making the workforce more productive overall.

Business Journal contributor Bob Corlett recently discussed the "curse of competence," a workplace syndrome first posited by the comic strip "Dilbert," and one that likely sounds familiar to anyone working in a collaborative office environment. The gist of the "curse" is that the smartest, most creative and highest performing employees are generally given the biggest and most complex projects. That part doesn't sound too bad, in theory - people who have demonstrated talent and ingenuity receive the most critical projects because they're they ones who the organization knows will deliver the goods.

However, employees rarely work in a vacuum. While they may head up a massive, difficult initiative, they are likely working with a team or department of fellow employees. Among these coworkers may be some people who coast by on the work of others, passing off tasks or turning in a minimum effort. Because the overall project succeeds, these underachievers look good by association. Over time, those looking for ways to do less will find them, to the detriment of the whole team. This dynamic can lead to those spearheading projects feeling underappreciated for their energy and efforts. In effect, they are cursed for their competence.

Using sales performance and compensation management to reward high performers
Traditionally, short of requiring all team members to track and submit a detailed report of actual employee performance - an approach that can lead to many problems - there are few ways of accurately assessing each person's contributions to the project. Asking personnel to engage in this sort of intangible peer evaluations can devolve into "he said she said" scenarios, general discord or underperformers taking more credit than they deserve. In fact, Corlett observed chronic "phone it in" employees often have an inflated view of their own importance and contributions to the team. 

With performance and compensation management software, companies can track employee activity in a way that is useful and constructive, without being overtly invasive or divisive. Sales performance management programs can be directed toward quantifiable aspects of the job and put each employee responsible solely for his or her own activity. Then, personnel can be rewarded accordingly.

"To lead effectively, be aware of the potential for your least competent team members to coast along, borrowing from the competence of their team (and feeling chock-full of unwarranted confidence)," Corlett wrote. "Distinguishing who is driving and who is coasting will help you guard against the simplemindedness of 'peanut butter management' - spreading the credit around evenly, like you would spread peanut butter on a sandwich."

Stronger individuals make a stronger team
One of the most important positive effects of using sales performance and compensation management to track and reward employee contributors is that it creates an environment where the employee's path to compensation, whether it's a higher salary, bonuses or more responsibilities, is clearly mapped out. It also gives employers the leverage to push slacking employees to perform better or risk being dismissed from their post.

Sales performance and compensation management can put an end to the stick-in-the-mud type of employees that seem to have been around forever but never appear to be doing anything, yet are nearly impossible to discharge, according to CIPD. With sales performance and compensation management, employers can point to individual contributions that have not been met. This practice eliminates the low-flying personnel that slide by on the strength of their coworkers, banishing the curse of competence once and for all.

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Brian Thompson